Solmization: What Is It? Who Invented It? Why Do We Use It?

by Audrey Cardany (May, 2015)

Simply, solmization is a system for labeling pitches that singers use to sight-read music, discuss music theoretically, and audiate.  Audiation is the ability to hear and understand music without its physical presence. Most music students have encountered solmization at some point in their music education in school, or group and/or private lessons. Solmization has a rich history, and many pedagogues have altered and transformed the system to suit specific musical and historical needs. 

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Solmization began with Guido d’Arezzo’s hexachordal system in medieval times. The syllables were ut, re, mi, fa, sol, and la. These syllables were derived from the Latin hymn “Ut Queant laxis” or “A Hymn to Saint John” attributed to Paulus Disconus around 770 A.D. Each syllable was the first pitch of each of the first six lines of the hymn. Guido of Arezzo’s system—implemented to teach chants quickly—remained in use for roughly six centuries. The Chorus of Westerly included a performance of the chant on March 8, 2009 in a concert titled, Musica Sacra Italiana.

With the increasing use of the leading tone, seventeenth-century musicians found it necessary to accommodate by adding si for the seventh scale degree. The initials for Saint John’s name in Latin, Sancte Iohannes, provided the syllable si for the seventh pitch in the diatonic series. In addition to adding si to complete the pitch series limited by the hexachord system, do replaced ut. Although, historians continue to debate the origin of do, many believe that do was likely derived from the Latin word for “master” or “God”—Dominus. 

Italy, sometime in the 17th century, the preference of the moveable system shifted to a fixed-do method. This shift to a fixed pitch system paralleled the trend in the 17th century toward establishing an international standard of tuning. The fixed system used seven syllables—do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and si.  These syllables were used synonymously with the seven letter-names of basic pitches (i.e., C, D, E, F, G, A, and B). Using the syllables in this way emphasized the fixed tuning during the era, and aided in standardizing the frequencies of letter-named pitches. 

Presently, the south-European fixed “do” system (in particular the Paris Conservatoire system) uses seven syllables to represent pitches from C to B and all chromatic inflections. The method provides no phonemic distinction between the pitches of any scale—C, C-sharp, and C-flat are all sung using the syllable do. The process of differentiation is dependent entirely upon notation instead of sound. To address this challenge, some musicians may use a chromatic fixed-do whereby sharped pitches are named by changing vowels to “i” (pronounced as “ee”) and for flatted pitches, the vowel changes to “e” (pronounced as “ay”) with the exception of re, which becomes ra. This system is sometimes referred to as “twelve-syllable fixed do,” even though twenty-one syllables are actually required to negotiate every possible flat, natural, or sharp permutation on the keyboard and with no accounting for double sharps or flats. A fixed system is primarily notational; therefore, this visual approach of naming notes may have limited use for singers to determine tonal meanings and functional contexts.

By the end of the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau opposed the Conservatoire system and advocated for the use of a moveable system utilizing scale degree numbers to teach music to singers. In 1809, Swiss pedagogues’ Pfeiffer and Hägeli, published a similar method using solmization syllables. Theirs was a seminal publication for codifying the moveable-do method in the modern era. In the 19th century, other notable publications with variations of moveable-do include Boston’s singing master, Lowell Mason’s translation of Pfeiffer and Hägeli’s work in The Manual of the Boston Academy (1834), and English music teacher, Sarah Glover’s Scheme for Rendering Psalmody Congregational” (1835). The singing masters in early American singing schools made use of shape note systems that utilized only the syllables mi, fa, sol, and la. 

In the English countryside of Norwich, Sarah Ann Glover invented the tonic sol-fa system to improve congregational singing in church. Her innovations included using a tone ladder and using an alternative system of notation. Guido’s system was again transformed to meet the needs of the singers of the time and setting. Glover’s innovations met the immediate needs of the novice musician. John Curwen later—and successfully—advocated for Glover’s system to be used as an introduction to reading standard notation. This system provides singers with a consistent way to identify pitch relationships regardless of the tonal or melodic context, and is independent of naming absolute pitches.

To succeed in designating each scale degree function by a different letter, Glover replaced the si of fixed do with ti. She placed initial letters above standard staff notation, and also developed a tone ladder to aid in developing singers’ facility in singing from sight the intervals represented by the solmization. In 1870 Curwen included his devised hand signs, what he termed “manual signs” in his publications. Curwen’s development allowed the teacher/director to always face the singers during instruction, and provide a kinesthetic connection to what is sung when used by singers. Curwen published numerous textbooks with alterations to Glover’s system including The Standard Course of Lessons on the Tonic Sol-fa Method of Teaching to Sing (1858/1871). 

In the 20th century, composer, linguist, and Hungarian music educator, Zoltán Kodály, synthesized available systems including German, French, and English. In his eclectic approach, he retained the moveable-do from Glover and Curwen, and included the hand signs as an instructional technique. The influence of the Paris Conservatoire is evident in his insistence on a progression to standard staff notation and acquisition of absolute pitch as an essential element. He adopted the German letter-name system to address and teach fixed-do. With the German invention of altering accidentals, one could sing and read the absolute pitches on one syllable. In this system, the singer adds the phoneme “ehs” for notes that are flatted and an “ees” for notes that are sharped. For example, C# is sung cis, and Bb is sung bes. 

Solmization continues to experience transformations for different purposes. The tradition of singing using fa, sol, la, and mi is still used today in Sacred Harp societies mostly in the south. James Jordan, an American choral pedagogue, recently developed a system using altered vowel sounds to facilitate improved intonation and using moveable key centers. In American music education at elementary, secondary, and tertiary levels a variety of systems are found. The goals and purposes for which the system is used seem to determine the selection of a solmization system. 



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Author: Audrey Berger Cardany, The University of Rhode Island, Kingston,  02831, USA

Audrey Cardany is Associate Professor of Music at the University of Rhode Island, Kingston. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in music and music education. Dr. Cardany is also the Director of Education and Community Music for the Chorus of Westerly, in Westerly, RI where she teaches musicianship to singers of all ages. Email: