Music Reading Skills and Solfege for Chant and or Polyphony
  • mjballoumjballou
    Posts: 986
    I would like to start work on sightsinging skills with a mixed group of singers, some read well, some not at all, and some fall in the middle. However, it is my impression that we can't learn to solfege both chant and the more familiar modern notation at the same time without some folks' wiring shorting out. (I'm also not interested in turning every rehearsal into a colossal mountain of exercises.)

    I think starting with using solfa syllables with chant is better because the playing field will be fairly level at this point since most of the singers will be unfamiliar with the movable clef, the notation, etc.

    Share your experiences with me. And remember, these are not college students or professional musicians.
  • David AndrewDavid Andrew
    Posts: 1,193
    Hmm, I've never really thought this through. I was about to suggest using numbers rather than syllables, as syllables already seem like a foreign language. However, numbers probably only really work with conventional notation. I'm not sure that solfege works all that well with chant notation, though I haven't had any working experience with using either to teach chant. I've always used the choir's experience with conventional notation as a starting point to introduce them to the technique of reading square notation.

    You might also want to visit (or re-visit) AOZ's excellent "Idiot's Guide to Square Notation" for some helpful clues on how to make the transition from conventional to four-line chant notation.
  • Solfege is the way to learning chant. People only need to learn 8 notes plus one...the B Flat. After all Solfege developed FROM chant...the source of the letters alone....

    Kids can pick up the Ward Method of indicating solfege chant pitches within 5 minutes, if they are learning from another child...and we are talking first graders here.

    When your schola can sing the chant using the Sol Fa syllables you are able to sing the chants ignoring the text...getting the melodic flow the way you want, then adding the text.

    There is a link to the Warm Method Gestures on my chant.

    noel at
  • Jan
    Posts: 242
    Tried both. With adults I found numbers are easiest (IMHO). 1 for the "ut" clef. With every mode look for those 1/2 steps between 3-4 and 7-8. Count backward to find the opening note. Many adults (without a solfege background) find interval singing with solfege difficult. Not with numbers. Many undergrad music degree programs use numbers for sight singing curriculum.

    Solfege for kids are perhaps a different story. Especially with the Ward Method 'gestures' & solfege 'signing' system.

    Try both and see how it works out for you.
  • Chris
    Posts: 80
    Every year I teach a music reading class for adults for the Archdiocese of Newark. These folks come from all around the area, and bring with them an array of varied musical experiences and knowledge. Most of them are parish choir members who have little or no formal training. Over the years I've been able to experiment with both solfege and numbers, and based on the results, the number system works best. After a brief explanation of scalar degrees, the participants are immediately able to link the number system with it. A short discussion of how to find 1 (Do) gives them the immediate ability to overlay the system on the staff, and they're off and running. It tickles them to no end when they make the discovery that the key signature becomes almost irrelevant. I also incorporate a variety of vocal exercises using the number sys. to reinforce intervals.

    For kids in grades 1-5, solfege seems to be easier. Instead of the Ward gestures, I use the Kodaly hand signs. The kids love them, they learn the signs in about 5 minutes and they're easy to remember. After about a month of weekly 40-minute music sessions, I can hand-sign a short phrase to the kids using mostly stepwise motion, and they can sing it back to me. Both systems have worked for me in Gregorian notation.
  • priorstf
    Posts: 460
    Chris -

    When do you teach the class? Do you have copies of the materials you use? Our diocese has been talking about some sort of music classes and this might be something to consider.
  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 749
    The other advantage of numbered degrees is that they lay a foundation for learning to systematically recognise pitch relationships, i.e. intervals. That's good for sight-singing, and essential for those who wish to develop an understanding of harmony.
  • Chris
    Posts: 80
    priorstf -

    The class is held during the summer; it's an intensive that I do over 4 days during the first week of August. There are beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. If you like, I'll bring some materials with me to the Colloquium. You can reach me at or if you need to.

  • mjballoumjballou
    Posts: 986
    My thanks to those who've commented (and certainly keep them coming). It looks like I'll use the numbers. At least everyone knows how to count (I hope) and adding another set of syllables to the complications of notation and language would just raise the frustration level, rather than lowering it.

    It would also be easier for me because I learned both fixed and movable doh systems - and am constantly squirreling them up in my own head.
  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 749
    Mary Jane,

    Another useful way of helping singers learn to associate intervals with what they hear, and which goes well with numbers, is the 'melodic fragment' technique. For example :

    3rd: Three Blind Mice.
    4th: The opening of 'Eine kleine Nachtmusik'.
    Augmented 4th: The first two notes of the 'Maria' theme from 'Westside Story'.
    5th: A hunting horn.
    6th: The first two notes of 'Crimmond' ('The Lord's my shepherd').
    7th: The first and third notes of 'Somewhere over the Rainbow'.

    ... etc - have fun making up your own list.


  • RobertRobert
    Posts: 343
    I remember trying to teach solfege to a choir, half the members of which were native French speakers. It was impossible. Me: "See, in this key, 'Do' is 'G'." Them: "What are you talking about? 'Do' means 'C'"

    Should've used numbers!
  • RagueneauRagueneau
    Posts: 2,592
    You might investigate this little program I made for my high school students:

    School of Intervals
  • priorstf
    Posts: 460
    Back in the dim ages of the last century while pursuing a voice degree I remember using the Vaccai method for interval practice. It's a sequence of vocal exercises where you can focus on a second, a third, a fourth, etc. Each exercise is a standalone little song. It uses Italian but you can easily substitute numbers or solfege if you prefer. I found it both useful and memorable.
  • Ian, I find that the following works well for me too.

    Up P4 - Wagner wedding march
    Down P4 - Doorbell
    Up tritone - Maria from WWS
    Up P5 - Star Wars
    Up M6 - My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean
    Up m7 - Star Trek theme

    I'm sure there are more.
  • Jeffrey TuckerJeffrey Tucker
    Posts: 3,624
    Hey, Jeffrey O! very nice little tutorial there.
  • Steve CollinsSteve Collins
    Posts: 1,003
    1 Doorbells are usually either a M3 or m3 - it depends on whether it's "Avon calling!"
    2 The old "NBC" for M6
    3 Like the tri-tone being the first notes of "Maria" from WSS, so the m7 is the first notes of "There's a Place for Us" also from WSS. It's amazing that Leonard Bernstein made to two most difficult intervals a part of our common musical language!
  • Chris
    Posts: 80
    Jeff O. - What a great tutorial! Would you mind if I steered my students in its direction? The rest of your site is fantastic as well. Congratulations on all that you do!

  • mjballoumjballou
    Posts: 986
    Whatever happened to "The Farmer in the Dell" for the perfect 4th? My problem was that I would always start singing the mnemonic in the middle of the sight-singing exercise.

    And Jeff O's tutorial is a delight.
  • Up/Down m2: "Jaws"
    Up/Down M2: "Happy Birthday"
    Up/Down m3: "Peter Gunn"
    Up/Down M3: "Goodnight, Ladies"
    Up P4: "Auld Lang Syne", "Taps"
    Up P5: "2001: A Space Odyssey" (Also sprach Zarathustra - Strauss)
    Up/Down m6: Theme from "Love Story" ("Where do I begin...")
  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 749

    I was so racking my brains for a flat 6 other than the opening to a Chopin prelude, which I feared U.S. choristers would think effete, drawing room stuff. Your example is brilliant!

    Speaking of which: descending m3: Schubert, 'Fremd bin ich...'

  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 749

    There's another problem you may face: introducing plainsong pitch notation (neumes, 4 lines) to musicians who aren't familiar with it. I tried to explain the modes to my friends, who are perfectly good sight readers of modern notation, but it finally clicked when I suggested they (i) think of the clef pitch as the first degree of a diatonic scale, and (ii) just get over the 'missing' line. The theory of modes can follow. It worked for me.
  • Chris
    Posts: 80
    Exactly right, Ian. I do the very same thing for my motley crew of singers. Although I always make a point of telling them to check the clef, b/c the F clef needs to be assigned as the fourth degree. They don't have difficulty with Lydian mode then; they aren't even aware they're doing it. I teach my children students the same way - we sort out the diatonic scale first, then sing the other modes by starting on the different Ionian scalar degrees. By the time I introduce the names of the modes, they've already been singing in them for a few years. It seems to work well that way.
  • JDE
    Posts: 584
    Descending p4: "Born Free"
    Ascending tritone: Theme song from The Simpsons

    Those other suggestions are good as well. I like the "Jaws" one especially.