Starting Solfa: Finding Your Tonic (Hold The Gin!) | Easy Ear Training
Starting Solfa

In the previous article, I explained why solfege is advantageous for a musician to learn, and apparently convinced you of its value since you’re here at article two! Let’s begin by learning to determine the tonic of a given key, and placing the solfege syllables with their corresponding scale degrees.

Scale Degrees

One of the simplest ways to illustrate the relationships between different notes in a scale is by using scale degrees.

Scale with Numbers

Each note of the scale can be assigned a number and a special name describing its function. (These names also correlate with chords in a given key, something we’ll cover in detail in a future article.)

  1. Tonic – beginning pitch
  2. Supertonic – above the tonic
  3. Medianthalfway between the tonic and dominant
  4. Subdominantbelow the Dominant
  5. Dominant – Five pitches above tonic
  6. SubmediantHalfway between the tonic and subdominant
  7. Leading Tone – Half step below the tonic

You’ll notice there’s a lot of emphasis on the tonic when describing the other degrees of the scale. This is because tonic is both the beginning and the end of each scale. When playing C Major, the pitches are C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. Because C is the tonic of C Major, it occurs twice in the scale. The tonic is often described as “home”, since it is the basis of the key, and sounds like the end of a musical “sentence” or phrase.

→ More tips for identifying the tonic

Do Is Home

An example of a familiar tune that ends on do is Mary Had A Little Lamb. We can label the notes of the tune with numeral scale degrees, as shown here:

Mary with numbers

This is great for understanding what pitches from the C Major scale is being used in the tune, but let’s take it a step further.

Solfege syllables can be assigned to each numerical scale degree as shown below.

Scale with letters

  1. Do
  2. Re
  3. Mi
  4. Fa
  5. So (sometimes written “sol”)
  6. La
  7. Ti

Taking Mary Had A Little Lamb, we can use solfege syllables in place of the numbers. Sing the syllables aloud:

Mary with syllables

Mary Had A Little Lamb

It probably feels strange to be singing “mi re do re mi mi mi” instead of the lyrics “Mary had a little lamb”. But the good news is, you just used solfege!

Why use the syllables instead of numbers?

You’re probably wondering why we would bother learning syllables when we could theoretically accomplish the same thing by singing number names. There are systems that use this method, but the benefit of solfege is that it is first of all easier to pronounce. The syllables are designed to be easy to sing, so you can concentrate on intonation instead of trying to quickly squeeze the word “seven” onto a note!

The other advantage is that solfege is universal. Musicians who speak different languages (and therefore have different names for numbers) can communicate in solfege and sing melodies together, even if they can’t communicate through language. How cool is that?

Transposing

What can we do now that we know the solfege syllables? Well, for one thing we can take this tune and put it in any key. This is called transposing.

Every key has a tonic, therefore every key has a do. So if we want to play “Mary Had A Little Lamb” in the key of G, we know what notes to use without having to figure it out by trial and error, because we already know the solfege.

Just use the same syllables in the new key:

Here’s another, longer example of a melody sung with solfege.

Take the tune “Lean on Me”.

Lean in me in C

This tune is in the key of C, so the solfege syllables will be as follows:

Lean in me in C with syllables

Now we can sing the opening tune with the solfege syllables in not only the key of C, but in any key we want!

Let’s put it into the key of D:

Lean on me in D

And now the key of E♭:

Lean on me in Eb

With solfege, it’s simple to write out the tune in a new key! As you develop your skills, you will be able to listen to more complex melodies, harmonies, and chord progressions, and you will be able to write them down in any key you choose.

Now it’s your turn: Use solfege to put this tune in the key of F. Click below to reveal the answer:

Show Answer

LOM Answer

You’ve Got The Power… Of Solfege!

Now that we have determined how to establish our tonic, assign the syllables in each key, and transpose a simple melody into any key we choose, we have established a good basic knowledge of how solfege works. The melodies we’ve looked at so far are using step-wise motion, however, so what about tunes with big leaps? How can you tell the difference between a fourth and a fifth? Read on in the next article to learn about hearing and singing intervals.

Are you able to hear the tonic in songs you listen to? Let us know with questions or comments below!

Series Information
This is part 2 of 6 in the Starting Solfa series.

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