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.

Composer Michael Kaulkin

Michael Kaulkin (b. 1967) is active in the San Francisco Bay Area as a teacher and as a composer of works for chorus, orchestra, film and the musical stage.