Tonic sol fa
- The tonic sol fa is one method of naming
note pitches - see
history of notation for more details.
- Most people know of it from the song "Do-Re-Mi", from
the 1959 film "The Sound of Music" by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
- However, the origins of the tonic sol fa are not in the 1950s,
but the eleventh century!
- A Benedictine monk, Guido of Arezzo, took the first notes of each line
of a Latin hymn, written around 770 A.D. which happen to be the first
six notes of a major scale, and used the
syllables of the Latin words that were sung on those notes to
represent the notes of the scale:
This gave "ut", "re", "mi", "fa", "sol" and "la" to represent the
first six notes of a major scale and these names are still used (I
believe) in the French system of naming notes ("ut" for C, "re" for D etc.).
- In Italy, the "ut" was changed to "do", being the first syllable of
- "si" was added later as the seventh note of the scale, being the initial
letters of the name at the end of the hymn (which in fact does not use
the seventh note of the scale because it was probably not part of the
normal scale at the time).
- "si" was much later changed to "te" by a Miss S. A. Glover and John Curwen (1816-1880),
a Congregational minister in England, so that each degree of the scale would
have a unique single letter abbreviation used for written notation. This was
the start of the "movable doh" method of teaching which lasted in the UK for a
- The system can be used (and was in common use in the early part of the 20th
century) to teach the notes of the major scale, and the intervals
between them. Sometimes, pieces were written with the tonic sol fa
names written underneath.
- An apparent disadvantage is that chromatic notes cannot be notated,
and only one octave can be described. However, there have been attempts
to overcome these problems. For different octaves, various schemes have been
tried using ticks, or different cases or print styles to indicate different octaves.
For chromatic notes, the following is sometimes seen when a line of music
is modulating, and the possibilities are as follows:
So, for example, the minor sixth from doh would be la (pronounced law), as opposed to lah
for the major sixth. Full chromaticism is not needed, because a tune is normally
re-notated into the new key, by re-positioning the doh, even if the new key only lasts
for a few bars. I would suggest that using Tonic Sol-fa with full chromaticism would
lose the advantages of simplicity and readability.
- For sharpened notes: de, re, fe, se and le (pronounced with a short vowel).
- For flattened notes: ra, ma, la, ta (pronounced with a nasal "aw" sound, I'm told).
- I have sung in choirs with people who were taught to sight sing using
tonic sol fa. They would often take a piece of music home and write in
the names so that they could recognise the notes later.
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