Solfa and Solfege, or more accurately Sol-fa and Solfège, are the names of the two sides, teams and/or factions currently participating in one of the more one-sided conflicts in musical history. The Sol-fa-ites relentlessly wage a bitter and furious campaign of condemnation upon the peace-loving Solfege community, fuelled possibly and probably by feelings of inadequacy and also the fervour of their revered Hungarian forebears ringing in their ears. This post … I write this post not only in defence of the Solfegers, but in offence at the Sol-fa-ites, those fanatical zealots (as opposed to your indifferent, garden-variety zealots).
The conflict is fundamentally between the fixed (Solfege) and the moveable (Solfa) Do (pronounced dough), yet even the spelling of Do (Doh for solfa) cannot be agreed upon. While both parties have distant medieval origins over this note-naming, fixed Do grew naturally and gradually out of this system, while the moveable version began abruptly as the musical love-child of Sarah Ann Glover and John Curwen. Before we go further let’s discuss what it’s all about:
What is a ‘Do’?
Well dear reader, that is the crux of the pickle. In fixed Do, the pitch of C is Do. In moveable Do, any pitch that is the tonic of the key is Do. Are you stirred into a rage by one of these options? If so congratulations – you are a Sol-fa-obsessed, irrational extremist. Don’t care? Fixed Do it is then.
Why does it matter?
Well dear reader, it all comes down to what you want to use it for. And by that I must add the disclaimer that most well-adjusted musicians never really find, or indeed look for, any practical use for such knowledge beyond passing it on.
If you use Solfege (fixed), it allows a simple and rapid singing of syllables – like reading note names but better – as opposed to saying “C sharp, E flat, D natural etc.” It does make singing relative intervals a little less conducive if the piece isn’t in C, so for instance, you’d probably have to know what a major 7th up from the So (G) sounds like if the piece was in G Major.
If you use Sol-fa (moveable), well this automatically takes care of it – if G was Do the major 7th interval is Do-Ti rather than So-Fi in fixed. But.
Most of the fiercest advocates of Sol-fa are those who learn in schools that base their teaching on Bartok and Kodály – particularly the latter’s method. I cannot but gaze like a puffin at the cumquat of irony that these (relatively mildly) modernist composers, who were alive and writing at the cusp of significant, irrevocable changes in tonal theory in the early 20th century, became representatives of the fundamentally tonal movable Do system. It’s as though they invented a car that runs exclusively on blue whale fat, and said invention becomes wildly and bafflingly popular. Soon, the proponents are spending all their time hooning around and shouting obscenities at the Solfege citizens in their electric hybrids, blissfully unaware that their fuel supply and cars are both about to come to a complete standstill.
But. Moveable Do becomes starkly meaningless when there IS NO TONIC. C will always be C, so fixed Do is permanent – indeed all the chromatic notes are accounted for Do, Di, Re, Ri etc, and there’s room for microtones if you care inordinately. But moveable Solfa is self-limiting. Do you pick a random note if there is no Do? Why not choose C by default (or any other note for that matter) Yes. That ‘fixes’ the problem.
So dear Sol-fa-ites, give yourselves a nice hug, and the next time you meet someone who uses fixed Do or perhaps just doesn’t care about note-syllables as much as you do (aka: someone who uses fixed Do) before you slice, halve, crimp, carve, gut and starve your adversary, perhaps just smile and remember how patronising I’ve been to you.