“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.

A Tale of Two Temperings

2011Symposium_1_2In our well-tempered musical culture, all musical keys tend to sound the same, except for being higher or lower. Yet throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, composers enjoyed the rich and expressive variety in the way different keys sounded. Rousseau described D major as being suited for “gaiety or brilliance,” Schumann spoke of C major as “simple, unadorned, while Schubert, describing Bb minor, said “preparation for suicide sounds in this key.” The San Francisco Symphony has a wonderful demonstration of how different keys have different qualities when played on a piano as it would have been tuned in Beethoven’s day.

When you listen to the difference in tone quality and color between the keys outside of equal temperament, you realize that all tonics and other functions within a diatonic scale are not equal. The tonic in D major sounds quite different than the tonic in Eb major, apart form the difference in pitch. It is easy to forget, or perhaps never discover, that these differences exist, because equal tempering causes the notes that establish a tonic to be sterile duplications from one key to another. One of the things I like about fixed do solfege is that calling tonic notes by different names in different keys forces us to think of each tonic as a unique entity, related intervallically and harmonically to the other diatonic tones, but not to tones in other keys Tones that are called by the same name ought to sound the same.

Why don’t all keys sound the same outside of equal temperament? To answer this question, we will look at how pianos are tuned. Today, pianos are generally tuned with equal temperament, meaning the distance between every half step is exactly the same. This eliminates the differences between keys described by many of the classical composers. Well temperament was used by Bach and nineteenth century composers. Well temperament allowed the piano to be played in tune in all keys, but preserved the different character of each key by avoiding equal temperament. Pianos tuned with well temperament, which is not the same thing as equal temperament, are tuned with slower “beats” compared to equal temperament. “Beats” are the oscillations heard when shared overtones between two tones are not perfectly in tune. Slower beats are produced by notes that are less tempered. Tempering is the change from pure tuning. Well tempering creates a tuning where different keys will take on different characters and colors, but will still be useable in all keys. The tuning standard for well temperament is C. With the addition of each additional sharp or flat, more dissonance is introduced. That is why C major is the purest sounding key, and sharp keys are often described as more colorful; they simply have more dissonance built into them.

When a soloist plays with a pianist using an equal tempered instrument, the music can easily sound outWTC of tune because the soloist, if he or she is well trained, will avoid equal temperament as part of his or her collection of expressive performance devices. These notes clash against the equally tempered notes of the piano. This is also why singers and non-keyboard instrumentalists should not learn tuning from a piano. Matching pitch with a piano is destructive to good intonation for a singer or instrumentalist. While equal tempering is necessary for highly chromatic, frequently modulating, and atonal music, it is not necessary for performing music of the standard orchestral repertoire. A more authentic and expressive experience would result from using well tempering for these performances. Ear training in our music conservatories would also be improved with the use of well tempering, and the steady and historical rise in the tuning standard of 440 cycles per second for the tuning note “A” might be stopped or even reversed were well tempering employed, because the richer pallet of timbres musicians seek by playing on the sharp side would be readily apparent from the affects of the tempering. For music teachers, an awareness of the advantages of well tempering, and making use of them in their teaching is certainly worthwhile.

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.



Can Tone and Chord Functions Be Taught With Fixed Do?

2011Symposium_1_2When it comes to choosing a system of syllables to sing for teaching ear training and sight singing, there seems to be a consensus that moveable do, sometimes called functional solfege, is needed for teaching chord and tone functions. To be sure, moving do to wherever the tonic is does help a singer remember where the tonic and other functions are. With practice, students can sing the tonic on do from any pitch at any point in a melody, and the function of chordal patterns can easily be identified by the combinations of moveable do syllables present; for example, any combination of do, mi, and so is a tonic patterns, and any combination of ti, re, fa, and/or so is a dominant pattern. The advantages of moveable do are in force as long as the work begin done is aural; but as soon as music reading is introduced, those advantages all but disappear and are replaced with illogic and difficulty.

Trying to learn to read music with moveable do is confusing, because pitches in identical places on the staff can be known by any one of seven names, twelve if chromatic syllables are used. While the advantages of avoiding this kind of situation are valued for rhythm syllables, they seem to be ignored for tonal syllables. Gordon opposes the Kodaly rhythm syllables, because macro beats are sometimes called ta, sometimes ti, and sometimes ter, yet he does not see a problem with having, for example, a C being sometimes called Do, sometimes Mi, sometimes So, and so forth. This difficulty, like the one with rhythm syllables, is avoidable.

Emile Jaques-Dalcroze was a professor of solfege and harmony at the Geneva Conservatory. Today, he is known for his method of teaching music known as eurhythmics, but solfege training using fixed do was an equally important part of his pedagogy. What interests us about his approach is that he used fixed do solfege to teach pitch and chord functions, something that many today don’t realize is even possible.

Dalcroze began with teaching students to hear the difference between a whole step and a half step. He believed that “every good musical method must be based on the “hearing” of sounds as much as on their performance.” From recognizing whole steps and half steps, he then went on to studying his unique form of scales. All scales were sung in fixed do solfege, from do to do (c to c). By adding the needed sharps or flats, Dalcroze would teach his students all of the scales, but always starting on do, singing up to the next do, and then finishing on the tonic. For example, a B-flat scale would be C, D, E-flat, F, G, A, B-flat, C, B-flat. The student would learn what scale was being sung by the placement of whole steps and half steps, and by audiating the tonic. The beginning note would have different functions, depending on the scale. In the case of the B-flat scale, the beginning tone is the supertonic, and the first half step comes after the second tone. If A-flat and D-flat were added, the beginning tone would be the mediant, and the first half step would come after the first tone. To help the student contextualize the tones in the major tonality, the teacher harmonizes the scale on the piano as the students sing until such assistance is no longer needed and the students can audiate the harmonization on their own. Using the piano to teach the harmonization also avoids students from audiating, for example, the B-flat scale as Aeolian. Only major scales are used at first. Once these are securely learned, it is a small matter to audiate the tonic of minor scales in a similar way.

You may wish to try this method out for yourself. Here are the scales written out. Remember to use fixed do for each scale. It is no longer common practice to use chromatic syllables, so us the same syllable for natural, flat or sharp on each pitch class.

Dalcroze Scales

From Exercices Pratiques d’Intonation by Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, 1894