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Tonic Solfa

By John Cynan Jones, Conductor Emeritus

One of the most frequently asked questions during my conducting career was: “What is TONIC SOLFA, and why do you use it?” I invariably replied: “Didn’t you ever enjoy listening to, or singing, the ‘Doh-Ray-Mee Song’ performed by Julie Andrews and ‘the von Trapp children’ in the film, ‘The Sound of Music?’ If you listen carefully the answers are all to be found there.”

The use of symbols (whether they be in tonic solfa or staff notation) to indicate musical sounds produced by the human voice is merely “a means to an end.” The so-called “invention” of musical notation is traditionally attributed to the 10th century Italian monk, Guido D’Arezzo, who used “notes” bearing similar names to those associated with the tonic solfa system of today. Guido’s “invention” led to the adoption of the term “Solfeggio” in Italy and “Solfège” in France, and in most civilized European countries it formed the basis of all choral singing.

In the United Kingdom the term “Solfa” became synonymous with the name of John Curwen, but this is rather unfair, for he was not its “inventor”. It had been devised by Sarah Glover, a clergyman’s daughter, as a means of helping backward children at her school in Norwich, and Curwen adopted and developed this system during the 19th century. His aim was to enable members of the “lower classes” who had migrated to the cities during the Industrial Revolution to enjoy the pleasures of singing in choirs that sprang up throughout the land.

Curwen developed methods of mass-producing printed tonic solfa copies of music of such complexity as oratorios, masses and even operas. He established tonic solfa classes in villages, towns and cities, and even set up advanced centres of learning. My wife Mary’s grandfather, a past Precentor at Hermon Chapel in Treorchy, was one of many who studied assiduously to gain the diploma of A.T.S.C. – an Associate of the Tonic Solfa College. Many of my contemporaries at Pentre Primary and at similar schools throughout Wales will remember (though perhaps not always with the same fondness) the daily vocal drills involving the “Modulator” – but how they valued that experience in later life! 

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Tonic Solfa: Text

The main advantage of the Tonic Solfa method is its simplicity, its basic scale containing a mere seven notes which can be set to any major or minor key. Alterations of pitch (done by means of “accidentals” in Staff Notation) are achieved by adding an additional letter – “e” for the “sharp” and “a” for the “flat”. Octaves are indicated by an inverted comma to the right of the letter, sub-octaves by a comma. The tonic, i.e. the key of the piece or of a new section of it, is always indicated at the beginning, or at a change of key. “Doh” is always the tonic in major keys, while “Lah” is always the tonic in minor keys.

Other advantages include the manner in which the singers’ sense of relative pitch is developed
(“Doh” to “Soh” is always a Perfect 5th, "Ray" to “Mee” is always a Major 2nd etc.), and how the constant vocalising, with its rich vowel sounds, improves the quality of vocal tone. During my scholastic career I always employed tonic solfa to enhance my teaching of harmony, melody writing, counterpoint and, especially, aural work. The over-riding advantage for me as a conductor was that music could be written clearly with the aid of a specially-converted typewriter and duplicated cheaply, occupying an amount of space very much smaller than that required for staff notation. I also found tonic solfa to be of great help in the memorization of music, essential for choirs such as Treorchy, who prefer to dispense with copies during performances.

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Tonic Solfa: Text

There are, of course, disadvantages, mainly concerned with rhythmic complexities, chromaticisms and modulations, but the talented teacher and conductor can soon discover methods of coping with these. John “Haydn” Davies, our founder-Conductor, was a master of tonic solfa, but there were also many splendid “disciples” of his to be found in every section of the Treorchy Male Choir.

I enjoyed indulging in open banter during rehearsals with “old hands” such as “Wally” Breeze (of T 1), Elwyn Davies (T 2), Sam Griffiths (B 1) and the wonderfully argumentative Danny Williams (B 2) as to the merits of alternative solfa versions of difficult passages. Last year I was invited to make a solfa transcription of a chorus from an opera by Wagner, which included some hideous-looking accidentals during a long bi-tonal phrase. The original staff notation seemed not only to confuse but to confound the “staff” readers in many of the other choirs who were also learning the piece. I adopted the simple expedient of allotting different keys to adjacent voices, thus providing a logical, straight-forward solution!

It is interesting to note that Zoltán Kodály, the famous Hungarian composer and teacher, “re-invented” the “Solfeggio”/“Solfa” principle as part of his “Kodály Method of Musical Education” in the 1940s and 50s.

When it reached the British Isles during the 1960s and 70s it was published in English, reprinted many times, taught in many Colleges of Education and Conservatoires of Music, and was hailed as a “new initiative” in the teaching of music.

It must have made Kodály a very rich man – but Guido, the impoverished old monk, had discovered it all, in Italy, many, many centuries ago!

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Tonic Solfa: Text
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