Our voices do not have keys, bars, valves, positions, or switches. Singers are without an instrument the naked eye can see. So, for long and far, we have instructed as we were instructed—that solfège is representative of the order of scales and chord members in all of their colorful permutations.
When presented with new music, there is a question my voice students ask in quiet panic: “Where is do?” Where do I start? Where do I go? Woe is me!
According to the established choral curriculum, we just cannot agree. For me, do is every pitch class that is C. And tonic, or any given center of tonality, could be anywhere. The world of sound is vast and ultimately pandiatonic. For them, I fear, the world is a little less colorful, and I will explain why.
Brace yourselves! It’s about to get technical.
Fixed vs. Moveable
My older brother taught me how to sight-sing before I learned my way around the piano. The solfège we learned in school, I came to find out as a grad student, was a chromatic fixed do. But, the do to which most American singers are accustomed—and which I am obligated to teach—is called moveable do.
For those unfamiliar, fixed do is the system in which solfège corresponds strictly with letter names. The traditional European version calls ti “si,” and chromaticism is intuited rather than represented by chromatic solfège. In other words, they stick to do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and si in every key and mode.
On the other hand, moveable do defines solfège strictly based on diatonic function, where do is tonic, mi is mediant, and so on. This do, however, is loosened by secondary dominants and unstable harmonies, e.g. fully diminished sonorities. Thus, moveable do necessitates the addition of chromatic solfège to account for tonicization and modulation. Then, we see fi as “raised four,” te as “lowered seven,” si as the leading tone to a relative minor, etc.
Additionally, many choral classrooms display hand signs, which correspond to solfège and serve as a kinesthetic means by which to develop tonal memory. But, with moveable do, the benefit of these tools is limited to perceiving harmonic function.
Like moveable do, chromatic fixed do incorporates chromatic solfège to account for the accidentals, and the hand signs are still applicable. The difference is that, with chromatic fixed do, singers develop muscle memory, which reinforces their tonal memory. And rather than harmonic function, the ear develops the skills to understand relationships between specific pitches.
Consequently, we are presented with two models of aural pedagogy. The standard moveable do trains the ear by using solfège to trace the relationships of intervals. For example, in F major, F up to C is do up to sol; and in Bb major, F up to C is sol up to re. Presented precisely the same interval, we perceive a difference in diatonic function.
With chromatic fixed do, in every key and mode, our example of F up to C, is always fa up to do. Again, it’s a perfect fifth, but we are left to imagine an exciting and mysterious variety of its function.
Taken as a harmonic interval, the fixed fa and do offer a name for particular colors that occur in tertian harmony. Fa and do stabilize in F major, but simultaneously bend towards Bb minor. They cool in D minor, blur in Db major, alarm in E minor, broaden in G major, and lighten in Ab major. My ears delight in the profound potential of fa and do.
Modes Are in the Air
Instead of Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart, I fed my adolescent ears Debussy, Ravel, and Brahms. In choir, I was exposed to everything from Tomás Luis de Victoria and Monteverdi to Honegger, Dello Joio, and Jonathan Dove. So, I missed out on standard keyboard harmony, and my listening was not organized by the conventions of diatonicism; but, the modality of music became elemental to my listening. And because of my fixed do upbringing, to me, music was modal before it was ever diatonic.
My sensibilities deepened when I had the privilege to take in a lecture by Narcis Bonet—a disciple of the enduringly influential pedagogue Nadia Boulanger—as a student in the European American Musical Alliance in 2009. To paraphrase, Bonet posed that the unraveling of tonality through the eras corresponds with the natural phenomena of the harmonic series.
After the fundamental do and the second harmonic up an octave do, you have sol, which constitutes a structural open fifth—the Middle Ages. Add do and mi—the Renaissance. Then, it’s sol and te—the threshold to the Romance, a.k.a. Beethoven. And eventually, the supertonic re—Debussy. In other words, as time goes on, the harmonic series builds, and composers free the tones that follow.
With the understanding that our sense of tonality, no matter the do, is governed by perfect fifths, the possibilities seem to be endless. The aural atmosphere is rich with modal interdependence, and composers are able create tonal portals by simply dropping the local tonic by a perfect fifth. What sorcery is this!?
Modes are ubiquitous. They’re colorful, emotionally charged, and expressive in their own right. So, I have come to the conclusion that moveable do has whitewashed my high schoolers’ ears. They lack in ready perception of modes.
I also humbly recall my composition professors, who on multiple occasions would ask, “What key are you in here?” More recently, it’s my commissioners or colleagues who persist, “Why don’t you resolve to one?… Can you end on one?… We would really like a strong ending.”
Scratching my head, my response is the same: “But, it’s all modal!” It’s how I experience music, and I think, it will always reflect in my work.