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Here's a fairly specific but multi-faceted question.

I can only solfege (moving-do) in my head up to about Allegro 16ths at best, and I've been thinking if maybe there are ways to speed up. I noticed that I can solfege faster in a Japanese accent than I can in English (sol is so, ti is shi etc., all with stiff vowels), which might suggest that my solfege speed is limited by the length of the syllables.

On the other hand, I have no way of distinguishing certain pitches in chromatic solfege, which I've been meaning to learn: re and le are the same to me when I'm thinking in Japanese. So there seem to be pros and cons to solfeging in English and solfeging in Engrish.

Also, my friend, a composer, pointed out that perhaps people should be taught to think in chromatics rather than in diatonics -- which would be quite difficult to do, even with the standard chromatic solfege, since the consonants still imply a diatonic note.

With all that in mind, I thought maybe I could come up with my own solfege syllables that would be just as fast if not faster than do re mi in Japanese, but would also allow me to discern accidentals.

Interestingly, the ordering of consonants in the Korean alphabet seem perfect for the purpose -- there are 14 basic consonants:

ㄱ   ㄴ   ㄷ   ㄹ   ㅁ   ㅂ   ㅅ   ㅇ   ㅈ   ㅊ   ㅋ   ㅌ   ㅍ   ㅎ
g   n   d   r   m   b   s   -/ng    j   ch  k   t   p   h

Leaving out ng and h, there's just enough for an entire octave of chromatics. Then, unlike standard solfege, I could think of each note as an independent chromatic note rather than as a raised or lowered diatonic.

If I opt for a diatonic solfege, I could use just the first 7 consonants and distinguish accidentals by vowel. It could be faster that way since then I could omit more time-consuming consonants like m and n. "pa pa pa pa pa" seems to be easier to say than "ma ma ma ma ma", though they both use the same parts of the mouth.

The problem though is that unlearning solfege is like trying to rewire my brain with a fork, so if it's not a worthwhile endeavor, I'd rather not. Is there anything wrong with this idea that maybe a linguist can point out?

To summarize, my questions are:

  • Is my ability to solfege limited by how fast I can think the syllables in my head?
  • Is my ability to think syllables in my head limited by how fast I can say them out loud?
  • Am I right in assuming that some syllables are inherently faster to pronounce than others?
  • Would there be any benefits to a style of chromatic solfege that doesn't suggest any diatonic aspects? Would I be better off if anything just using 7 consonants and distinguishing accidentals by vowel?
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2 Answers

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You say

I can only solfege (moving-do) in my head up to about Allegro 16ths at best

Congratulations. That's more than enough for most purposes. I am not sure you need more but adapting the note names to your language basic phonemes is a very good idea. Constructing a dodecaphonic version of note names is fun too. But good luck to evangelize it. I would reserve it to practice singing dodecaphonic music such as the Vienna School.

Is my ability to solfege limited by how fast I can think the syllables in my head?

Depends on what you put behind this verb, but I would say no. The basic use of solfège syllables is to help memorization and vocalization of scales, to be a support for musical notation training -- it is also convenient when discussing a musical point with another musician. When you practice an instrument you end up after some time to directly pass from the sheet-music notation to the playing action, without passing systematically through a note name intermediary. When you sing, you use the syllables of the song.

There is some notable difference in the way solfège notes are used between, say France, Italy, and anglo-saxon countries. Classical italo-french note names are taught as fixed not moving as early as their first music course. They don't do "moving-do", they don't have to transition to "fixed" letters. Most students encounter letter names much later as a weird and foreign alternative based on la instead of do and have to adjust if they want to read chords on song music written with this notation. Most musical reading material they will have will not require any knowledge of letter names. It is just fun to check the translation of piece tonalities on international sheetmusic or on CD covers. They miss the fun to play between notes and their letters, but they learn about it later if they read about Bach's fugue for instance.

Would there be any benefits to a style of chromatic solfege that doesn't suggest any diatonic aspects? Would I be better off if anything just using 7 consonants and distinguishing accidentals by vowel?

I do not think that suppressing the diatonic aspect would be a good thing. So much music is written as a mono or poly-diatonic frame of mind. It would just reverse complexity between the two aspects. This is not only about diatonic: this is also about the position of the note on the stave. If you want to modify the emphasis on diatonic, it would be logical to change the staff system as well. It has been made several times, and many softwares can display music this way.

But I agree that it is a little strange that more people have not been using a full chromatic system derived from solfege. The best version would certainly depend on the phonetic background. Some US Teachers using the movable do system extend it with vowels modifications, using "e" mainly for flat and "i" for sharp:

do di=ra re ri=me mi fa fi=se so si=le la li=te ti do

you can see that there is no place for mi sharp, that the original si has been renamed ti to leave place for sol sharp = si, etc.

Using the consonant/vowel opposition is not the only way. I can show you a full accidentalized version which is at least 30 years old. This is a system we played with when I was a teenager but was frowned upon by our teachers despite its qualities.

The principle is to use the (soft) z sound for sharp (= dieze in french) and the m sound for flat (=bémol in french). It's convenient because they can be prolonged as long as needed when singing.

do ré mi fa so la si do (suppressing the sol's l for homogeneity, ré and la are quite contrasted in french prononciation)

gives

do doz=rem re rez=mim mi=fam miz=fa faz=som so soz=lam la laz=sim si=dom siz=do

C C#=Db D D#=Eb E=Fb E#=F F#=Gb G G#=Ab A A#=Bb B=Cb B#=C

It allows you to pronounce and sing uniformly any classical partition (without double accidentals) and is cumulative compared to the original note names.

Am I right in assuming that some syllables are inherently faster to pronounce than others?

Yes, but it is not strictly music, it is linguistics and phonetics. What we imperfectly write down as "sol" is not the same across languages. The troubles you have with the 'r/l' distinction is typical. Inside countries, accents can change considerably the way some sounds are pronounced. I expect that if you practiced a system where the syllables of the solfege were strictly equal to some of the unit syllables of the hiraganas with the native accent, it would help you going faster.

Is my ability to think syllables in my head limited by how fast I can say them out loud?

Interesting and subtle question but not so easy to answer, and off-topic here I am afraid. Some people cannot read without mentally vocalizing. Some people can't even read without mumbling. So the latter would certainly be hard pressed to think those syllables faster than they can say them out loud. But the main purpose of reading music that fast is to either play it or sing it. You can easily play with your fingers faster than you can speak. And you are not singing faster than yourself, do you? Also if you practice humming when looking at a score, you can sing in your head without that phonetic limitation. I am not full capable of it but I have musician friends that are able to 'sing' chords in their head when they look at a score. And with the way they can spot a typo in orchestral sheetmusic, I believe them.

To me the overall conclusion is that you should not obsess on only one aspect of musicianship.

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This is great! But how do you distinguish "re mi mi" from "rem mim mi"? German languages do actually call their notes differently depending on the accidental. Ab is Ass (sorry, it is!). C Ciss=Dess D Diss=Ess E Eiss=F Fiss=Gess G Giss=Ass A Aiss=B H . Note the last notes, a source of confusion (you never know if B is meant as H or as Bb). Drawback: Eiss and Aiss are hard to say, and the consonant s is not tonal (still you could stay on e or i). On the other hand, several languages lack the french z... –  Gauthier May 17 '11 at 12:06
    
And to add to the enharmony discussion, how'd you say F##? –  Gauthier May 17 '11 at 12:09
    
@Gauthier: In addition to implicit glottal stops, "ré mi mi" would be pronounced differently from "rem mim mi" because the "e" of "rem" would be an open "e" in french (think "rèm" like in "monotrème" or "raie" instead of "rez-de-jardin"). At high speed, solfege is more for you than for listeners, anyway. –  ogerard May 17 '11 at 12:17
    
@Gauthier: good question that never really came up at the time. I presume that if you plan to read aloud the whole Well-Tempered Keyboard (especially P&F 13 or 18), we could decide to use 2 new consonants for the bb and ## cases. –  ogerard May 17 '11 at 12:22
    
@Gauthier: German Ab is not very polite in english and german Fb=Fess is funny in french, that may be one of the reason for its lack of adoption outside germany :-). –  ogerard May 17 '11 at 12:25
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I have constructed my own solfege system at http://toneme.org which simultaneously handles relative and absolute solfege, including accidentals.

Each utterance consists of a consonant phoneme followed by a vowel phoneme.

The consonant represents the pitch class, and the vowel represents the function.

Please note that the website is several years out of date; it is threadbare, reflecting the fact that I have had to develop it in my free time. However, it does communicate the basic idea.

I have been training my brain to comprehend this system on and off for three years and more.

I believe it will be of value to my musical development, and help me reach places that I would not be able to by using conventional systems.

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Wow. Someone marks this guy down, when he has a whole website devoted to an alternative solfege that he's invented. Seems like what the OP was asking for. I don't know whether I like the invention or not, but I'm marking this back up to zero. Not liking it doesn't mean that it doesn't answer the question. It does, and in a pretty original way. –  BobRodes 9 hours ago
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