“How Do You Know What The Notes Are”?

2011 Symposium2

From time to time as I am writing a melody on the board that I want my students to play or sing, they will notice that I am not looking at music, and that I am singing quietly to myself (though apparently loud enough for them to notice) as I write. They are fascinated by this, and often ask me one of two questions: why are you singing, or how do you know what the notes are? The answer to both questions is really the same: I am singing so that I will know what notes to write down. I am using my solfege to transcribe the music I am thinking of into notes on the board.

If my students can’t already do this, I cannot give them a quick answer that will enable them to do what I am doing without practice or work. But I can get them started, and give them a method for using the solfege most effectively. There is a strategy to taking musical dictation. Today, I’d like to share that strategy with you.

Composers of Western tonal music privilege two notes in virtually every melody: the tonic and the dominant. These are the first and fifth notes, respectively, of the major or minor scale upon which a melody is based. For the purposes of this discussion, I will exclude other tonalities, but the principles I will discuss are essentially the same for them too. Because the tonic and dominant are so important, hone in on those first. You must be able to audiate the dominant and tonic tone at any time while listening to the melody. Whenever you hear either of those two pitches, you must recognize them. Once you can audiate and recognize the tonic and dominant pitches, the mediant (third tone in the scale) can be found in relation to the other two, and because the three of them form the tonic chord. We will continue to identify other notes in relation to these.

When you hear the supertonic (second note of the scale) you recognize it C-Major-Scalebecause it is a major second above the tonic, which you are still able to audiate. When you hear the submediant (the sixth note of the scale) you recognize it because it is a minor (major scale) or major (minor scale) third below the upper tonic. Once can quickly sing up the scale from submediant to tonic, and then confirm that the starting note was the submediant. The subdominant (fourth note of the scale) is a second above the mediant or below the dominant. With the tonic and dominant in hand, all of the other tones can easily be found in relation to those two.

Let’s take a simple example to see how this works. Let’s use “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” You’ll need an audio recording of the melody.  First, listen to the whole melody. After you have listened to the whole melody, sing the tonic pitch on the syllable “do.” Listen to it a second time. This time, stop the recording at random places and immediately sing the tonic. Once you can do that, listen to it again and when it is finished, sing the dominant, then sing the tonic again. Now, what note does the melody start on. It is not the tonic or the dominant, so what note is it? If you need to, sing up the scale from the tonic or down the scale from the dominant until you match the pitch with the first tone of the melody. You will find that the melody begins on the mediant.

You now know that the first note is the mediant and the third note is the tonic. What is the second note? You will notice that the second note is above the tonic but below the mediant, meaning it must be the supertonic. You have now filled in the first three notes and you know they are mi, re, do. Soon after you will hear three more notes on mi. Before the first of those three notes, there is that note again that is lower than mi, but higher than do. Because you know it is not the tonic and it is lower than mi, you should recognize it is re. If you continue on in this manner, you will soon have the entire piece transcribed. With more difficult melodies, the procedure is the same. Find the tonic, then dominant, then mediant notes first, and then fill in the others by relating them to the tonic, mediant or dominant.


What Solfege Is, And What It Is Not

2011Symposium_1_2The use of solfege syllables in teaching singing and music reading is one of those things that music educators cannot seem to come to a consensus on. some use solfege, some do not. some prefer to use letter names, some numbers, some no note names at all, just a neutral syllable. Some try using solfege, expecting quick or immediate results, and then when their students struggle to remember the syllables, or don’t sing or sight read any better, they abandon them altogether. While some of this disunity over solfege is a matter of personal choice, some of it is the result of misunderstanding what the use of solfege is supposed to accomplish. Solfege syllables are the labels with which verbal association learning takes place. Let me explain.

Anytime a human learns music or language, the person learns first through hearing. A word or pattern of musical notes has a particular sound to it that the person remembers, so that the same word or pattern of musical notes can be recognized if it is heard again. At this point the word or pattern of musical notes has no meaning attached to it; it is merely recognizable when heard. They can be compared to hearing a noise in the distance every day without knowing what is making the noise. We recognize that it is the same noise we heard yesterday, but we cannot identify it or associate with meaning or a source. Contrast this to hearing, for example, thunder in the distance. We not only recognize the sound as thunder, but the sound has meaning for us: a storm is coming and it is time to take in the laundry, close the car windows, and come inside before the storm hits.

With words and music, we next learn to associate a word for the thinkg or action it signifies. “Table” is the object we eat dinner on, and “cat” is the animal that sits on our lap and purrs. Although a person has learned this much, they will not know what the word “table” or “cat” looks like written down, or they will recognize the word but not know that it refers to the flat surface with four legs, or the soft furry purring animal that lives in our house. In order to be able to recognize the word and understand its meaning, the two must be associated. We see the word “table” written down, and we learn that it signifies the thing our dinner plates are on; we see the word “cat” written down, and we learn that it signifies the animal on your lap. This is association.

In music, notes and patterns of notes don’t have literal, explicit meanings the way words in language do. What weC-Major-Scale hear, and what we think and feel about what we hear, is what the music means. Musical meaning comes from the structural relationships we find between notes. Through relationships, notes form motifs, themes, and harmonic progressions. These are all made of notes, and the notes, like words, have meanings—meanings like tonic, dominant, leading tone, passing tone, or suspension. To be able to read music, there must be a name for each of these notes through which we can associate the sound with the meaning. That is what solfege syllables do. They give us labels or names for musical sounds that make it possible for us to understand them in a musical way. A key will give these names, these solfege syllables a context in which to be understood. A melody in fa major has fa as a tonic and do as a dominant. The tonic chord is fa-la-do and the dominant chord is do-mi-sol. Knowing these names, it is possible for me to instantly know, audiate, and even sing exactly the notes be referred to by the names, and if they are written down by the published notes. Fa always has the same pitch, as does do, la or any other syllable, regardless of what key the music is in. When solfege is used in this way—to name what is already known aurally, then it is of great benefit to the music student. On the other hand, trying to memorize solfege syllables as an end unto itself without knowing the sounds to which they refer will result in confusion and unsatisfactory results—the very thing that happens when teachers, with the best of intentions, misuse solfege in this way.

Teaching Antecedent and Consequent Phrase Structure in Music

2011Symposium_1_2One of the musical structures we must teach our students is that of phrasing, or what Lerdahl & Jackendoff refer to as grouping. Basic to musical phrases is the concept of antecedent and consequent phrases. Antecedent phrases are complete phrases that end on a pitch of relative instability or tension, resulting in the listener expecting continuation, even after the performer takes a brief pause or breath. Consequent phrases are also complete phrases, but they end on a pitch of relative stability or relaxation, resulting in the listener recognizing the conclusion of the musical thought. Themes, sections, movements and works end on consequent phrases. Very often, consequent phrases end on the tonic, and antecedent phrases end on the dominant. Because antecedent or consequent phrases are defined primarily by the harmonic function of the last note, they are most effectively taught by holding rhythm constant while giving students creative license with pitch. The only stipulation is that the consequent phrase must end on the tonic. It is also possible that students can use elaborative notes in the consequent phrase. Take the melody “Mary Had A Little Lamb” as an example.


Structurally, the first line is a reduction of the second. The quarter notes on beats 3 and 4 of the second measure of the second line reduce to one half note in the first line, and the quarter note on beat 3 of the third measure in the second line is an upper neighbor tone that is omitted in the reduction, in which a half note on D occurs. The last measure of the first line could be reduced further to a whole note on G, the dominant. In its reduced form, the second line is identical to the first except for the last note; the antecedent ends on the dominant and the consequent ends on the tonic. Students can be given the first line, with the further reduced last measure, and then asked to write a consequent phrase ending on the tonic pitch. They would be at liberty to write any diatonic pitches, but to maintain the rhythm of the first line exactly. One possible solution is given below.


Prior learning will include voice leading, analysis of stylistic elements, and skill at audiating so that students do not write down random notes, or notes that are stylistically incompatible with the antecedent phrase provided. Doing this activity with antecedent phrases of different styles and genres provides the opportunity for students to learn about and compare each style or genre represented. Assessment would include ending on the tonic, maintaining the same rhythm  preserving the same style, using diatonic pitches, and observing good voice leading. If student work is handwritten, assessment could also include accurate forming of note heads, stems, measures, clef, and time signature, and the correct number of beats in each measure. Students who do the work on music notation software should nevertheless be asked to demonstrate understanding of notation conventions such as correct length and direction of note stems, and of the metrical arrangement of notes within measures. Technology should never allow students to bypass the learning of concepts.

A great deal of learning can result form this one activity. Phrase structure, style, genre, and notation are all closely related issues in music. This activity fosters an efficient use of time because all of these can be addressed at once in a practical, relevant way; students need to know about and apply their knowledge of style, genre and music notation in order to gain a deep understanding of the target concept, that of antecedent and consequent phrases.