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Piano Instruction: Solfeggio and Transposing (Videos)

Using Solfeggio or Solfege to advance ear training and to transpose pieces into various tonal regions is very helpful for piano students of all levels.

If we set a goal of memorizing the first 8 notes of a scale using the syllables, Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti (or Si) Do, we’re on our way to understanding musical lines in any key that will have a common point of reference. This presupposes that “Do” (or the first note of any scale) is MOVABLE.

In C Major, “Do” would be C. In G Major, it would be “G,” and so forth.

With MINOR tonalities, the first note of a scale in any form whether it be Natural, Harmonic, or Melodic would also be “Do,” but certain internal alterations of the minor scale according to its structure and content would have the following solfeggiated syllables:

For C minor Natural form: C D Eb F G Ab Bb C

Do Re Me (pronounced may) Fa Sol Le (pronounced lay) Te (pronounced tay) Do

If we are in any tonality and an accidental (sharp or flat) is inserted within a measure, then solfeggio accommodates the change.

In the key of C Major, if a composer inserts an F# in the score, then FA (F) become Fi. For an Eb accidental, Mi (E) becomes Me (“may”) If A is lowered to Ab, La (A) becomes Le (Lay)

Many piano teachers start students on solfeggio before they learn note names because it imbues a consciousness of RELATIONSHIPS/interval spacing between notes. Unfortunately the STANDARD method books on the market fixate on Middle C and “C position” making students think that C is the interminable, FIXED, “Do” in the “happy” Major. That’s why I grab any opportunity to insert an Eb (May) in the score, creating the parallel C minor as a tonal variation.

A pupil should begin to explore transposition of primer melodies into many different keys by using a movable DO. Otherwise, he will spend several months to a year in a time-warped C-centered universe until the next method book is introduced. At that point G-centered, “G position” plows along in the same predictable course.

To support tonal exploration, a teacher can start a pupil on a regimen of pentascales, or five-finger positions that travel through different keys. The student should sing these back in the Major and parallel minor using solfeggiated syllables. Note names are not abandoned just because SOLFEGGIO is added. Both learning modalities should exist side by side. After alll, the more psycho-neuro-musical-linguistic connections made, the better for overall musical development–Solfeggio being a syllabic lingo that frames music.

Five finger position examples:

C D E F G Do Re Mi Fa Sol

followed by,

C D Eb F G Do Re Me (May) Fa Sol

I make sure to journey around the CIRCLE of Fifths with a student well before beginning full scale study.

In truth, many teachers are shy about placing small hands on five-finger positions in multiple sharp and flat keys, but I’ve found that pupils relish the opportunity to explore something new and different. They will happily shuffle their pentascales, playing them in Major, minor, parallel and contrary motion in diverse geographies.

A few 8 and 9-year olds are now leaping like frogs with spring forward wrists through Dozen a Day, Book one, no. 3 “Hopping.” Parallel minors follow “Major” playings and I use Solfeggio to intone the top voice of the parallel thirds. Once solidly grounded in the first two keys of C and G, students play hopping in the keys of D, A, E, etc. (Major and minor)

A teacher can spring from Faber’s C-D-E-F-G March in Primer Lesson Book One to a self-created “sad” march using Eb–and as the student develops more dexterity, NEW keys can supplement the original. That’s where SOLFEGGIO can be introduced as a SECOND language of musical understanding. (A simultaneous translation, perhaps)

For SKIP and STEP discrimination, solfeggio is the perfect vehicle. If a teacher is motivated to nudge a student into more adventurous tonal realms, the transpositions will pay dividends by improving sight-READING and memorization.

SINGING, of course, is central to SOLFEGGIO as both are EAR-TRAINING activities.

Looking at an original melody in one key, and superimposing another’s key’s letter names during transposition would be very confusing. A rudimentary melody offered in G, will be more easily played in D, A, E, B etc. by using solfeggio.

One of my students, at the advanced Intermediate level, who had learned to read notes in the conventional way with her first teacher, recently embarked upon solfeggio using Keith Snell and Martha Ashleigh’s Fundamentals of Music Theory, Unit 12. She was asked to sight-sing the first melody on the page after I gave her the Do of the key which was C. After sight-singing the example a few times using solfeggio, she played the melody with her eyes fixed on the music drawing on the same solfeggiated syllables. Other tonal transpositions followed, and each line of music in the treble and bass clef was parceled out using solfeggio.

The videos below illustrate the activity:


Here are the Chromatic solfeggiated syllables: (Si or Ti can be used for the 7th note of a scale. Lowered by half-step, they would be say or tay)

Do Di Re Ri Me Fa Fi Sol Si (or Ti) La Li Si (or Ti) Do
Do Si (or Ti) Say (or Tay) La Lay Sol Say Fa Mi May Re Rah Do

7 thoughts on “Piano Instruction: Solfeggio and Transposing (Videos)”

  1. This is a terrific post. You went through so much detail as to WHY solfege helps. I am also glad to see someone else teaching solfege to young children. I think it’s great because very young children LOVE to sing and some of them find it hilarious and fun to sing syllables that they see as nonsensical and random.

    I have had trouble with older students who have this ‘oh my god, what is this … this is so lame’ kind of mentality as when a student becomes old enough, they become self conscious of their voice and the tone it creates. Even the parents , who in America, practically none of them even know that Solfege exists , sometimes has to remark “Is that necessary for the development in piano” Or “I don’t remember studyingn that when I took piano lessons …”

    I have to explain in detail why it benefits and how America is musically illiterate compared to most other developed countries. I love the way you explained it and I’ll steal of this in my explanations to parents and to students who are a bit resistant to ‘sing’ during a piano lesson!

    I also love the idea about changing ‘Mi’ to ‘May’ in the primer level books so they can play around minor sounds. I have done this a bit for fun, but never assigned it as homework and didn’t focus on it to any depth.

    Thanks again =)


  2. I have never heard of using an altered syllable in solfeggio to signify sharps and flats, and thus has wondered about the usefulness beyond the basic sight singing of intervals. The only training I have in it is choral (not pianistic) nature, and while a moveable Do was always assumed it was never really logically laid out. This is probably the first time the whole concept has made any sense to me. Thank you, Shirley!


    1. Thanks for your comments. I find myself thinking in solfege most of the time when I practice. It’s especially helpful in retaining sections of a composition that have modulated into various keys. You just have to keep up with the movable do and make a notation where key changes occur in the score.


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