Playing music by ear can seem mysterious. Some musicians can do it, most musicians can’t. If you want to learn, wouldn’t it be great if there was actually a clear and logical process to it, rather than seeming like a magic trick? The good news: there is! Solfa is a system you can learn for quickly and reliably identifying the notes in music, allowing you to play by ear on your instrument.
As powerful as solfa is, it is often misunderstood. There are a variety of different names for it, and actually some quite different systems all referred to as “solfa” or “solfège”, some of which are not very useful for playing by ear.
If your goal is to play melodies by ear using solfa, you want to make sure you have a clear and reliable plan to follow which will ensure that your solfa ear training is leading you steadily towards that goal in a fun, interesting and ultimately satisfying way.
Playing music by ear is a major focus at Musical U and since solfa is such an effective framework for playing by ear it comes as no surprise that they have a dedicated “Roadmap” to show you the way. Let’s take a look at the 6 steps of this roadmap and how they help you learn to play by ear with solfa.
Before we get into the details though, let’s clear up a few things.
What is Solfa?
Solfa, also known as solfège or solfeggio, is a framework for relative pitch, which is your ability to judge the distance in pitch between notes.
A well-trained sense of relative pitch is what allows musicians to play by ear, improvise and transcribe music easily, by recognising the relationships between the notes and chords they hear.
There are two main approaches to relative pitch ear training:
You can learn about the interval approach in our Ultimate Guide to Interval Ear Training. It isn’t “either/or” – you can also combine intervals and solfa training to learn faster.
We refer to the solfa approach as a “framework” because this is really what it gives you: a clear mental structure for music so that the notes you hear just “slot into place” in your mind. You learn to hear the musical role of each note of the scale, so that when you hear those notes in action it’s easy to recognise them and so make sense of the music. This makes it easy to then play the notes by ear on your instrument, improvise your own music that fits in, or write down the notes you’ve heard.
The solfa framework involves naming each note in the scale, and you may have heard of it by these names: “do”, “re”, “mi”, and so on. This makes it easier for you to learn the musical role of each note, associating it with the name and giving that name a kind of “musical identity”.
Benefits of learning solfa
Learning solfa has many benefits for a musician. In fact solfa can help you with all these common musical activities:
- Playing melodies by ear, by recognising the notes.
- Playing chords by ear, including common and more unusual chord progressions.
- Transcribing music (writing down music).
- Transposing music (changing key).
- Sight-singing from notation, making it easy to join choirs or learn new repertoire.
- Singing confidently, due to accurate vocal control.
- Improvising freely, knowing the notes you play are the ones you intended.
- Composing and writing songs freely, bringing the music in your head out into the world.
- Making music theory enjoyable and exciting, because it all has much more musical meaning to you.
In this article we’re going to focus just on the first one: playing melodies by ear.
By “melody” we mean the “tune” of a piece of music, a series of notes played one at a time. And by “play by ear” we mean you hear the music (or remember it) and then you can play it back on your instrument. Of course this is very closely related to improvisation (playing by ear what you imagine in your head) and transcription (writing the notes down instead of playing them on your instrument).
Solfa vs. Solfège vs. Solfeggio
A quick clarification before we continue. You might have heard of solfa referred to by two other names, solfège and solfeggio. Is there a difference?
The short answer is yes, but it’s a bit subtle.
First up: “solfeggio” is simply the Italian equivalent of the French world solfège.
“Solfège” is a term which actually covers two very different systems of note naming:
- “Fixed Do”, in which each of the 12 notes in music has a set name, always the same. In the most common system, “Do” is equivalent to the note normally called “C”, no matter what key you are working in. The names “do”, “re”, “mi” etc. can be seen as simple substitutes for the normal note names “C”, “D”, “E”, etc. The advantage is that they are more easily singable!
- “Movable Do”, in which the names of the notes are based on the scale/key. In the most common system, “Tonic Solfa”, the “do” name is always used for the tonic (first) note of the scale. So in C Major, “do” would be “C”. In F Major, “do” would be F. This means that the names correspond to the musical role of each note in a given piece, as we discussed earlier.
There are debates among music educators over which system is best, but movable do is more popular and most musicians agree that it is the more practical and useful system for tasks like playing by ear or improvisation.
At Easy Ear Training and Musical U we focus on movable do, and for that reason we tend to use the word “solfa”. Although this word is used interchangeably with “solfège” and can be ambiguous, it is normally associated with the system “tonia solfa” system mentioned above.
So “solfa” is roughly a shorthand of “movable do solfège”.
All clear? Good! Let’s dig in to how you can learn solfa and use it to play melodies by ear.
How to use Solfa to play melodies by ear
To learn solfa, you use a combination of listening exercises and singing exercises. Don’t worry if you don’t consider yourself a singer! You can use our free guide to learn to sing in tune and that’s all you need to be able to do.
The goal is to learn to recognise and reproduce each of the notes of the scale by their solfa names.
You can begin simply, by just learning the first few notes, “do”, “re” and “mi”. Listening exercises train your ears to spot which of those three notes you’ve heard. Singing exercises train you to reproduce each of the three notes for a given “do”.
Gradually you build up your knowledge of the solfa for the full major and minor scales. At Musical U and in the SingTrue app we use the major pentatonic as a stepping stone towards the full major scale which provides an easy and effective way to learn solfa gradually.
Once you can reliably and instinctively recognise and reproduce the solfa notes, you can apply this skill to all of the benefits listed earlier, including playing melodies by ear. In fact, you’ll find you can’t help doing it! When you hear music you will start to instinctively know the identities of the notes, e.g. “Oh, that tune went ‘mi mi re re do'”.
What once would have seemed like some kind of magic becomes easy and natural because you’ve learned to recognise the musical role of each note.
Let’s look a