Movable Do saved my life
When I started studying music, there was no option to formally study modern music. Either you went to the conservatory to study classical music, or you had to find your way through private academies and independent teachers. I started taking classes when I was 11 years old, and went from teacher to teacher until when I started giving classes myself, at the age of 20. I thought I was OK, that what I had learned so far was more than enough to call myself a musician. However, I soon spotted the main difference between studying “classically” and not: reading music. Classical music is all about being able to read fluently, so you can interpret the pieces written by the masters. Modern music uses written music differently, and mediocre teachers often misinterpret this difference, thinking it means it isn’t necessary.
The first years of instrument studies are crucial for the development of our ear, and to integrate it to a solfège system. If the music we play, during our first years of studies, comes from reading a music score, eventually we learn to “translate” it in our heads so that we can then “translate” it again to our instrument. This double translation takes years of practice, and it can only happen if we have a clear solfège system in our heads. If, on the other hand, we play by ear most of the time or we simply improvise and we don’t really give importance and time to written music, we’re delaying the moment in which we can do the double translation in our heads. This means our ear develops without integrating a solfége system in such development, which means we will not make the link in our brain between what we hear and what is written down.
Certainly, it is completely true that you don’t need to know how to read music to be able to be a great player, since you can just play by ear. This is particularly the case with folkloric genres, like blues, rock, flamenco, etc. On the other hand, ear training is also treated very vaguely, and every teacher teaches it differently, in a totally intuitive manner. It is up to the student to figure out her way through the many ear training methods she may come across. This can be very confusing. We all know about great musicians which never learned how to read a single note, so that became my excuse, during the first 15 years of studies, to not place enough time and effort into studying how to read. It proved a great mistake I would pay a high price for.
In 1996 I went to study Jazz Composition to Berklee College of Music (Boston, MA). I was 25 years old, and had been teaching in a private academy for almost five years at that point. I had ample knowledge about harmony, and a fine teachnique that allowed me to play very fast whatever scales and chords I wanted. But when it came to reading…I still was years away from reaching an acceptable level. By comparing myself with the rest of the students, I soon realized that none of that was of any use. It felt like a barrier, a glass ceiling. I felt everything I had done up until then was a waste of time, and if I had been rowing in the wrong direction, because I hadn’t really understood what a solfége system was and what it was for. To me, solfége was like an abstract set of rules that only complicated matters. Instead, I realized that “solfége system” is nothing but a method to “play your instrument in your head” as you read music.
I felt I could not call myself a musician, which was all I had ever wanted to become. I felt I was a fraud, and fell into a depression that lasted for months.
Luckily for me, I was about to begin ear tranning classes. That’s where I met my dear friend Movable Do.
Enter Movable Do
Our teacher explained Movable Do, a full solfége system, in five minutes. I understood it, and was able to imagine it in my head immediately. For the first time in my life. I cannot explain my exhilaration.
Simply put, Movable Do is a solfége system which names the twelve notes in relation to a tone or center which we always name Do, regardless of whwther it is in fact a true Do or not. This way, we create a system of relative relationships between notes, which remains constant in every tone.
In this movable system, the name we use for a given note represent its relative distance from the center (Do), and for that we use the distance between notes of the major scale: Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone –Tone – Semitone. Each note represents a number which represents a degree within the scale of such note. In other words:
Do = 1º
Re = 2º
Mi = 3º
Whenever you see the syllable “Ti”, you’ll know it’s referring to a relative note. To indicate flats and sharps, we change the syllables of the names. This way, if we go up the scale we would say:
Do, Di (Do sharp), Re, Ri (Re sharp), Mi, Fa, Fi (Fa sharp), Sol (o “So”), “Si”(Sol sharp, here’s the reason to naming the 7º “Ti”), La , Li (La sharp), Ti, Do.
If we go down the scale we say:
Do, Ti, Te (Si flat), La, Le (La flat), Sol, Se (Sol flat), Fa, Mi, Me (Mi flat), Re, “Ra (exception, Re flat), Do.
I remember leaving the class with the feeling that I had found a treasure. This was a solfége system I fully understood, which felt natural, with which I could relate everything I had listened to up until that point, and everything I would listen to from then on. No more abstract lucubrations about a traditional system I never quite understood.
However, I must say I didn’t abandon completely the traditional system, or Fixed Do. It has several important advantages over Movable Do, especially when it comes to reading. But I now use both. I listen in relative, but read and write in fixed.