An Introduction

Doe, a deer…

Solfège is a system for singing notes. If you’re familiar with the famous Rogers and Hammerstein song “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music, you already know the solfège note names: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la and ti.

A Brief History

The first and last syllables have variants which are a matter of custom: In France, ut is sometimes used in place of do. (ut is rare, so we’ll ignore it here.) Similarly, si is used in continental Europe while ti has been used in English-speaking countries since the 19th century. (The reason for changing si to ti was so that each syllable would begin with a different letter.)

The original solfège—also called solfeggio and solmization—note names derive from an 11th-century hymn by Guido d’Arezzo, in which the solfège syllable is the first note of each phrase. The starting notes of each phrase are C, D, E, F, G, A:

Ut queant laxis

Latin-derived languages (Italian, French, Spanish) assumed these names, and ut was eventually changed to do in Italy and later in the other countries. The solfège syllables are thus nothing more than the note names in French, Italian and Spanish, minus any accidentals (sharps or flats).


Here is a pronunciation key for the primary solfège syllables:

Syllable Pronunciation
do doe
re ray
mi me
fa fah
sol soul
la la
si see
ti tea

Fixed do

Because these are the note names in these languages, in these countries fixed do solfège is taught, which means that the note names are sung regardless of key. Thus, C, C-sharp, C-flat, C double sharp or double flat are always do, no matter their harmonic context. Similarly, D, D-sharp, D-flat, D double sharp or double flat are always re, regardless of what key the music may be in.

C major scale fixed do

Movable do

The solfège syllables are not necessarily the note names, however. There is an alternative system called movable do, in which do is always the tonic. For example, in C major, C is do; in D major, D is do; in E-flat minor, E-flat is do, and so on. The remaining syllables continue up each scale.

Here is C major in movable do:

C major scale movable do

… and D major in movable do:

D major scale movable do

Notice how the solfège syllables remain the same when going from one key to the next?

Movable do contains additional syllables. Minor keys, for example, have different syllables, because certain notes are lowered with reference to their parallel major scale. Here are the three variants of the minor scale, with movable do solfège syllables:

Natural minor:

C natural minor scale movable do

Harmonic minor:

C harmonic minor scale movable do

Melodic minor:

C melodic minor scale movable do

Fixed vs. Movable do

A few examples of solfège scales will suffice to illustrate the difference between fixed and movable do:

C major in fixed do:

C major scale fixed do

C major in movable do:

C major scale movable do

C harmonic minor in fixed do:

C minor scale fixed do

C harmonic minor in movable do:

C minor scale movable do

D major in fixed do:

D major scale fixed do

D major in movable do:

D major scale movable do

D harmonic minor in fixed do:

D minor scale fixed do

D harmonic minor in movable do:

D minor scale movable do

In all of these examples, you can easily see the difference between the two forms of solfège. Movable do may be suitable for beginning- to intermediate-level solfège ear training, but it quickly gets complex and confusing and the system in fact breaks down. Music is by no means always well-behaved! Harmonic sequences for instance will often cycle rapidly through keys without being firmly in any particular key. Movable do will either fail or become exceedingly confusing in such cases, defeating the purpose of solmization. Fixed do, by contrast, works very easily in all music, tonal or atonal, regardless of harmony or lack thereof.

This is the reason why I teach fixed do solfège on key-notes. It’s ultimately far simpler. If you see any kind of C—C natural, C-sharp, C-flat, C double sharp or C double flat—sing do. If you see D of any sort, sing re, and so on.

Fixed do is not without its own disadvantages, however. The syllables do not transpose to other keys, and intervals between the same scale degrees are sung using different syllables, unlike movable do.

In the end, however, I highly recommend using the fixed do system of solfège for its simplicity, as it will become more and more useful as the music you learn becomes more advanced, whereas movable do becomes less useful as music increases in complexity.

  • Robert Humbucker

    Alex, here is an interesting fact I picked up from a book titled Dylan In America by music historian Sean Wilentz. This do-re-mi method of notation was used by early American folk, roots, and gospel singers, circa 1830, instead of traditional staff sheet music notation. I just checked the index and could not find “solfege”, but I remember the concept, which I thought at the time was quite a difficult way to write music. I may be off on the year, but I’m pretty sure it was it was pre Civil War.

  • Joel Jacklich

    Should not the C# in the d minor harmonic scale have been “di” rather than “do”, and the Bb “se” rather than “si”?

    • Albert Frantz

      Only if you’re using the movable do syllables. The European fixed do standard doesn’t modify the syllables for accidentals. I assume the reason is that the syllables are the note names in French and Italian. C-sharp is do dièse in French and do diesis in Italian, and B-flat is si bémol in French and si bemolle in Italian. French and Italian speakers wouldn’t recognize di or se. The modifications to sharps and flats was a much later American invention that never made its way to Europe.

      I imagine that a more or less ideal solfège system would use fixed do but with the syllable modifications used in movable do: de, do, di for C-flat, C natural, C-sharp, etc.

  • Joel Jacklich

    Living and teaching music at in the public schools (gr. 4-12) and later at three community colleges and also at a state a university in the U.S. (which tends to use moveable do), only 12 miles north of Mexico (which uses fixed do), the use of Do-re-mi” becomes confusing for a classroom where 1/3 have learned one method, 1/3 the other method, and 1/3 have never leaned it at all so that it is a foreign language to that 1/3 of the students, I teach scales using numbers 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-1. If I ask what is between “fa” and “la”, it takes a few seconds to get “sol” from the students; but ask what is between 4 and 6, and the answer 5 comes out immediately. Also the scale degree 5 becomes the root of the V chord once harmony is taught.

    • Albert Frantz

      I can totally understand students’ confusion. I was originally taught movable do since it’s common in the US but later switched to fixed do in Europe. I can’t pretend it was a smooth transition, though I’m very glad I switched.

      How do you handle accidentals? This is also a weakness of fixed do, where, say, C-sharp is still do and D-flat is still re.

      I imagine that a better fixed do system would appropriate the syllable modifications from movable do: di for C-sharp, ra for D-flat, etc. This is a system I’d happily teach, though unfortunately it’s nonstandard.