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Music Theory Solfege System

Theory Home | Counterpoint | Sightsinging


by Dr. Peter Gries

Solfege (or Solmization) is a way of singing scale tones with syllables. The most
familiar example of solfege is the song from "The Sound of Music:"

Doe (Do), a deer, a female deer; Ray (Re), a drop of golden sun

and the rest of those drivelly rhymes.

The system has been use as a pedagogical aid to singing since it was developed by Guido D'Arrezzo in the eleventh century. The syllables emanated from the Hymn to St. John, and Guido's system involved overlapping hexachords (a six-note scale pattern) in which the "natural," "soft" and "hard" hexachords were dovetailed to accommodate an extended range. The "Guidoian hand" was a pedagogical device in which each joint of the fingers represented one of the syllables in one of the hexachords. He used it to train his choir boys. Once the "hand" was learned, a specific note could be called for by pointing to one of the joints of the hand. Here's the changed to do and the si to ti, although si is still common in Europe).

The Hymn to St. John, from which the sight-singing syllables were derived, is a most exciting example of subtle musical organization.


  1. The first note of each of the first six phrases is successively higher (C D E F G A).
  2. The seventh phrase (Sancte Joannes) responds to gravity and provides a completely satisfying cadence.
  3. The melody is curvilinear (i.e., exhibits gradually ascending and descending motion); the real high point (Labii) is reached at a very specific proportional and mathematical juncture.
  4. Three-note cells of varying shape permeate the total time-span.
  5. The numbers 3 and 7, symbolical and mystical, are to be found at every dimension; for example, there are a total of 49 notes ÂÂ- or seven times seven.
  6. Unity and variety are perfect balance.
    Hymn to St John music notes

* The seventh syllable, si, was formed from the initials of Sancte Joannes, c. 1650. "That Thy servants may freely sing forth the wonders of Thy deeds, remove all stain of guilt from their unclean lips, O Saint John."

There are two main systems of solfege:

  1. The fixed system, where do is always the note C
  2. the moveable system, where do is the tonic of prevalent key.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each system. In this class we will use
#2, the moveable system, and regard do as the tonic note of whatever key we're in.

There are two variations within the moveable system.

  1. Do is always the tonic note, whether you are in A Major or A minor key.
  2. Do is the tonic for major keys, but la is used as the tonic for minor keys. Again, there are advantages and disadvantages to each system.

In this class we will use #1, and consider do as the tonic note for every key, major or minor.

The solfege system has been extended to include inflections for chromatic scale steps, so that one can sing different syllables for chromatically inflected notes, so that one differentiate between major and minor scales. The system works like this:

  1. For a note that is lowered a half-step from the major norm, sing it with an a sound (like in the word "nay") but spell it with an e. Thus mi, the major third, becomes me (may), la becomes le, ti becomes te, etc. This works for all scale steps except the supertonic. Re is already an e sound, so re lowered a half-step become ra (rah!).
  2. For a note that is raised a half-step from the normal major, sing it with an ee sound, but spell it with an i. Thus, fa becomes fi. This works for all steps except mi and ti, but they are almost never raised anyway.

As educated musicians you should be aware of the solfege system, and have a working knowledge of how to use it. Because of the different syllables that become associated with specific scale steps, some musicians find it very useful as an aid in learning how to sing in tune. Somehow, the solfege system helps those who have trouble keeping tonally oriented to keep the tonic (do) "frame" in the ear while singing scales or melodies.

Here are the syllables for all the scales: The chromatic scale:

ascending: do di re ri mi fa fi sol si la li ti do

descending: do ti te la le sol se fa mi me re ra do

For the following scales, the syllables have been spaced to indicate the whole and
half steps.

The natural minor scale: do re me fa sol le te do

The harmonic minor scale: do re me fa sol le ti do

The melodic minor scale: do re me fa sol la ti do- te le sol fa me re do
ascending descending

The "Church" Modes:

Lydian: do re mi fi sol la ti do

Ionian: do re mi fa sol la ti do (Same as major scale)

Mixolydian: do re mi fa sol la te do

Dorian: do re me fa sol la te do

Aeolian: do re me fa sol le te do (Same as natural minor scale)

Phrygian: do ra me fa sol le te do