The Case for Movable “Do” in Classroom Musicianship

Against my better judgment, I’m jumping into the fray regarding methods used in the teaching of sight singing. Normally I try to stay away from such conflicts, but I can only take so much disparagement of my beloved Movable Do system.  The last straw is the discovery of a now-defunct web site that contained misleading information designed to promote the sale of a book.

(Warning: This post is intended for musicianship and theory nerds. If you are not in that category, your eyes will glaze over shortly.)

What are we arguing about?

The age-old argument is this: Do we teach students to sight sing using an absolute system (Fixed Do) or a relative one (Movable Do)?

Using the Fixed Do system, the syllable do corresponds directly to the note name “C”, such that Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti(Si)-Do is a C major scale. Re is D, So is G, etc. Teachers who use this system value pitch memory as a way of learning how to read.  Over time the student should learn from this what each note feels like and sounds like.

The Movable Do system emphasizes each note’s function in the given key.  In the major, Do is always scale degree 1, So is always scale degree 5, etc., no matter what the key. Here what’s important is knowing what each note’s role is in whatever key you’re in. People with perfect pitch have a hard time with this.

I won’t be coy about my own preference. In a classroom musicianship setting, the movable Movable Do system has the most pedagogical value. We have an excellent fixed system in the English language for expressing absolute pitches. It’s called “letter names”. The Fixed Do system is nothing other than what’s used in certain European countries as an equivalent to our letter names. Over time, using it may teach students by rote how to sing the notes, but it will not teach them intervals. It will not teach them anything about harmony or function, to say nothing of voice leading. There are times where musicianship and theory students need to be able to sing and identify specific notes, and in those cases our English-language letter names are at their disposal.

What about scale degree numbers?

Good question. Yes, scale degree numbers accomplish the teaching of intervals and function very well. Thumbs up on numbers. Up to a point. What happens when you’re working in a minor key? What happens when it goes chromatic?  Sing me a German augmented 6th chord, please, using numbers.  You can sing “6-1-2-4”, but that comes nowhere near expressing what’s happening in this chord.  At best you can sing “lowered 6 – 1 – raised 2 – raised 4”, but that is unreasonably clumsy.

What’s so great about Movable Do?

The value of the Movable Do system over Fixed Do and scale degree numbers is consistency. In Movable, the interval between do and mi is always a major third no matter what. The student can count on those syllables to mean only one thing. In Fixed, if we’re in C minor, then the interval between do and mi is a minor third.  The aural connection between those syllables and their interval is broken.  Again, the syllables here serve no purpose beyond that of our usual letter names. In Numbers we have the same problem. Depending whether you’re in a minor key or a major key, the meaning of “1-3” can vary, so they run out of steam pretty early on in the training process.

It becomes clearer when you start talking about minor keys and chromatics.  There are diverging approaches regarding Movable Do and minor, but my particular flavor is the one that uses the syllable “la” as the first scale degree in minor keys.  So, that’s la-ti-do-re-mi-fa-so-la (natural minor).  I’m aware that some advocate sticking with do as the first scale degree in minor, but that just defeats all of the benefits described above.  Now, if la is the tonic, then we still have that consistency: do-mi is still a major third, although now it functions somewhat differently.

In Movable Do there’s a convention for dealing with chromatics.  Let’s get back to that German augmented 6th chord, where there’s a lowered 6,  a raised 4 and a raised 2.  We can sing the 6 as “lo” instead of “la“.  We can sing the raised 4 as “fi” instead of “fa“, and we can sing the raised 2 as “ri” instead of “re“.  Chromatic chords like this are born of moving voices.  This chord is by nature part of a process of “going somewhere” within a chord progression by altering some of the scale degrees.  Altering the syllables accordingly helps students absorb that.  It engenders a sense of voice leading, which makes it easier to hear and sing the odd intervals, such as the augmented 6th from the “lo” up to the “fi“, that come about as a result.

What could anyone possibly have against Movable Do?

That’s always been a mystery to me.  This post began as a response to the site referred to above, run by a  choral conductor who wants his chorus to learn their music more easily, (and who wants to promote the sale of his book), where I read some incoherent assertions regarding the disadvantages of Movable Do, to wit:

  1. Does not develop a sense of relative pitch. “Do” is always changing as the key signature changes.
  2. Accidentals (sharp, flats or naturals) must still be accommodated by “change.”
  3. Modulations to new keys are not easily performed.
  4. Harmonic and melodic minor scales as well as modes must also be accommodated by a “change.”

Regarding #1, well, yes “Do” is always changing, sometimes even when the key signature does not; that’s the point.  But a sense of relative pitch is exactly what it does develop.  Students learn to negotiate a descending tritone in context. Fati.  Always a tritone.  They learn that the descending 4th, lami in context sounds and feels completely different than the descending 4th that is is doso.  Or that tricky augmented 6th described in the German augmented 6th example above, lofi.

#2 and #4 don’t make any sense to me at all, so I’ll leave them un-rebutted.  They seem redundant to each other and to #1.

I think the key complaint is most clearly expressed in #3.  So, in other words: It’s harder.  The mistake being made here is to think that this would ever be a quick or easy process.  It is in fact a very slow-moving process whose purpose is to bring about deep understanding of the musical processes that drive the music we’re learning to sight read.  It is not meant to be a quick way to get your chorus to learn their material.  In fact, if the process of teaching this way takes any less than three years, you’re not doing it right.

Yes, you have to decide where the do change occurs, and there isn’t always one right answer, but with practice you become adept at analyzing music on the fly and you always know where you are within the big picture.

What about my perfect pitch?

It will help you when you’re singing letter names and hinder you when singing movable do.  I ask my students who have perfect pitch to please leave it at the door when they come in.  I’m sure it comes in handy at parties, but it certainly does not mean you don’t need ear training.  If anything it is an obstacle you need to learn how to deal with so you can learn how to focus on the tonal context of the notes you’re singing. (More about perfect pitch.)

What about atonal music?

Fair question.  See above: “letter names”.  Actually I have no problem with Fixed do here, other than that it would be unnecessarily confusing for students who have had three years of Movable.  Once tonal sight singing is mastered, students need to learn to negotiate music one interval at a time without the tonal context, and letter names are fine for this.  I don’t buy the argument often made about “singability” of solfège syllables versus letter names.  It’s not a liederabend.  It’s musicianship class.

What have others written about this?

Reams and reams, I’m sure.  In addition to the site mentioned above there are a handful of other interesting discussions of this topic on the web.  I single out Jody Nagel’s article on this for being the most thorough (and neutral) explanation of all the methods and their advantages and disadvantages, plus his fascinating explanation of why this problem is unique to the English-speaking world.

Scott Spiegelberg’s blog Musical Perceptions has an interesting item on this topic.  An anonymous commenter offers what might be the only convincing argument for Fixed Do having to do with how a string player processes music while reading.  It is food for thought, but doesn’t quite apply to the classroom musicianship setting.

Do you disagree?

Please feel free to comment below, but please let’s all be nice.

Categories: Musicianship, TeachingTags: , , , , , , , ,


  1. I whole-heartedly agree with your arguments. I learned moveable Do, but I wish my TAs had recognized your point about the fact that it is hard. I could vent about bad sightsinging TAs, but I will leave it at that.

  2. Thanks so much for this, Michael. One of the things I loved about finding Kodaly training (movable do) is that I have perfect pitch and therefore no one ever really thought I needed much in the way of ear training, even in university. If you could do the exercise, next please! So when I experienced my ear finally being trained, it was the biggest kick I could imagine. I loved it and still do.
    Yes, I thought it very strange that the website you referred to said that movable do didn’t develop relative pitch. I guess 2. and 4. relate to changing fa to fi etc. Weird.

  3. This is so interesting. It inspired me to spend a little time wandering around looking at the various sides of this issue. It’s all completely new to me as I never learned any of these systems. When I took musicianship classes back in the 70s, I was simply taught to sing a succession of intervals. The first sightsinging exercises I ever had to perform in a classroom setting were atonal tunes. Maybe it was the academic world’s belief at the time in the historical inevitability of the death of tonality, or maybe it was the fact I was on a composition track rather than a performance track, but at the time I didn’t know there was any other approach.

  4. Movable do draws attention to the intervals.
    What about music dictation (writing music that you are listening to)?
    If you hear notes, you write them quickly. If you hear intervals then you must “translate” them into notes. Even done quickly, it will never be as easy…
    Movable do seemed to me interesting for amateurs who would not want to spend too much time learning music.
    Apparently it is not the case, since you write that 3 years are necessary…But if you have got time, why don’t you do things “properly” and call a do a do ?
    Forgive my english, I am French…

  5. Jacqueline,

    Your English is impeccable. No need to apologize!

    People in France and some other countries have a real and understandable problem with movable do. I don’t know what the solution is. Those syllables have a concrete meaning in your language that corresponds to our letter names in English. So, unless you’ve studied music from an English-language point of view, you might not realize that to say “do things properly and call a do a do,” is no different than me saying “do things properly and call a gâteau a cake“. We use letter names C-D-E-F-G-A-B, where you use solfège syllables to name specific pitches. So, those syllables are available to us for other purposes.

    Even done quickly, it will never be as easy.

    Again, it’s not supposed to be easy. The note names aren’t what’s important, rather where we are in the scale. You’re not just learning how to sing what’s on the page, but harmony and voice leading at the same time.

  6. Thank you for your quick and …kind reply!( As a matter of fact, I taught English for one year before leaving to sing operetta!)

    Not much time to-day, but I will come back soon.
    In the meantime …just a little question : do ré etc… is latin! Could not any Anglo-saxon person choose to name thus the notes if s(he) wants? And just Keep A B C for harmony?

  7. Michael,
    I prefer movable “ut”.
    Right there with ya, chief.

  8. Kedves Michael!

    Irhatok magyarul is, ugye?
    Can I write in Hungarian, too?
    Foleg, mivel Magyarorszagon nottem fel es zenei kepzesem onnan szarmazik. Most Kanadaban elek mar 22 eve. Nagyon jo hallasom van, es szerencses voltam gyermekkoromban, hogy nagyon jo zenei oktatast kaptam, nagyon jo tanarral, mindezt altalanos iskolai kereteken belul, egy videki kis faluban. Viszont a tanarom a megyei zenei szakfelugyelo volt, aki nagyon tehetseges volt zenekulturaban. Nos, angol nyelvu zenei tudasom igy nem sok, mivel nem igazan kerultem olyan helyzetbe, hogy ujra kellett volna tanuljak mindent angol nyelven. De amit ertelmezek a “Movable Do” ugyben, az az, hogy az elojegyzestol fuggoen, ott kezdem a Do-t ahol az elojegyzes eloirja. Tehat az lehet az also C vonalan, de lehet az elso vonalkozben is, ami C-dur-ban az F-nek felel meg. Szerintem sokkal konnyebb igy enekelni, mert pontosan az a fontos, hogy a hangkozoket mindig be tudjuk tartani es felismerjuk kottaolvasasnal. Maskepp el sem tudom kepzelni, hogyan lehet egy idegen kottat elenekelni. Meg kell nezni az elojegyzest, megkeresni a Do helyet, s onnantol kezdve csak tudni kell, hogy mikor kell felhangokat enekelni az elojegyzesek miatt. Ettol egyszerubb dolgot nem tudok. Miert talaljak az emberek ezt neheznek? Igaz, en meg egyaltalan nem tudok a mai napig C D E F G-vel enekelni, mert en szolmizalva tanultam meg. Csak azt sajnalom, hogy az en gyerekeim mar kozel sem kapnak ilyen jo zenei oktatast, es idohianyban, bizony en sem tudom oket megtanitani ugy, ahogy szeretnem. De elnezest a hosszu hozzaszolasert. Amikor eloszor felfedeztem a honlapod(mivel hasonlo koruak vagyunk, talan nem sertelek meg a tegezessel igy ismeretlenul sem)a magyar vonatkozas kapott meg. Gyonyoru a szerzemenyed Magyarorszagrol.
    Koszonet erte es buszkeve tesz, hogy magyarnak szulettem. Tovabbi jo zenelest: Udvozlettel Torontobol: Aniko

  9. Nem ide illik ugyan, de meg akartam koszonni, hogy itt Nalad megtalaltam vegre a Ne menj el, el ne menj korusmuvet, amit gyermekkoromban enekeltem az iskolai korussal. Mindig nagyon szerettem azt a dalt, s orulok, hogy gyerekeimnek is meg tudom mutatni, mert egyedul eleg “nehez” tobbszolamban enekelni;-))))
    Megegyszer koszonom:

  10. Hey Michael,

    Kudos for stepping out on this one. I’ve been on the moveable do side of the argument since I left SFCM. When I began to realign my brain to sing moveable I loved the functionality of it, and I didn’t struggle anymore (and as you know I really used to). I use and teach moveable do with a do-based minor. We just change mi to me, la to le, and ti to te. This is of great benefit to the many students here in the Midwest of America (truly a different country in most regards) who are not as prepared as most conservatory students to sightsing.

  11. Bill,

    If you have time, I’d love to know more about this do-based minor. It seems unnecessarily complicated to me.

    Right now I’m teaching in a fixed-do environment and avoiding the issue by just using numbers. I find this problematic when dealing with the minor, because “1-3” can have two different meanings depending on the mode.

    The do-based minor scenario presents the same problem. I guess that’s why you change “mi” to “me”. I suppose I could learn to buy into that.

  12. I learned on the numbers system and we got around the “mode-problem” the same way solfegge gets around the mode problem.

    Just change the vowel:
    Lowered Three is sung as “Threy”. Raised Four is sung as “Feer.” Lowed Six = “Sex”
    Lowered Sev = “Sav”

    Works fine, same as Solfegge.

    I do prefer the Solefegge syllables though. The phonemes are easier to wrap your mouth around and they are constructed with functional releationships in mind. Do and So have the same vowel, so do Fa and La, the vowel changes from Ti to Do, etc.

    This makes everything more singable, which even though it’s not liederabend, is stil helpful.

  13. actually, i think we sung lowered six as “sax”

  14. THANKS!!! I am in my 6th decade and in my 6th year of learning to sing. My teacher believes the same as you and because of that, a slow start of basics has mushroomed into a soar.
    I am learning classical.
    In this blog you helped me to coordinate items of data in my brain for myself so it is mine. For example, from reading this, I went on to know that if I know the key or know the number of flats or sharps then I know where the movable-do is. And with a bit of thinking, if I know what know is ‘do’ then I can know what the key is and what sharps and flats are in the piece. WOW thank you

  15. My view is this. If you are young and have years to work on sight singing, you might consider fixed do. If you are starting late and want to learn to sight sing your a** off in one year spending only 20 minutes a day, I recommend some form of movable do. I used number patterns from Maurice Lieberman’s sight singing book, but I sang out of Melodia (the most progressive method ever written). I could sight sing circles around all of my classmates who were forced to learn fixed do. BTW, I sang the number patterns in major, minor, dorian,phyrigian, lydian and mixolydian modes.

  16. Joe, that’s pretty cool. I did sight-singing using the number system too, but we did an awkward “flat-5”, “sharp-5” thing for accidentals. The hybrid //Do// and numerical system you describe seems like a great way to keep limber and have the interval relationships obvious too.

  17. Hi

    How do you use the movable do-system when relating to harmony.
    (singing bass lines on solfege) A lot of “standards” involve rapid key shifts involving II-V-I progressions, turnarounds (I-VI-II-V)turnbacks(III-VI-II-V). Will for example then every new II-V-I be named re-so-do in this system? What about chord progressions consisting of only dominant seventh chords (e.g. a simple blues), will they be named only -so-so-so ….

  18. I completely agree with you on the concept of Movable Do. I was trained that way and am very glad I was. I have seen college professors completely poo-poo the idea of Movable Do as a comprehensive means of ear training and sight singing, and I find it very tragic. It has worked for a long time and has proven its effectiveness over and over again. Many professors in fact find me very “old fashioned” in my approach, but results are my proof! People trained in movable do have shown much quicker comprehension and ability to hear and produce intervals over any other ear training method in my experience. Plus the ability to sight sing off of a piece of written music is off the charts faster when this method is used.

    I don’t teach shape notes, but I know many singers who were trained using shape notes (which takes movable Do to a completely new level) and their ears were far more developed than any other singers in class. Thumbs up on movable Do.

  19. I used to teach moveable do but have been teaching chromatic, fixed-do for about the past fifteen years.

    My students might take longer to learn the basics but in the long run they have an easier time applying what they learn to actually producing music.

    In forty years of being a musician I have never found a single instance in which it mattered which system people use, if they have truly mastered it. But I think moveable do, tied to the major-minor system, with various modern forms of mutation necessary to deal with music not in that system, is a clunky substitute for a system that always makes it clear what NOTE is to be produced at all times is far more useful. That’s what my experience has shown to be the case.

  20. I use movable do with my HS choirs. My co-worker teaches AP Theory and insists that fixed do does NOT mean that C is ALWAYS a do. He says fixed do is not C in minor keys and modes. I am so confused!

  21. My training ,as a professional pianist, conductor, educator was in Cyprus EU, Vienna Austria EU and New York USA where I was born. However I was brought up in Europe.

    In Cyprus the system, in regards to sight singing is based on the fixed Do. That is, those who follow the system from Greece which is based on the French system.However there are also Schools that use the Royal School of music system in Cyprus.
    In Vienna I barely remember
    having sung solfeggio like I did in Cyprus.I guess because of my fixed Do training I always passed the placement exams for sight singing. As a graduate student I studied again in the fixed Do system.

    My above experience,(of having being tought sight singing in various cultures and various countries) has shown me that fixed Do worked in the long run, as some of the people above have expressed
    similar opinions.

    My life since I was six has been music. With training (and a lot of hard work, and endless hours of practicing the piano ) at top notch conservatories.
    I had long term goals for my music career from the age of ten. Music was for me my way of life and so it has remained this way until today.

    Therefore for young people, who decide to become consrvatory trained I highly recommend fixed ‘DO’.

    I would also like to add that as a pianist, organist, harpsichordist, it is of utmost importance to be able to sight read music quickly.Fixed ‘DO’ enables one to do that. Movable Do will be very confusing.


    Fixed DO: Good for the serious ,conservatory music student.

    Movable DO: For those who want to learn quick and rather amateurish and not in conservatory based environment or those who have been playing music by ear all their lives!

    By the way I have many students at the college where I teach music,in Norht Carolina, who only play by ear and would love to know how to read music and think fixed DO.

    Students who have always played by ear would greatly benefit from the fixed DO system and I agree with my fellow european French person who said that: ” if you have got time, why don’t you do things “properly” and call a do a do ? ”

    And I say Yes to that!

    Thank you all!

  22. Panos, you’ve given a thorough accounting of your training in fixed do, but no reference to any experience with movable do. On what basis could you possibly make a statement like:

    “For those who want to learn quick and rather amateurish and not in conservatory based environment or those who have been playing music by ear all their lives!”

    This is nonsense. You clearly don’t know how movable do works.

    One thing that I failed to make clear in this post is that when we say “movable do”, it should be understood that in means solfege used in conjunction with English (or German) letter names.

    So far, no one here has offered an explanation of how fixed do helps students learn to sight read. All it does is give you names to call pitches, which we already have in the form of letter names. It’s nothing other than target practice. You don’t learn anything about how music works from it.

    And, if you teach in an American college, surely you know that we call your “do” a “C”, and that is what is “proper” in this country.

  23. Michael,

    I respect your opinion, but I must,say that I am the only person to be addressed with the word ‘nonsense’ out of all the above mentioned. May be it is becasue I am the first Greek American to write something on this side. ( I am sorry I am proud of my heritage!!!)

    I do know how movable do works but I am still a fixed do musician. I have had some training however in movable do and also as a conductor I must read C Clefs!!!!

    I am also aware of Jody Nagel’s article wich I actually like.Here is the article for those who would like to read it:

    If both movable do and fixed do are taught at a college they should not be taught, at the same time.
    It is rather confusing for the students. Now this is not only my opinion but also Nagel’s.

    A final conclusion of my conducting professor:
    “Fixed Do is best if you start young it helps develop perfect pitch. Relative works faster for those who start in their teens. It makes little difference as long as we hear accurately”

    Thank you for letting us share our opinions in a democratic way!

  24. I agree with you that Movable and Fixed should not be taught at the same time. That would be a disaster. I think it’s possible to start out with Movable and transition into Fixed, but probably much harder the other way around.

    Maybe Fixed Do helps one to learn perfect pitch, but I suppose letter names would serve that purpose just as well. I happen to think that learning perfect pitch serves no purpose and is a waste of time. Some people have that special kind of memory and others don’t, and Fixed Do punishes people who don’t, and who may otherwise be very talented musicians.

    Movable Do forces your brain to work and brings about a deeper understanding of musical processes. Being able to work with absolute pitches is important, too, and for that we have letter names.

    Panos, thanks for engaging with me on this. So far, no one on the Fixed side has offered any arguments for Fixed, only against Movable. Other than the perfect pitch thing, I’m still waiting to hear how Fixed Do serves to train students’ ears.

    Sorry if my use of the word “nonsense” offended you, but the quote of yours that I was referring to, where you dismiss Movable Do as “amateurish” and unworthy of the conservatory is exactly that. If you ever have an opportunity, I invite you to visit an advanced solfège class at the Liszt Academy in Budapest. You’ll see what I mean.

  25. You’re very arrogant for saying movable do is “amateurish”. In Asia, that is how we’re taught solfege but I think both methods are beneficial. Many top U.S. conservatories use this method because they think it’s best. Oh, and perfect pitch is overrated as well.

  26. Panos-

    I go to a “top-notch” conservatory and that has nothing to do with learning fixed do. I disagree with it completely. I feel it doesn’t teach you function whatsoever. It doesn’t accommodate key changes, and it doesn’t teach you to hear FUNCTION. C in the key Db major functions differently than C in F# (the #11- could function many different ways!) It teaches you to see the music, not to hear it.

    I’m a very efficient sight-singer, but I feel as if I’m cheating with fixed do because it doesn’t teach me anything about the melody I’m singing.

    My school has a leading authority in music education and they are a firm believer in moveable do. Fixed do teaches you nothing about what you’re singing! And as for the argument about atonal music. How much atonal music is out there? It’s probably about 10% of ALL music out there. Teaching moveable do trains kids ears to recognize melodies, and eventually be able to audiate them and have a firmer understanding.

    And for people that use fixed do to “train” perfect pitch- perfect pitch isn’t even needed! It doesn’t make a musician better by any means. There are millions of amazing musicians without it, and lots of mediocre musicians with it.

  27. Bob and Danny, thank you both. I’m glad you agree that perfect pitch is no way to measure one’s musical ability.

    I still think that people who look down on Movable Do do so because they don’t understand how to use it properly.

    And, I’m STILL waiting for someone out there to offer a convincing case as to what Fixed Do does to help train students’ ears.

  28. I will be going to a conservatory in a year and want to either perform or teach later on. Right now I am brushing up on basic music theory. I am wondering which type of solfege will be taught at the school I choose and what I should be preparing for. Is it possible to learn both and become proficient in both within a reasonable amount of time? I assume fixed-do is the predominant method in Europe and Latin America where I might end up going, what about US conservatories?

  29. I am a guildhall trained pianist and composer and music educator with masters degrees and have taught at tertiary level, in schools and primary schools and to preschool and gifted children.
    The moveable do system as developed by Glover/Curwen and taken up by Kodaly is a wonderful tool for teaching btih sight singing and harmony, teaching both function of each note within a meoldy and within aby given base line or chord.
    Gifted musicians often do not need our help , but all those who have had ear training using movable do are grateful for it, I find.
    More ‘normal’ souls also benefit in my experience. My problem is with the Associated board and the instrumental teachers who use it: they teach using symbol beofre sound, and note names (and names for rests before they are experienced by music making. There resistance or dislike of movable do and the Kodlay approach is part of a deeper seated problem.

  30. Hi everyone !

    Here is my vision of a perfect world, at least the part of this world that concerns music teaching : 2 systems. One to name and recognize the pitches, and one to name and recognize the degrees of the scale, and no war between the worshipers…
    Wait a minute, now that i think about it, it actually exists somewhere … that’s what the author of the blog has been talking about from the beginning !

    I am a French musician and music teacher, and therefore have been taught music with the only system available in my country, fixed Do, wich is the exact same thing as the letter names, except that the syllables are different.
    The real problem about this system is that IT IS THE ONLY ONE !
    There is no tool available to express the constant rules of the tonality wich makes it harder for any student to develop the perception of tonal music.

    It seems quite logical to me that we should all be using two systems. The big problem in France and the other countries using fixed Do is that the syllables which historically were invented as a mnemonic system for the intervalls have been “stolen” by the adepts of the fixed system : GIVE IT BACK YOU PERFECT PITCH FREAKS !! AH AH AH

    I’m just joking of course, but i think it is a very serious issue.
    The only solution for us would be to change our fixed system and start using the letters instead, to “free” the original meaning of DOREMIFASOLASI, but that is another story…


  31. Hello, you dismiss the do-based minor for being unable to deal with lowered scale degrees, but then in the very next paragraph you talk about how to deal with chromatics. Well, that’s exactly how the do-based minor works.

    I’m surprised you prefer la-based minor, because the argument in favour of do-based minor is the same one which you use to defend movable-do over fixed-do: consistency and facilitated comprehension of music theory. For example, in the la-based minor, your augmented sixth is now fa-ri. But in the do-based minor, the raised fourth is still fi and always fi, just as it is in major. And isn’t that sort of consistency the exact reason you’re arguing for movable-do in the first place?

  32. Bennett, I can’t find anything in my post or comments where I said that do-based minor is unable to deal with lowered scale degrees. Are you confusing DO-based minor with Fixed DO?

    But, I do prefer LA-based minor. It probably warrants a whole additional post, but I’ll give you a thumbnail here. Would you consider a minor scale to be a chromatically altered major scale? I hope you agree that it is not; it is an independent, different scale. So, to treat it as that with solfa is misleading and unnecessarily confusing for students. It makes sense to teach chromatic alterations in a certain order, having students master them one at a time. Using something like MA (lowered 3 in major; probably ME for you) would require them to master some pretty complicated chromatic stuff before introducing the minor. Using LA as the tonic for the minor reinforces the intervals mastered during the study of the major. Going from “1” to “3” in the minor should not feel like a chromatic altaration.

    Using MA (or ME) for lowered “3” carries an implication of a tendency downward to “2” which is not the case in a minor scale. Also, when it comes to the harmonic and melodic minor, the scale degrees that indeed are chromatically altered (“6” and “7”) are treated appropriately in LA-based minor as FI and SI, which reinforces the student’s understanding of what’s happening in the music.

    I must add that the presiding notion that DO is ALWAYS “1” is a complete fallacy. In order to preserve the meaningful relationships between syllables (particularly MI-FA and TI-DO), ANY syllable can be considered to be the tonic. This makes it easy to master the modes, Dorian starting on RE, Lydian starting on FA, etc. Of course, later, as chromatics are addressed, it is a great exercise to do exactly what you endorse for the minor, which is to start on DO and become proficient in altering the appropriate syllables to form the modes.

  33. Michael, when you said, “I’m aware that some advocate sticking with do as the first scale degree in minor, but that just defeats all of the benefits described above,” it seems clear to me from the context that you’re assuming that do-based minor is saddled with the same problem as fixed-do and Numbers in being unable to accommodate different interval qualities. My argument is that between a single major/minor relative pair, la-based minor is no different from fixed-do.

    No, I don’t consider the minor scale to be a chromatically altered major scale, but what does that matter when it often behaves like one? And since the natural minor is taught with its harmonic and melodic equivalents from the very beginning, how is having to teach le and te any more complicated than teaching fi and si? If anything, it’s less confusing, because each diatonic function is associated with one and only one syllable.

    Which leads to my next point. Even if the do-based minor does treat the minor as a chromatically altered major, the la-based minor does something far worse: it treats the minor as a subordinate modulation of its relative major, and creates a misleading association with it. This is counterproductive for understanding music theory. A ii6 chord in minor might sound like a vii6 in the relative major, but it behaves more like a ii6 in the parallel major.

    Since you agree that do-based minor is useful for advanced lessons, perhaps our differences centre not on why each should be taught, but rather on when and for how long. I was taught using la-based minor and understand the benefits, but felt that these were outweighed by the drawbacks within the first week or two.

  34. (Man, this comment thread is getting long!)

    I think I see what’s going on now. Here’s what happened: When I originally wrote this post I was only vaguely aware of such a thing as DO-based minor, and didn’t understand how it works (lowering 3 to MA/ME, etc.). I had assumed that you just sing DO-MI as a minor third instead of a major third, which I’m sure you would agree would be less than ideal. I’ve realized since then that this isn’t how it works. Hopefully, this explains the mixup. So, I retract my statement that DO-based minor “defeats all of the benefits described above.”

    Here’s what else is going on. You’re looking at solfa from a music theory point of view, and I look at it from an ear training point of view. I do value the use of solfa in teaching common practice harmony and voice leading, so don’t get me wrong, but this is a subsidiary use of solfa, which was in use as an ear training tool for a good 600 years before common practice harmony came about.

    The purpose of solfa is primarily to learn intervalic relationships, regardless of I-V-I. It doesn’t treat the minor as a “subordinate modulation” or anything else. It just helps you learn the melodic tendencies of the scale degrees. When you say “each diatonic function is associated with one and only one syllable”, you’re missing the real point of solfa, and you’re clinging to the fallacy that DO has to be “1”.

    I can’t elaborate anymore here, but if you’re interested in this and willing to look beyond what your theory teachers have taught you, you’ll find it very edifying to read up on the history of solfa and how it was used in the period between 1026, when it was invented and the Renaissance, when there was no such thing as I-V-I.

    And, by the way, I wouldn’t quite say that I agree that DO-based minor is useful for advanced lessons. What I said was that, in addition to learning modes naturally by starting scales on different syllables, it is a useful exercise to also learn how to form them by chromatically altering syllables, as is done with DO-based minor. Sorry to split hairs, but it’s not quite the same to me.

  35. Interesting topic. Even more interesting responses!

    It seems to me that this article is merely pointing out the pros and cons of both systems. What I’m getting from both “sides” is that with fixed “do” the emphasis is on specific pitch, where as with movable the focus is on the interval.
    As a comp teacher, I’m all for understanding intervals for the purposes of voice leading. It’s nothing short of imperative. However, with a movable system if I, as a composer, sing one song in F, then another in C, my original “do” becomes a “fa.” Being in music for as long as I have, I can take an educated guess as to how one should think that scenario out and make sense of it. But it’s not about me. It’s about the student. And they might leave the lesson confused, which is the antithesis of a teacher’s role in society.
    There is no question that the identification of a particular pitch is equally important as the familiarity of two pitches sounding simultaneously. And although one discipline should not govern over the other, I firmly believe that the naming of pitches should take precedence over teaching the interval, and here’s why: the pitch takes far longer to develop in one’s mind than the distance between two of them. You even said yourself (regarding Mr. Tyrrell’s point on a movable system and modulation to new keys [not being easier]): “So, in other words: It’s harder. The mistake being made here is to think that this would ever be a quick or easy process.” I agree with that statement. But what I believe makes it “harder,” what makes it a 3+ year endeavor, is the lack of knowledge with pitches, not intervals. It becomes clear that this is a matter of choosing the shortest path to understanding how to read and perceive the note. Concentration on the lesson of pitch identity would make for a greater solution to the issue of sight-singing, not to mention the single most important tool for composers next to creativity itself: mind-singing. To be able to sit down with nothing more than a pencil and paper and compose a piece is one of the greatest dreams of composition students. Yet, it is rarely realised.
    True, the characteristics of two pitches sounding is unique. However, the interval can be represented by a symbol or a number. In the mind’s eye, the pitch cannot. Giving a student the task of analysis you will find that by developing a relationship with each of the pitches, most (not all!) of their work is done. If one can recognise both a c# and F# the only thing left to do is simply count between. In fact, I submit that the teaching of intervals could be done away from the classroom, away from the keyboard or their instrument of choice and even away from any textbook for the very reason that it really is about counting. It may be studied much the same way that one learns the multiplication table; through association. Just as one is to remember that they should say “8” when they are given “2×4,” the same student should envision “m6” when they hear a given “C” played below an “Ab.” And if one is concerned that they might not know the quality of an interval because they were focusing on the notes as individual entities, this really that isn’t a factor because they already know the quality. They know this because they’ve been listening to music long before they came to class. They know what intervals sound like; music is peppered with them. If we are successful in our job to teach them to identify the notes they hear, they will have access to any and all intervals.

  36. In the contemporary Early Music scene, A=430, 415, 409, 392 Hz are variously used… this is because there was no ‘standard’ or ‘international’ A way back then, and this is reflected in antique instruments and their copies. Fixed do and absolute pitch would not have been preferred in such a world, would it?

    But I write primarily to ask for recommendations for good books to learn movable do solfege, both for me and my 11 year old son who is starting voice lessons. Is ‘Solfege, Ear Training, Rhythm, Dictation, and Music Theory: A Comprehensive Course’ by Marta Árkossy Ghezzo a fixed or movable do book? Thanks.

  37. I’m an amateur instrumental player (guitar) and I’ve only done a little voice / ear training by myself. I guess I learned solfa in the major scale at school and from The Sound of Music and had no idea there was a non-moveable way of singing, as you’ve described (I’m English). When I later tried to adapt this myself to accommodate other scales, it just seemed natural to me to invent altered syllables to ‘remind myself’ how notes should lie relative to more familiar tones – turns out this was close to how I later discovered chromatic solfa is sung. Now I am getting better at reaching the pitches I find I can more or less move around within different modes relative to a fixed tonal centre(do), and sing different triads and so on.

    Now here’s the thing, it turns out I’m still a bit useless at harmonic progression, so after wandering around the scale relative to some Do for a while I sometime suddenly realise ‘do’ isn’t ‘do’ anymore – I’ve inadvertently modulated and settled into a new tonal centre (e.g. ‘so’). I feel it is only logical to then start naming the tonal centre at this pitch ‘do’ – of course I should be able to do this deliberately, but the point is there is a definite feeling of a tonal centre that you can associate with ‘do’, regardless of what mode you are singing in, and if the centre moves to a new pitch the names should shift too.

    For what it is worth I recently opened up my version of Piston’s Harmony (barely used!)and he says there that the major / minor distinction is ‘not as distinct in usage as their two scales would seem to indicate…’ and ‘Change of mode from major to minor, or vice versa, does not affect tonality…’. Fixed Do Rules! Rock on Dudes!

  38. PS

    ermm.. oops

    I meant ‘Moveable Do Rules!’

  39. First, let me say this is a very interesting post, and post-discussion; thanks to the author and all who’ve contributed

    Max, I have to take issue with your characterization of pitches and intervals. You write:

    “If one can recognise both a c# and F# the only thing left to do is simply count between. In fact, I submit that the teaching of intervals could be done away from the classroom, away from the keyboard or their instrument of choice and even away from any textbook for the very reason that it really is about counting. It may be studied much the same way that one learns the multiplication table; through association. Just as one is to remember that they should say “8″ when they are given “2×4,” the same student should envision “m6″ when they hear a given “C” played below an “Ab.” And if one is concerned that they might not know the quality of an interval because they were focusing on the notes as individual entities, this really that isn’t a factor because they already know the quality. They know this because they’ve been listening to music long before they came to class. They know what intervals sound like; music is peppered with them. If we are successful in our job to teach them to identify the notes they hear, they will have access to any and all intervals.”

    Intervals are really about counting? I disagree. Yes, a minor sixth can be measured as eight half-steps. And a perfect fifth as seven half-steps. (For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll assume equal temperament.) But that measurement tells us nothing about the quality of the interval. Or rather, it tells us only how “far” our voice must reach to sing it, but not that the perfect fifth is easier to sing and has a certain consonant, open quality.

    I am a composer, and I have perfect pitch. So it’s easy for me to hear or think of two notes, C up to Ab, and recognize it as a minor sixth. But by “recognizing” it in this way I don’t have to pay much attention to the quality of the interval — I can remain analytically detached, unmoved by it. And although I can sight-read (at the piano) or sight-sing very proficiently (especially with fixed do, which I was trained with), I am easily confused when listening to music where the tuning lies “between” two keys — like some early music recordings. Because I’m so accustomed to recognizing pitches first, and second (almost instantaneously), recognizing the intervals from my internal pitch table (much like my multiplication table tells me instantly that 8×3 = 24), I’m not so skilled at recognizing intervals purely by their aural quality. If I hear a G-up-to-Eb in the context of Eb Major, I’m likely to mistake it for a major 6th, before I ‘measure’ it or ‘look it up’ and identify it correctly as a minor 6th. If I’m listening to an early music recording and I hear two notes, the first a G# or G, the second and higher one an Eb or E, I’ll be stumped on what kind of 6th I’m hearing. It’s because I’m always so aware of the pitches I’m hearing, that I rarely have the opportunity to practice listening to intervals per se — and when I do, it becomes obvious how underdeveloped is my interval-hearing, or “relative pitch”.

    From a more philosophical perspective, I also believe the interval is a more fundamental musical unit than a single pitch. With a single pitch we do not really have music. With two pitches, music begins — something begins to express itself. And I would say that what is expressive and ‘meaningful’ in music is what lies ‘between’ the notes — just as what is essential in a human being is not the matter of their body, but what shines through and enlivens their body, their soul or spirit or being, one might say — and just as meaning in speech or writing does not lie in individual words but ‘between’ or ‘through’ or ‘by way of’ them. (Meaning is what is intended; words are marshalled by a speaker or writer to serve his intended meaning, but the meaning is not contained in the individual words.) Notes, matter, words, are the vehicle or vessel through which something else expresses itself.

    Anyway, maybe there is no definitive answer to which is best — fixed do or movable do — but only that they serve different purposes. (Rarely have I met any music teacher who did not have a strong, and often dogmatic, opinion about which system was superior.) For myself, fixed do is useless; all it did was enable me to breeze through the ear training courses of a leading conservatory, without ever being challenged to develop relative pitch or practice hearing or singing intervals as such. Having perfect pitch, I could already sight-sing accurately; it just took a little while to associate the syllables with the letter note names I grew up with, and after that it was easy. I am now eager to try movable do (with chromatic alternations), partly for my own benefit, and partly in teaching a music theory and ear training class to non-musicians.

    • In my experience, the people who tend to argue for numbered scale degrees are the ones who learned numbered scale degrees as undergraduates. The ones who argue for fixed do are the ones who learned fixed do originally. They tend to reject movable do without having worked with it very much. Musicians who have worked with all of the systems overwhelmingly prefer movable do for tonal music and fixed do for non-tonal music.

      Also there tends to be a kind of snobbery, even a bigotry, aimed against movable do that was instilled by the modernist generations in U.S. academia, who associated movable do with tonal music in general. They rejected tonal music, so they rejected the solfege system that reinforces the musical culture of tonality, and in the process they hobbled entire generations of American musicians with an inferior pedagogy (i.e., scale degrees).

      The beauty of solfege (and the reason it has been such a powerful, universal tool for teaching sight singing and ear training for so many centuries) is that unlike numbers, it associates a nonsensical syllable with the sound of the tonal function of each scale degree, and nothing else. As such, when you’ve worked with movable do you just don’t have to think about what you’re singing or hearing. It’s automatic, not analytical like numbers, and that’s the whole point.

      • …also, I see no conflict between movable do and fixed do. Both have their appropriate uses. Fixed do is very helpful for musicians without perfect pitch to learn sight-singing in non-tonal contexts. Movable do is a powerful tool for learning to hear and for singing the sound of scale degrees functioning in a tonal context. Fixed and movable do are not incompatible or mutually exclusive systems. In fact, the study of one informs the other, and it is easy to make the mental shift just as it is easy to recognize that you are singing either tonally or in a context of chromatic saturation.

        Those who point out the challenges of using movable do in a context of rapidly shifting tonal centers are missing the point entirely. It’s not about singing the correct syllable or the correct number! Life is not a Music 30 lab test! Whether you are using movable do, or you shift to fixed do, and in which exact moments, is not of the least importance. It’s about building an automatic cerebral connection between the written note and its associated sound, or vice versa.

  40. Very interesting conversation! Bennett, you are, I believe confusing “fixed-do” with basing scale understanding on always thinking of “DO” as the root. The controversy in education is about a fixed-do system where LA above middle C is always is equal to 440hz.

    In fact Bennett is describing one powerful use of “moveable-do.” In the movable system we can assign ANY pitch to DO and so can either label or think of ANY natural minor scale as:
    “do re ma fa so la ta do” OR “la ti do re mi fa so la.”

    As a longtime Kodály teacher trained by Hungarians, I was often reminded that Hungary is “LA” land. It is among those cultures in which the minor scale has primacy in the indigenous music. There it would be silly to think of the minor scale in terms of alterations of the major as in the “do re ma” example.
    For we folks in “DO land,” however explaining the minor scale as “do re ma” may lead to a better understanding of minor.

    The point of the movable do system is to allow this flexibility, and opening the door to multiple ways of understanding harmonic and melodic concepts. Whether you teach new scales to students using natural minor as the basis is a matter of choice. There is some validity to teaching the scales using a consistent syllable as the root. Clearly it does create some consistency! But then again it gives no insight into the modal nature of musical relationships involved in “relative major/minor” which is better demonstrated by using LA or even RE or MI rooted minor scales.

    The point is movable DO as opposed to fixed-DO systems allow that flexibility.

    The difficulty is that so many European cultures have long used the same syllables as the American “A, B, C” fixed system. Seems to me the Kodály folks should have come up with another set of syllables for the movable system, but that’s all water under the bridge, and we English speaking Americans have the privilege of not having the conflict, giving us maximum flexibility.

    So Bennett – you aren’t in favor of “fixed-do” — just in favor of teaching scales with a movable do system in which the root is always thought of as “DO.” That seems a good idea, but I would hope that you would also go on to point out the existence of LA and even other rooted systems as students become more sophisticated in their understanding.

    In the Kodály system, when teaching young kids from scratch, though, your system, Bennett, is MORE complicated, because you would have to teach all the chromatic syllables before learning the scales. Once kids are aware of the pentatonic DO RE MI SO LA, they can right away learn the minor pentatonic by just singing the same syllables beginning on LA. As you see consistency is in the eye of the beholder – the context. The power of what is meant by “movable DO” is its flexibility to accommodate many approaches to understanding!

  41. i think ‘movable do’ makes a lot of sense regarding ear training and functional pitch recognition. Let me ask you this: say you were to design an ear training software for functional pitch recognition, how would you go about designing it? Let’s make things real simple and just focus on major scale.

    • I’m not a software engineer, and not a big believer in using software for ear training. I think if you take singing out of the equation you’re pretty much wasting your time.

      However, the comment stands, and so perhaps others might care to contribute on this.

      Thanks, Ugo.

  42. Well, you would not take singing out of the equation because the 1st thing would be to establish the key by playing the whole scale or pieces of it, and you would expect the student to sing along. it’s what comes next i am not too sure about.

  43. Moveable Do is crucial. Computer becomes an instrument or pitch pipe. Absolute pitch can be explored by identifying the sounds in your environment…like train horns!

  44. I also am in the “movable do” camp; it just makes more sense for my brain.

    I just started a blog,, as I wanted to put together a series of browser-accessible exercises to sharpen my sight singing skills.

    It’s just a labor of love, so please check it out, comment, and pass the word if you find it useful.


    – Eugene

  45. I fully agree with moveable Do. But the problem is how do you teach those young students who do not know that D major do is D because they haven learn the key signature yet. Thanks

    • Thanks for the comment! I’m not sure I fully understand your question, but very young students should not be introduced to key signatures at all until they can read and sing in tune using solfa.

      There’s a way to use solfa to introduce key signatures, and I’ll be posting about that soon (I hope).

  46. If ones looks into the jazz world, you will find movable do, but as scale degrees. This makes the transposition of chord progressions very easy. If I’m on the band stand and it’s a new tune I just call out I vi ii V in G or whatever the key. Most jazz musicians know this instantly.

    And when I dictate melodies to myself I use scale degrees. This is much quicker than using a music staff and notes. There is a consistency as 1 to 5 is always a perfect 5th. In a Natural minor key I add three flats to the major key which are always going to be b3 b7 b6. The raised 6 & 7 are just notated with out the flat in front for melodic minor.

    Fixed do destroys the many possible functions of the same note or chord built on that note.
    C = 1 in C but = IV in G so calling C do in
    the key of G would drive me crazy because C is not
    functioning as Tonic but sub-dominant.

    So I’m with you on this one.


  47. Michael,

    I have had students who learned moveable do (do-la), and fixed do that could both sightread equally well. I learned moveable do (do-do) with numbers, and did not learn to sightread very well at all- because this system defeats the purpose of moveable do. Essentially you have to learn a different set of intervals for each syllable depending on whether you are in major or minor. Later I learned moveable (do-la) and learned it very well. I taught my amateur choir this method and they also could sightsing very well.
    I have nothing against fixed do, if you want to just memorize pitches. Most instrumental musicians eventually get there to a degree. Moveable do (do-la) is the only way for singers or to actually sightsing with relative pitch. It works for all kinds of music. If you want to use it for atonal music, just set do=C and off you go. Moveable do-do is useless.

    • Thanks, Lila. I agree completely, of course. I would take it a step further and suggest that even instrumental musicians are better served by la-minor movable DO, as it illuminates many aspects of music theory.

      (Of course, one has to let go of the false notion that DO always has to be the tonic.)

      This is touched on quite a bit in the comment thread above, for anyone willing to tolerate all that scrolling!

  48. Essentially, the people who advocate movable do-do (or 1-1) are fixated on the syllables illuminating the theory. That is not their function. The syllables are supposed to illuminate the intervals and make sightsinging easier.

    Ken Brown’s note makes it clear how easy it is to superimpose functional theory on a working do-re-mi system, but it doesn’t work the other way around.

    Fixed do evolved from moveable do evolving into a fixed pitch level, sometime between 1630 and 1700. It is not a sightsinging method.

  49. On do-based minor, when I say moveable do-do, I’m referring to a way of singing where minor is solfegged do-re-mi-fa, etc. (or 1-2-3-4) with no alteration in syllables to reflect the change of intervals. Some of the writers on this thread seem to know a different way of singing minor with do as the tonic and altering syllables to reflect the change of intervals. That seems unnecessary, as I have yet to meet anyone (other than those teaching sightsinging, apparently) that has any trouble remembering do is the tonic in major, and la is the tonic in minor, or re is the final in dorian with la as the dominant, etc.

  50. Michael: I have been reading the comments and I wanted to add mine. I learned Music many years ago using do-re-mi. I love music and I have been Piano teacher for more than 40 years. However, when I arrived to USA I knew there is a method using the movable do. I do not understand well how it is because for me always how I learned has been easy and I sing or play at first sight very well. But the case is that lately I have students who I am tutoring in music because they are having problems at their school. Could you please explain me how I should use the movable with them or a site in the internet where I could read and understand it. I do not want to do a mistake. I’ll appreciate a lot. Sorry for my English, my native language is Spanish.

  51. Our Let’s Play Music program is a musicianship program sweeping the US. We train very young children in singing, ear-training, and piano playing and we use moveable DO. I have referenced this article in a blog post. We find it most valuable to give the children a physical way to feel the notes moving up and down as they sing- it helps them more quickly internalize the intervals and feel these relationships physically while hearing them. We also find it makes transposing on the piano extremely easy- they move to a new position but sing the same solfege.

  52. i’m a jazz clarinettist who tries to figure out what key a song is in as the chord changes…i try to think in terms of a movable key, which i guess is like what’s being discussed…?

  53. When I was in grades 4-5-6 I was taught sight-singing using movable Do with a Do based minor. I was a leading sight-singer in my High School choir along with my college choirs and music education classes. Then I didn’t sing for many years… life took a different turn. When I returned to singing I kept the Do based major but found the La based minor to be the most useful version. Then all the intervals remained accurate with only the raised 7th to deal with as a Si in the common Dominant minor Scale or the sixth and seventh in the ascending Melodic minor scale. I’m still an excellent sight-singer although I am out of practice singing intervals of sixths and larger. I end up breaking those down by how far to the Do and add to that how far past Do. It’s a little clumsy but can be done quite quickly, sort of like a computer doing repeated adding.

    I’m now an Elementary Music Educator. In my experience, movable Do is by far the best way to teach musical theory. When dealing with casual adult singers, I use numbers, but otherwise, movable Do solfege.

    Thanks for the conversation!

  54. Has no one here heard of Sarah Glover ?

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