Fixed Do Versus Moveable Do (Music Nerd Alert)
To preface this post, I would like to acknowledge that my wife has told me it is extremely nerdy and only people who really love music and music education will be as excited about moveable do as I am. That being said, get excited!
Doe, a deer, a female deer. If only it was that simple.
Solfège is a method used to help teach people to sing, with each syllable (do re mi fa sol la ti) corresponding to a note in a standard diatonic scale. Seven notes in a scale, seven syllables, what could be easier?
When I first started taking piano lessons, we actually learned the keys on the piano by their corresponding solfège syllables. Instead of "middle C,” we learned about “middle do.” A year later once this had been firmly established, we began learning the keys’ letter names. There was even a little song we sang about it:
Do is C, C is Do
*clap clap clap clap clap*
Re is D, D is Re
*clap clap clap clap clap*
Mi is E, E is Mi
You get the picture. Little did my six-year-old self know, but my first piano teacher was teaching what is called “fixed do,” firmly planting her flag on one side of a debate my naïve self didn’t know existed. Fixed do is basically exactly what it sounds like: do is always C, regardless of what key you’re in. If you’re in the key of F major, your tonic is “fa.” If you’re in the key of E minor, your tonic is “mi.” Not only that, but fixed do also uses the same syllable for accidentals, meaning if you come across a B-flat, a B-natural, or a B-sharp in the music, you’ll use the same syllable for all three: “ti.”
Since I had perfect pitch, it was very fortuitous that this was the approach my teacher took. I could hear a pitch, regardless of context, and associate it with a corresponding syllable. This is actually the reasoning behind teaching a fixed do approach. The idea is to ingrain the “sound” of keys and frequencies in the minds of early music learners as a way to almost teach them a mild version of absolute pitch. Because of my perfect pitch, I can still sing using fixed do today with no problem. But what I didn’t know at the time, and didn’t properly discover until an aural skills class in college, was the idea of “movable do.”
“Movable do” is an approach to solfège in which rather than being fixed to a particular pitch, do is fixed to a particular scale degree. In movable do, do is whatever the tonic happens to be in a major key center. So for instance, in the key of A-flat major, A-flat would be “do,” the second scale degree (B-flat) would be “re,” etc. In the key of E-major, E would be “do,” the fifth scale degree (B) would be “sol,” and D-sharp would be “ti.” In a minor key, the tonic is “la,” so for instance in the key of C-minor, C would be “la” and E-flat would be “do.”
The philosophy behind movable do is that it more properly captures our psychological experience of music by emphasizing the relationship that the notes in a melody and the chords in a harmony have to one another. In other words, if I sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in solfège, it would make sense that the syllables I sing would be the same every time I sing the tune, regardless of what pitch I happen to start on. This seems intuitive. By allowing “do” to be the tonic of the key, regardless of what key it is, solfège functions as a tool to help emphasize the intervals between scale degrees, and the pull of the key center always back toward “do.”
When I was initially exposed to this in college, it was a very large hurdle to overcome as someone with both perfect pitch and someone having been trained in the “fixed do” system. For heaven’s sake, I ran a music transcription business – how had I not heard of this before? It took me a while to wrap my brain around looking at a G on a page of sheet music and singing anything other than “sol.” And there were more than seven syllables? A “fa-sharp” was now a “fi” and a “re-flat” was now a “ra.” After a couple semesters getting used to it, though, I began to see the value of such a system, especially for people without absolute pitch. And if they were teaching this method at Thornton, then clearly it had to be of some value. (Although they still teach fixed do at Julliard, so I guess the debate rages on.)
I’ve become a firm proponent of movable do and often will sing in solfège to my children, always ending a major-keyed tune on do. While it wasn’t the approach I was taught with, I’ve become convinced that this approach more appropriately captures the logic of music theory and will help my kids develop into well-rounded musicians in their formative years.