Tonic sol-fa: what it is, how the scale works and how it was made famous as doh re mi
The Tonic sol-fa music system, as known to millions from The Sound of Music, dates right back to the medieval age. Rick Jones traces its fascinating history
What is the tonic sol-fa method?
Doh re mi is almost as familiar in society as ABC and that its application as a means of describing melody is easy to understand.
For the reader it identifies a simple motif and for the writer it supplies him with seven monosyllabic synonyms for those otherwise notoriously clumsy musicological names of the different notes: tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant and leading note. How much easier simply to write doh, re, mi, fa, soh, la, ti!
Who invented tonic sol-fa method?
The tonic sol-fa method, or doh-re-mi system, was invented by the monk Guido d’Arezzo around 1000 AD as an effective way of keeping hold of a melody from one day to the next. From the confines of a Benedictine monastery at Pomposa on the Adriatic coast, he became renowned for his ability to teach the fraternity to learn chants faster than anyone else.
Notation could do it too, although it implied fixed pitches and was intrinsic to paper. The beauty of doh re mi is not only its ‘movable doh’, by which name it is also known, but also its use as an oral medium. Guido had the choir singing straight away. Can’t read or write, sir? Not a problem.
The text which Guido used for his scale derives from the first syllables of the plainsong Ut queant laxis / Resonare fibris / Mira gestorum / Famuli tuorum / Solve polluti / Labi reatum / Sancte Johannes, an eighth-century prayer to St John for music’s resonating strings (resonare fibris) to proclaim the saint’s miraculous acts and absolve his servant from sin. At some point, ‘ut’ became ‘doh’ everywhere except France.
Ut queant laxis Latin lyrics
Ut queant laxīs
English translation of Ut queant laxis
Do let our voices
resonate most purely,
far greater than many;
so let our tongues be
lavish in your praises,
Saint John the Baptist.
There, and in Italy and Spain, musicians have never officially adopted the alphabetical note names which the Germans and English use. It is unknown, and ultimately immaterial, whether Guido composed the plainsong melody of the prayer or merely chose it because of its intriguing feature that each line begins one note higher than the last. Each initial syllable claimed ownership of a different degree of the scale and Guido had only to give the monks a notional ‘doh’ for them to be able to pitch re, mi, fa, soh, la or ti immediately.
More like this
I decided to put the familiarity and usability of what has been known in English since the middle of the 19th century as Tonic sol-fa to the test, and concocted a survey, co-opting the assistance of my music-student daughter who obviously had nothing better to do. On an autumn morning towards the end of 2016, we erected an easel in London’s Leicester Square, wrote on it the words ‘Music Survey’ and posed 100 respondents of either sex and any age or nationality three questions:
The first question tackled familiarity, the second musicality and the third whether the respondent could apply the knowledge to a code.
2. Can you sing it?
3. Can you sing and/or identify any of these tunes:
a) doh doh soh soh la la soh | fa fa mi mi re re | doh |
b) doh re mi doh | doh re mi doh | mi fa soh | mi fa soh | soh-la soh-fa mi doh | soh-la soh-fa mi doh | doh soh doh | doh soh doh |
c) doh-re-mi-fa soh la | fa | fa-mi re-doh doh soh | soh doh soh doh re |
The results were these: of 100 passers-by, randomly selected by gender, age or nationality, 81 were able to complete the sequence doh re mi. Sixty-one could sing it as a scale, and 12 could work out all three Tonic sol-fa formulae.
A few people, maybe half a dozen, could sing the notes in their head, which was impressive. About five per cent of the sample were French/Italian/Spanish and to a respondent they followed it up unprompted with a fast rendition backwards as they had been taught at school. They also quibbled about ti which they render as si. Less than ten per cent could sing example 3c accurately, although it was easier once they discovered what the tune actually is.
The benefits of the tonic sol-fa method
One interesting outcome was the way Tonic sol-fa imparts a sense of tonality in the hearer. Doh works as an anchor. The 3c tune was hardest to sing because of the difficulty of pitching the second fa which seems to hang in mid-air, and literally in the sense of mid-melody, half wanting to resolve onto mi, half trying to hear itself as the concluding note of a theme. If, however, we began 3c on soh, making the fa now doh, it becomes much easier to work out: Soh-la ti-doh re mi | doh
This is the benefit of moveable doh. The mind’s ear senses the cadence more clearly in mi-doh than it does la-fa. Every ear feels doh as the magnet drawing other notes toward it. In fact, which is the real doh in the Eastenders music (as perhaps by now you have discovered) is open to question, since being only a theme tune, it has no counter-melody, middle section or development to establish firmly one tonality or the other.
It also demonstrates that a major scale is really two identical perfect fourths on top of each other, which in C would be C to F and then G to C. To the ancient Greeks, who first wrote down their experiments with the raw materials of music, these are both tetrachords, although one is doh re mi fa and the other soh la ti doh.
Some respondents thought the purpose was to sing the song ‘Do-Re-Mi’ from the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music and it is possible that a few knew the formula only from that source.
Tonic sol-fa enjoyed something of a heyday through the post-war enthusiasm for education of the 1950s, with choral works printed with Tonic sol-fa beneath the stave. Choristers of that era will recall seeing the letters and colons and wondering who was using such code.
In the 1965 film, Maria, sung by Julie Andrews, uses it to teach her wards the notes of the major scale. Although as a tune-learning device it is useful, its application is limited for choirs as there is little point in applying one set of syllables to notes which must be sung in performance to others. Hammerstein made up the text beginning each line, as with Guido, with the Tonic sol-fa words. One feels he ran out of ideas at the line ‘la, a note to follow soh’; maybe he was in a rush…
How have composers used the tonic sol-fa method
Composers, constantly on the lookout for new ways of generating melody, have used Guido’s system to guide the notes. An example is Dowland’s song Lasso vita mia, mi fa morire published in 1612 in A Pilgrim’s Solace, his fourth and final collection. It’s Dowland’s only setting of Italian words, although he had been emulating Italian music since the publication of his Second Book in 1600.
The first word lasso becomes la soh and the notes A and G, the fourth and fifth words mi and fa are E and F and the last syllable re falls on D, giving an overall D minor tonality. The text has no known author and may have been Dowland himself having fun creating words from the Italian note names. It is not inconceivable that he took ideas from Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna which, since its 1608 premiere, had become the most famous song in Italy. No house was without a copy, they said. Monteverdi’s first line ‘lasciate mi morire’, like Dowland’s, begins on A (la) and ends on D (re).
Tonic sol-fa for teaching
Tonic sol-fa goes in and out of fashion. The Congregational Church, a family-oriented denomination appealing to the rising middle classes, disseminated it in the Victorian era of self-improvement. The Revd John Curwen, who coined the term ‘Tonic sol-fa’, taught whole congregations using a system he credited the Norwich schoolmistress Sarah Glover with inventing.
She’d had notable local success with a children’s choir who learned the notes by the relationships between them as Tonic sol-fa encourages. She used Guido’s nomenclature like the continentals, only changing si to ti, so that each began with a different consonant.
The system became widely adopted both in England and the US where the Congregationalists were also strong. The Victorians esteemed Guido d’Arezzo, including him in the Frieze of Parnassus on Hyde Park’s Albert Memorial that celebrates 200 eminent artists from world history. Curwen founded the Tonic Sol-Fa College, now an examinations board, and the Curwen music publishing firm, both of which prospered after his death while Tonic sol-fa itself dropped out of use.
Early 20th-century educationists worried that the system neglected training in staff notation and switched emphasis in schools and colleges to theory and musical appreciation. Seeds of the 1950s Hollywood-inspired revival were sown when the Hungarian composer Kodály became a Curwen fan in the 1920s, using the theories as the foundation for this own work, which would revolutionise music education.
Back in Leicester Square, the majority of respondents are proving that an 11th-century monk’s system for retaining melody is far from obscure. Not everyone has the musical ability to sing Guido’s notes as a scale and fewer the experience to re-order them into new melodies, but doh re mi is clearly familiar and is more or less part of the collective pool of references which most people, both here and abroad, possess. I rest my case.
Main image © Pablo Bernasconi
Rick Jones is a freelance journalist and Blue Badge London tour guide. He studied singing and lute playing as a postgraduate at the Royal College of Music, before becoming a music critic and journalist. He was the chief music critic for the Evening Standard from 1992 to 2002 and now writes for titles including BBC Music Magazine, Washington Post, Sunday Times, Independent, Daily Mail and Time Out.