Sam Dixon sings the praises of a tried-and-tested musical system that helps to improve vocal pitching and the ability to recognise intervals between notes…
Today you will:
● Learn a scale with solfa names and hand signs
● Make a solfa wheel
● Learn a two-part song
Thanks to The Sound of Music, everybody knows the names of the scale: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do! But the origins of this system are not so well known, and its merits stretch well beyond Julie Andrews’ dulcet tones.
The story begins with an Italian Medieval monk, Guido of Arezzo, who wanted to help his cathedral singers learn their chants more easily. He took the first syllable from the first six lines of a Latin hymn, “ut – re – mi – fa – so – la” with each syllable corresponding to a note in the ascending scale. ‘Ut’ became ‘Do’ and later on ‘Si’ was added as the seventh note in the scale. In the 19th century, the system was developed by Sarah Ann Glover (who changed ‘Si’ to ‘Ti’) and made popular in England by the Reverend John Curwen, who developed hand signs to visualise each tone.
There are two systems: ‘the fixed Do’, where the syllables are always attached to fixed pitches (‘do’ is always C natural); or the ‘moveable Do’, where ‘Do’ represents the first tone in any scale. The beauty of the system is that it removes any confusion when young children learn ‘letter names’ for notes (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) and enhances their ability to pitch correctly.
Ask if anybody knows the song ‘Do Re Mi’ from The Sound of Music. Sing the song and explain that the words come from a musical scale called Solfa. Explain that each note in the scale has a corresponding hand sign (you’ll find a graphic illustrating these here).
1. Know your notes
Each note in the scale has a different ‘personality’ and a different job. One may feel like it’s about to lead on somewhere new, another makes it sound like you’ve reached the end of the song. The following verse helps define the ‘character’ of each pitch and is a fun way to learn the scale (sing each line on the relevant pitch, with the accompanying hand sign):
Do super strong like a fist
Re always sliding up and down
Mi super stable so it’s flat
Fa always feels falling down
So also strong like a slap
La a balloon floating up
Ti always pushing to the top
Do super strong like a fist
After the children are familiar with this mnemonic, see if they can sing each ascending note of the scale with the correct hand sign.
2. Make a Solfa wheel
A solfa wheel is a visual way to practise the scale. It’s also helpful to illustrate that ‘Do’ at the ‘top of the scale’ is the same as ‘Do’ at the bottom, just an octave higher.
Give each child an A3 sheet of paper, with a picture of a circle divided into seven equal ‘pizza slices’. Ask them to write the name of one note in each section, so that the scale goes up one pitch at a time as you go clockwise round the circle. Colour each slice:
Do = Red
Re = Orange
Mi = Yellow
Fa = Green
So = Blue
La = Purple
Ti = Pink
Sing around the wheel, clockwise, pointing to each slice. Can you sing it backwards?
3. Lil’ Liza Jane
This American folk song is easy to learn (download the score on this page or view a live version of the song here). Teach children the melody first. Explain that a repeated melodic phrase that fits over the melody is called an ostinato. Teach the ostinato with hand signs.
Split into two groups and sing both parts together. Have the ostinato group start first to provide an introduction.
Use a variety of tuned percussion (e.g. hand bells, xylophones) to explore simple solfa tunes. Using C as Do, see if the children can play out the ostinato they learnt for ‘Lil’ Liza Jane’. Can they copy other simple patterns that you sing first?
● What is the first note of the scale called?
● Which note comes before Fa?
● If Do is number one in the scale, what number is La? (Six) Explain that the distance between these two notes is called a sixth.
Sam Dixon teaches class music at Brighton College Pre-prep and Prep school. Her original songs for children can be found at songchest.co.uk