BY JIM D’VILLE | FROM THE WINTER 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Solfege, from the Italian solfeggio, is applying a syllable to each note in a musical scale to make the scale singable. Instead of singing 1-2-3 for the first three notes of a major scale, we’d sing do–re–mi (“doe-ray-me”). Probably the most famous application of the solfege syllables is from the Broadway musical and hit film The Sound of Music. The Julie Andrews character, Maria, sings the song “Do-Re-Mi” and magically teaches the seven Von Trapp family children to sing in just one scene!
We can apply solfege to any scale. You are no doubt familiar with the solfege syllables associated with the major scale, i.e., do–re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do (Example 1). But did you know there are five other syllables which, when inserted into the major scale, create the 12-tone chromatic scale?
The most important discovery I made during the early part of my independent music education was stumbling upon the chromatic scale and the chromatic scale solfege syllables. I bet if you asked one hundred ukulele players what the most important musical scale is, they would answer it’s the major scale. But why would anyone want to begin their study of Western music by ignoring a full five notes?
Look at the fingerboard of your ukulele. Four full chromatic scales are staring back at you. A chromatic scale consists of 12 tones (13 counting the octave), each a half step (semi-tone) apart within the octave: do to do. On a ukulele, if you start on any open string and play every fret climbing the scale one fret at a time until you reach the octave, you will have played a chromatic scale. Play those four chromatic scales starting on the open strings, and you have the G, C, E, and A chromatic scales.
In North America, we use what is called the “moveable do system.” Any note you start a scale on is the root of the scale, or do. This makes transposing to different keys with the solfege syllables a breeze. And while major-scale syllables remain the same ascending or descending, the five chromatic notes are sharped ascending and flatted descending, resulting in different syllables (Example 2).
An example of how important chromatic scale practice is can be found in the article about Canadian educator J. Chalmers Doane in the Fall 2020 issue of this magazine. There, Doane states, “I’ve changed one thing in my pedagogy, and that is the importance of the chromatic scale. No matter what the song, the chromatic scale harmonizes it. Chromaticism is the secret to improvisation. I know the jazz people won’t tell you that. They’ll tell you the whole secret to improvisation is the modes. I disagree with that.”
A proven way to improve your listening skills is to play and sing the C chromatic scale up and down several times each day. This practice will help you hear the notes of the major scale better too. Playing and singing the chromatic scale is like practicing every possible melody note you’ll ever encounter in advance.
During my daily online Pop Up Uke lesson, which I began during the pandemic, I’ve been making the 40 to 50 players who show up each day sing the chromatic solfege syllables up and down. In just a few months, this training has yielded impressive results. After singing the scale, I play a random note. Most of the folks can now identify the mystery note by ear with the solfege syllable.
Give it a try!
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