Solfege Syllables Throughout Time

solfege syllables

Are you wondering what the solfege symbols mean?

Do you want to learn a little more about how solfege works?

Solfege is a powerful tool. 

For singers and instrumentalists, I’ve seen a solid understanding of solfege help all of them become better musicians in my 20+ years using it. 

As a musician myself, one of the most significant leaps in my abilities came when I embraced the solfege syllables. 

Solfege syllables have been around since the 11th century when Guido de Arezzo developed them. Modern solfege syllables use the syllables: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La,  and Ti. 

Read on to learn more details, including some helpful resources. 

Where Did The Solfege Syllables Come From?

In the 11th Century, Guido de Arezzo looked for ways to improve his choir by helping them understand singing and music better. 

With this in mind, he chose syllables to represent the standard pitches sung in church music at the time. 

During this period, there wasn’t a standardized pitch, so all pitch was relative. 

No standard meant that the first reading systems were based more on solfa (or solfege) than the letter names most people think of when reading music in the modern-day.

The Solfege Syllable Inspiration

He pulled the syllables from a popular hymn at the time, “Hymn To St. John The Baptist.” 

The Latin words and the melody inspire the syllables. 

Ut queant laxīs, Resonāre fibrīs,

ra gestōrum, Famulī tuōrum,

Solve pollūtī, Labiī reātum,

Sāncte Iōhannēs.”

This is translated roughly to: 

“So that your servants may, with loosened voices, resound the wonders of your deeds, clean the guilt from our stained lips, O Saint John.”

Note: The original starting pitch was Ut instead of Do. Also, there wasn’t a leading tone right away (no Ti). 

Ut was eventually replaced with Do because Do sounded better when sung. 

They chose it in homage to Italian Giovnnia Battista Doni.

When the leading tone became more used, Si was used at first. 

The syllable came from Sancto Iohannes. 

In the 19th century, American music teacher Sarah Glover switched Si to Ti. 

She did this to make each pitch have its own starting letter, and much of the world followed suit. 

What Are The Modern Solfege Symbols?

The modern solfege syllables used today are: 

  • Do 
  • Re 
  • Mi
  • Fa
  • Sol / So*
  • La 
  • Ti

These are the syllables for the unaltered pitches. 

As we mentioned above, we draw these from 11th-century musician Guido de Arezzo’s teaching techniques. 

There remains some debate on whether you should use Sol or So for the fifth solfege syllable. 

Originally, it was Sol, pulled from the Latin phrases. 

Many music teachers now use So instead. 

What’s the reasoning? 

Removing the “L” sound helps students focus on the vowel sound for better singing techniques. 

Which is better? 

It probably doesn’t matter. 

In all honesty, I usually tell my students to say So unless it’s at the end. 

Then, we say Sol. 

Altered Solfege Syllables

The altered or chromatic solfege syllables are a whole other topic. 

Check out our detailed article on chromatic solfege singing.

There isn’t as much of a standard as with the other syllables. 

In general, if you raise the notes, you turn the vowel sound into an “ee” sound. 

Scale Degree By NumberSyllable Pronunciation

Here is what the lowered pitches are. 

Note, most of them turn the sound to “ae” or “ah.”

Scale Degree By NumberSyllable Pronunciation
8Do (upper one)Doe

Fixed Do Vs. Movable Do Solfege

If you looked into solfege, you likely heard about 2 different systems: fixed Do and movable Do. 

This section talks about what these are and how many use them. 

Fixed Do 

Fixed Do is the less popular method of solfege use. 

The Dalcroze methodology uses it as do some areas of the world. 

In fixed Do, the syllables replace the letter names 1-to-1, and they don’t change. 

For fixed Do, Do will always equal the pitch, C. 

Even if you’re singing in a different key, Do is C. 

Essentially, you’re simply replacing letter names for solfege syllables, and it never changes. 

It doesn’t help you learn to sight sing as easily or develop the ear as well. 

Here is the chart with letter names for fixed do. 

solfege syllables fixed do

Movable Do

Moveable Do is the more common of the two. 

It’s prevalent in most major methodologies and ear training courses. 

While letter names and fixed Do stick with specific pitches, movable Do trains the ear in the scale degrees’ functions. 

As a result, it develops relative pitch better, improves improvisation skills, and helps all musicians better hear how the notes in a melody fit together. 

If playing on an instrument with a specific pitch (such as a piano), it may not seem as helpful at first, but it’s worthwhile improving movable Do solfege understanding. 

With movable Do, the starting pitch in any major key is Do, and the rest of the diatonic or “normal” pitches go from there. 

Converting these is more complicated at first. 

Learn about solfege to note name translations. 

Direct Comparison

Check out the pros and cons of fixed Do vs. movable Do in this handy table. 

Fixed DoConnects one time to all letter names

Stays consistent no matter the key

May help with beginning instrumentalists better
Doesn’t develop relative pitch

Not commonly in use

Won’t build improvisation skills as well
Movable DoDevelops the ear

Improves improvisation

Teaches how to switch from key to key with little difficulty

Builds understanding of how pitches work together
Commonly used
Requires extra steps at first when changing solfege to letter names

Favorite Solfege Syllable Resources

For those looking to improve their solfege skills (or those of their students), here are invaluable resources I’ve stumbled over the years. 

I encourage you to check these at your leisure. 

Bicinia Hungarica

This book contains a sequence of “duets” to help build your solfege skills. 

If you have someone to sing with, practice these to really develop your sight singing skills. 

This also works for instruments too. 

They move from easy to challenging logically. 

Even if you don’t have someone to sing these with, do like I do. 

I record myself singing one and then sing a duet with myself. 

Solfege Poster

Looking for a solfege hand poster? 

There are a ton out there, and they’re all pretty reasonable. 

I like this one because I don’t have to print it off myself. 

The material is tough too. 

333 Elementary Exercises In Sight Singing

Don’t let the name fool you! 

Though it’s titled with the word elementary in it, these exercises get pretty tough over time. 

Sure, it starts out simply, but over the 333 exercises, they really ramp up the difficulty. 

I encourage teachers to use this in their warmups for all music classes. 

The exercises are sequential, logical, and pull their material from authentic folk songs. 

Practical Sight Singing

I’ll admit it; I didn’t give this book a chance when someone gave it to me to try.

To be honest, I wrote it off. 

After all, how can a simple book and audio help you improve your singing?

Well, I was impressed despite my reservations. 

Sure, it won’t replace in-person instruction, but what will?

This book series is affordable and practical. 

Going through it won’t make you a master sight singer, but it will improve your fluency and hearing ability with solfege. 

Sometimes all it takes is practice, and this series definitely puts you on the right path.  

Final Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed learning about the solfege syllables and symbols used through time. 

As a music teacher for over 10 years, I’ve seen the impact learning them has on my students of all ages. 

Few music teachers refuse to use them, and the ones that don’t often replace solfege with another system such as numbers. 

Even the number system is rooted in solfege; they just don’t use the Latin-based syllables. 

We encourage you to give it a try! 

You may also enjoy our Ultimate Solfege FAQ.

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher with Bay City Public Schools in Michigan. He's a Past-President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and Executive Secretary of the Midwest Kodaly Music Educators Association.

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