Sol-fa (1): the key to the riddle of staff notation

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Sol-fa is a blessing to the absolute beginner learning music, who can be (and often is) put off by a forest of symbols. As symbols go, sol-fa is easy to learn and apply, especially in classrooms and aurally. It lends itself to lively interactive learning, without the intrusion of any writing, either on paper or blackboard, at least to begin with. It gets the student in the door quickly, easily, painlessly and faithfully: with no gimmicks and no nasty surprises, but with a true and secure connection to a thousand years of western music history.

Solmization and notation

There is a mixture of the symmetrical and the unsymmetrical in music, that gives rise to seemingly infinite variety within forms that are strangely, even mystifyingly comprehensible to the innocent ear. Notation does little to dispel this mystery, but succeeds, for many people, in obscuring it further by adding arcane mysteries of its own.

Sol-fa, the classic European form of musical solmization (the use of mnemonic syllables to recall pitches) is almost exactly a thousand years old, and has not lost its relevance despite changes of fashion.

European staff notation is of similar antiquity
1. The staff or stave of five lines looks more symmetrical than what it stands for. Notes written as blobs on lines, and in the spaces between the lines, show melodic movement up and down in pitch. A sequence of notes in successive positions on the stave represents a melodic progression of unequal steps; but while staff notation hides this asymmetry, sol-fa enshrines and emphasises it.

The hexachord

The original sol-fa was invented by Guido d’Arezzo in the eleventh century and had six notes: Ut Re Mi Fa Sol La. This little scale became known as the hexachord, from the Greek for 'six notes'. Guido taught it by means of a song with a different note starting each line, exactly as 'Doh, a Deer' does. His was a Latin hymn, to the words

Ut queant laxis Resonare fibris Mira gestorum Famuli tuorum Solve polluti Labii Reatum Sancte Iohannes

meaning something like 'So that my sluggish vocal cords can praise your wonderful deeds, cleanse my polluted lips, Saint John'.

Anyone, who knew this tune well enough to whizz through it and sing the starting note of any line, was able to pitch any of the six notes at will. Eureka!

Three Hexachords

A longer scale was made up by piling up overlapping hexachords. They were called the 'hard', 'natural' and 'soft' hexachords, starting respectively on G, C and F. The ABC note-names had already been invented, and Guido used the Greek form of the letter G, Gamma (Γ) for the note below the lowest A2.

    d La
    c Sol
    b Fa
  a Laa Mi
  G Sol=G Re
  F Fa=F Ut
E La=E Mi 
D Sol=D Re 
C Fa=C Ut 
B Mi  
A Re  
Γ Ut  

Each note was to be named by students with all its functions; so the scale would be recited 'Gamma Ut, A Re, B Mi, C Fa Ut, D Sol Re, E La Mi, F Fa Ut, G Sol Re' and so on3.

These three hexachords cover the range of an average male voice. To continue into higher notes we simply repeat the same three hexachords, beginning on G Sol Re (which students called G Sol Re Ut), c Sol (called c Sol Fa Ut) and the higher f (f Fa Ut).

Tones and Semitones

The step from Mi to Fa is much smaller than any of the others. The steps Ut-Re, Re-Mi, Fa-Sol and Sol-La are (perhaps confusingly) called 'whole tones' and Mi-Fa is the only 'semitone' in the hexachord4.

Two Bs

As a consequence, the B5 in the soft hexachord, being Fa, is a semitone higher than A (Mi), while the B in the hard hexachord, being Mi, is a whole tone higher than A (Re). They are both called B but they are completely different notes. To distinguish the different Bs they were written in two forms: a rounded b for B Fa or 'soft B' and initially a square b, or a square h6, or an inverted b (q), all later7 standardised to #, for B Mi or 'hard B'; whence our present flat, sharp and natural signs.

On the stave the same line (or space) stood for both B Fa and B Mi (soft B and hard B, or as we now call them, B flat and B natural). A flat sign beside the note, or at the beginning of the stave, showed which one was intended; this is the origin of both accidentals and key signatures.

More notes

There is no limit to the addition of extra hexachords; one which has F for its Sol will introduce the note Eb, one with G as Fa will introduce F# and so on. This all means that any step up or down on the stave could imply a smaller or bigger pitch difference ('interval'), depending on context. Indeed any notes which look equally spaced up and down the stave will be at different intervals, depending on the key signature and the sharps and flats interspersed. This fact can add particularly to the discomfort of singers who have never had training in sol-fa. Many amateur choral singers have spent their whole lives unsure of the intricacies of key signatures, relying on their neighbours for the pitching of ambiguous-looking intervals.

The many hexachords were eventually simplified to one complete scale8 by the addition of Te, which will bring us back to Doh without changing hexachords in mid-stream9. Two systems are now current: fixed- (used in France and Italy) and moveable-Doh (used in English-speaking countries, adopted with enormous success by Kodály
, and recommended here).

The practical value of sol-fa

Sol-fa training or solmization with a moveable Doh takes the mystery out of the early stages of learning staff notation: locate Doh and all the rest falls into place. It takes the pain out of key signatures: in any key signature the last flat is Fa, the last sharp is Te. It takes the mystery out of relative minors: the relative minor is La, and that’s about all there is to know. It also takes the hardship out of reading in unusual clefs, and reading or writing for transposing instruments: once again, locate your Doh.

The complications of sol-fa in chromatic10 music do not diminish its enormous value as a tool for understanding. There are syllables for all sharps and flats; generally the sound 'ee' denotes a sharpened note and 'aw' a flat one, so for instance Fe is Fa-sharp and Ta is Te-flat.

When the music changes key a choice has to be made of just where to change to a new Doh, but it's an academic question. That is to say, it's interesting, but it constitutes no practical obstacle. Anything that works is fine.


Sol-fa will never become redundant, as it makes sense of staff notation, a visual representation of music with a counter-intuitive oddity embedded in it.

Further information

The second entry in this series discusses the issue of Temperament.

1The earliest known system of music notation is Sumerian, going back to perhaps 3,000 BC.2Guido used Gamma to distinguish the lowest note from 'capital G' one octave higher. Higher Gs than that were called g, gg and so on.3'Gamma Ut' is the origin of our word 'gamut', meaning 'scale'.4The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to Solmization, immediately after the advice not to panic, reminds the reader to be sure to know at all times where his semitone is.5At this point in the entry we abandon the medieval distinction between capitals and small letters; from here on all pitches will be referred to by capitals.6Hence the German usage of H for B natural.7From the 13th century.8Or rather, with equal temperament and a moveable Doh, to twelve identical scales, one for each pitch class.9One of the early full-octave solmization systems was invented in the 16th century by Hubert Waelrant. He poetically named the notes Bo Ce Di Ga Lo Ma Ni Bo. His system was not widely adopted, and in fact most solmization was done on the four syllables Mi Fa Sol La. This was the situation until the wide adoption of the seventh syllable Si, invented in 17th century Italy, where Ut was also changed to Do, to sound nicer. Si was changed to Te in 19th century England, in order to give it a unique initial letter.10'Coloured' with extra sharps and flats (accidentals).

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