The Solfege war

Fixed do or movable do?

Volume 113, No. 2February, 2013

Sue Terry

I was 14 years old, and my dad was taking me to a party in New York City. We lived an hour north of the city but I went there with my parents often, as my father was a native New Yorker. (After a brief time in Massachusetts, where he married my mother, they tried to move back to New York but ended up in Connecticut after circling the city trying to park.)

My dad was a caller (the one who calls out the moves for the dancers) for the American Square Dance Group, and he knew many musicians, including banjoists Stu Jamieson, Pete Seeger, and the folklorist (and founder of the ASDG) Margot Mayo. I was excited at the prospect of going to a music party since I was the best clarinetist in my junior high school. As promised, lots of musicians were there singing and playing (including a bagpiper!) and at a certain point they started passing out little books of four-part choral pieces. “Do you sight-sing?” asked a lady, handing me one of the books. “Sure,” I replied. Hey, if it had anything to do with music, I was on it like white on rice!

Someone gave a count-off and everyone started singing. I tried to sing my part, but I couldn’t figure out how everyone knew what the notes sounded like with no instruments playing. I could sight-read anything on my clarinet, but this sight-singing thing mystified me. I realized there was a big piece missing in my musical toolkit.

Later, as a student at the Hartt School of Music in the late 1970s, I took the opportunity to study at the Kodaly Musical Training Institute, where I found the missing piece by learning the movable do solfege system.

When professional musicians are asked to recall their musical education, they will almost certainly declare which system of solfege they were trained in: fixed do or movable do. Not only will they make mention of this fact, they will usually affirm the superiority of the system they were trained in while simultaneously trashing the opposing system. Indeed, musicians’ torch-carrying zealotry for their preferred solfege method rivals that of the Hatfields and the McCoys, only without the shotguns.

Seems like we’ve been arguing about which system is better ever since ol’ Guido d’Arezzo took the Latin hymn “Ut Qveant Laxis” and used the beginning syllable of each line to represent notes in the diatonic scale. Both systems are based on the idea of substituting syllables such as do, re, mi for note names like C, D, E. The difference is that in fixed do the syllables correspond to pitch names, and in movable do they correspond to pitch functions. (I tell my students the notes are like family members: Adam is Eve’s husband, Jane’s father, Frank’s brother and Mary’s son. Same person, different functions.)

Unlike in the United States, many other countries refer to notes not by letter names but by their assigned names in the fixed do solfege system, which uses the note C as its base. There are variations of fixed do methods: some do not recognize sharps and flats in the syllable, for instance. In that case, the notes G, Gb and G# would all use the syllable “so” (or “sol”) even though they sound different when sung. Other fixed do methods apply syllables to the chromatic tones as well: C# is “di,” Bb is “ta,” etc.

The movable do system will work the same as the fixed do system in one instance only: if the tonic is C. The special feature of movable do is that it preserves the relationship functions of the intervals by always calling the tonic “do.” Thus, if you want to sing a major triad up from root position, you’ll sing do-mi-so (major third and minor third) no matter what key you’re in. Whereas in fixed do, an F triad would be called “fa-la-do,” a G triad would be “so-ti-re,” and so forth.

It is probably human nature to cheer for the home team, but truly advanced musicianship requires skill in both pitch recognition and pitch function. We exercise our command of the music not only by producing beautiful tones but also in how we shape the intervals. Like a basketball player swishing a free throw into the net, we must have a spatial sense of an interval before we can play or sing it accurately.

(This challenge becomes even more complex when we play with different ensembles. As a sax player, when I play in groups with pianists, I naturally fall into an equal temperament tuning sense. When I play in groups of winds, strings or voices – without a piano – I lean quite naturally in the direction of just intonation.)

A folk song, pop tune, or piece from the classical tradition or the Great American Songbook would be well-served by movable do, the challenge being recognizing modulations so that one can re-locate the “do” for a new key when necessary. And regarding music pedagogy, some educators feel movable do is the most effective for beginners. Conversely, much 20th and 21st century repertoire is often better approached with fixed do.

The war between fixed and movable do may be compared to the conflicting paradigms of Newtonian physics and quantum mechanics. When scientists zoom out to look at planetary motions, they call upon Sir Isaac. When zooming in to examine sub-microscopic particles, Heisenberg is their man. Likewise for the various musical universes a modern musician is likely to encounter. At the end of the day, we must admit that both fixed do and movable do have served well as ear training foundations for countless musicians throughout history.

On the mountain there is only one peak. But there’s more than one path to the top.

Saxophonist/clarinetist Sue Terry’s latest book is “For The Curious,” available on Amazon in print and digital formats. See