Has jazz killed sol-fa?

My school music classes (the best part of high school) were big on sol-fa, which works really well in classical music and choral works with a defined key. Over the years I’ve thought of tunes in terms of sol-fa which keep me on track as far as the melody is concerned.
But not in jazz. Hayden, in an answer to a question on improvisation, noted that “When playing a single jazz standard, you will modulate through many different keys, and so the ‘key centre’ is always changing.” That pretty-well kills any sol-fa in your head!
So how do you keep track of where the melody is going? Do you shift to a new “sol-fa” on a 2-5-1 or do you revert to the instant recognition of intervals? Or do you just learn the melody and play the chords around it? It’s a strange thing, but as I play more complicated pieces I find it increasingly difficult to memorise the melody that goes along with the chords.

Hi George :wave:t2:

Interesting question.

I don’t have any experience with the sol-fa system, but I can give some tips that I think will help you.

I like to think where the harmony is moving, and not just where the melody is moving. As you correctly point out, jazz standards often modulate through many different key centres and so understanding the ‘functional harmony’ is useful for internalising/memorising tunes, gaining a deeper understanding of where the harmony is moving, and also very useful for transposition.

Here is a lesson where we break down the functional harmony of the tune “There Will Never Be Another You” to give you an idea of how to analyse harmony numerically:

Also in Tuomo’s jazz standard lessons, he always breaks down the functional harmony, find a list of all of his tutorials in this course:

As Far As Memorising Melodies

  1. Listen to a strong vocal version and memorise the lyrics and listen to the phrasing. See the melody as a more fluid aspect of the performance that we can modify and embellish.

  2. I always analyse the melody in terms of scale degrees relating to the underlying harmony. Having never studied the sol-fa system I’m unsure how this is similar or different.

  3. I think my main tip is lots of listening so that you can hear the melody in your head. That way if you fingers do make a slip we can hear where the melody note should be.

I hope that helps George.


Also I believe @Lyndol studied with the fixed do system - perhaps she could share some insights on this too.

Hey Guys,

So I believe George, you are talking about the Movable Do system?

I used this system in Jr. High Choir with set hand gestures. It is a wonderful method to learn melody quickly. But I never got really fluent in it.

When I studied Jazz in Paris, we used the Fixed Do system, not the moveable. Though my vocal instructor was fluent in The Moveable Do, as a Musical Theater Major, she didn’t teach it much to the jazz students in Paris. I remember her mentioning it can get confusing in relation to Fixed Do. But I don’t know if it was something she’d teach to jazz vocalist using the American Alphabet system.

At the Brooklyn Conservatory, I know many classical musicians who use and teach it. So it’s definitely not dead. It’s alive in other genres. But as far as how it applies to Jazz - I don’t have many more references than that.

I can see how it would get tricky with the key changes. Since I don’t use it myself, I’m just imagining here… but I would conjecture that you use do adjust the Do for each modulations. I can relate it to when I am analyzing a melody in scale degrees, my 1 changes with each key or even chord change ( depending on how I’m analyzing it.) In this way, your Do would change with each modulation, and become your new tonal center.

It seems possible, but I guess what you are expressing is that it is not as functional this way? It’s not as neat a system?

It’d be cool to hear from others that might have more experience using the Moveable Do System in learning jazz standards. If they find it an efficient system.

In the meantime, I’d encourage you, George, to find a method that works best for you since there are lots of approaches to integrating melody. I have my own method that I use to learn melody that involves the combination of playing and singing (even for non singers) I laid out tips for integrating melody in my recent Live Seminars.


If you make some breakthroughs with your system or have further insights about this, I’d love to hear about them.


  • Lyndol

Thanks for replying Lyndol. What made me think of the subject was listening to this classroom lecture on melody embellishment. When the students start singing the melody they fall naturally into sol-fa, which is what I would do. But as the embellishments become more complex the sol-fa just falls apart. That’s when I realised that I hear melody in terms of sol-fa (It’s how I learned singing). The trouble is that I now play piano, and my sol-fa falls apart when I modulate into a different key, I can still hear the note and the sol-fa in my head. It’s just being able to go straight to it on the piano when I’m now in a completely different tonal centre.
I think I may have to unlearn old habits and just memorize the melody! :upside_down_face:

I learned a moveable do system last summer and found it very useful for playing by ear and singing. One reason to use solfege is that it uses a single unique syllable for each note, including flats and sharps. Numbers have lots of closed consonants and dipthongs, which can distract from getting them in tune, the solfege syllables have pure vowel sounds that are much more conducive to singing. By associating a specific pitch with a specific syllable, you start getting close to being able to sing at pitch away from an instrument.

George_Miller, thanks for posing this question and making me think more about this interesting topic. Here is the more difficult thing to articulate: the solfege process makes each note a character actor – gives each of the 12 notes its own singable name (there are gestures, too!) rather than just a number. It’s easier over time to feel the persona and emotional function of ‘Ma’ compared to ‘minor 3’ or impersonal ‘iii’. Different things work for different student brains and I have no prob with thinking of notes in numeric terms – solfege just adds a more personal layer of engagement with notes.


Your right there. I don’t think I’ll ever get sol-fa out of my head - but I’m going to stop short of the hand gestures!


The birth of solfeggio. In college, I sang in Men’s choir and we performed in temples and churches, pieces from the Liber Usualis with neumatic notation. We learned about Guido of Arezzo from a great prof who was performing electronic music in 1974, how he changed music forever and we owe him more than a great debt, we owe him our very lives, for how many of us always, always have music in our heads?

" The music notes, the tetradrachm and the Guidonian hand

Starting from the first syllables of the Anthem to Saint John the Baptist written by Paolo Diacono that were “Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si”, Guido d’Arezzo gave the names of the music note. The “Ut” will be replaced with the Do by Giovanni Battista Doni a few centuries later."

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Wow does that bring back memories Richard! Herrick Bunney was the organist at St Giles Cathedral when I was at Edinburgh U and I got a spot in his male choir (The University singers). We sang in St Giles which was an amazing experience. It had the most spine-shivering accoustics. He loved the most complicated madrigals that we were really difficult to sight-read. I know I couldn’t do that now!! :grin:

I grew up in Claymont, Del., 30 minutes south of Philly. Wanamaker’s was the largest department store in Philly, in the tri-state area, at the least (since bought by Macy’s). When I was a wee lad, Mom would take me to see the grandest organ in the world. Once, being the young organist I was, I was allowed to play it. To say the least, OMG! They continue to give daily concerts; I can’t wait to pay a visit.

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