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I learned solfège as a child, long before I started to learn the musical notes on 5 lines. So I'm used to matching every notes to its solfege equivalent in order to know which piano key to press and how to sing. In the U.S. musicians use C D E F G A B instead of solfège. I want to be able to do so, too (i.e. not depending on the solfège, which is very unprofessional).

When you see or think about certain music notes, if you don't use solfège, what goes on in your mind? I mean, e.g. when we read English texts, we somehow pronounce the words in our mind. That's the same with my using solfège to read/memorize music. But WITHOUT solfège, it's like the notes have no names, so how does your mind process them? For example, the notes "mi fa so mi do", I suppose you don't hum like "E F G E C" (in corresponding pitches), so do you hum in your mind like "da da da" when trying to find the right pitches/notes?

I hope my question is clear? I want to be able to read and remember music without using solfège, but don't know how.

Addendum: I realized I asked something stupid. If a piece is in, say, G major, then I still correspond the 2nd to the last line to the G key; I would not think of "do" when I'm reading the score. I only think in terms of "do re mi" when I'm hearing a tune, not reading on the sheet. However, when I hear a tune, I can't tell if it's in C major or G major or whatever; I would automatically translate it into C major according to the "do re mi" pitch and play on the piano as C major.---I think this is the real point of my original question. I will post a separate question on this specifically.

(I suddenly realized this while learning to play a piece in G major). Thank you all for your input; they make more sense to me know than before.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Dom May 27 at 16:16

14 Answers 14

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If you read mi,fa,so,mi,do when you play b,c,d,b,g, this would mean movable do, when G is tonic (or f#,g,a,f#,d when D is tonic, etc).

Solfege doesn’t mean that we just use the names do,re,mi,fa,so,la,si,do instead of c,d,e,f,g,a,b,c. In this case this would mean that we just use the French or Italian names or other latin languages names for keys and scales.

Solfege means: Do is the root tone of the actual major key (and La is the root tone of the relative key.)

Because any of the 12 keys and their enharmonic equivalents can be the tonic we have about 17 key signs (7 major tonics of the white keys plus 5 sharp keys plus 5 flat keys and 17 minor tonics or 2x21 major and minor tonics if we include the E#, Fb, B#, Cb as scales!)

That’s the concept of the movable do: Any of these 17 or 21) keys and scales can be the tonic when the basic note of the scale is the root tone do.

Applying the movable doremi you don’t have to learn 17 keys and don’t need to imagine the intervals and relations of the tones. You just have to check that the triad domiso is on 3 neighbored lines or in 3 neighbored spaces between the lines.

With this insight and by the help of the rule that the last sharp is the lead tone si and the last flat is the lead tone fa singing and sight reading is quite easier than counting the intervals and defining their exact distance, especially for all singers without perfect pitch.

This concept isn’t unprofessional at all. It is used in almost all countries where Western music is practiced. I have seen a documentary where Vladimir Ashkenazy was teaching Chinese school classes singing doremi.

But might be hard to understand by people who don’t have a sensory for relative pitch. And it is very difficult to explain the advantage of the movable doremi how it is impossible to describe the concept of colors to someone who is blind.

If I wouldn’t use solfege I’d imagine the numbers 1,2,3 or the R.N. from the functions theory, (degrees) or I’d recognize melodic motifs as modules like reading and recognizing words as elements instead of spelling the letters.

But I know there are musicians who just analyze and hear the intervals and say that the system of the movable do is hindering and disturbing when listening and analyzing by solmisation.

When I had to sing atonal music (e.g, Lieder from Anton Webern I was able to manage this task with the help of solfege as well by using the interval method.

Edit:

My comment to your question about Beethoven's Ode to Joy...

It makes sense to use all three methods: mi mi fa so and e e f g and 3 3 4 5 (the last makes especially sense as it is identical with the fingerings which can be applied for transposing in any other key. This might convince you of the advantage of the ** movable Do** - more evident than with 1000 words.

Additional

I think this is everyones problem that we are not aware in every situation which degree we play (e.g. when the music is modulating or in a piece of many sharps or flats).

In this case the doremi as movable Do can be helpful to memorize a tune, but I see now that it also can be confusing.

What you can do to practice is:

  • Play all scales and mark the tonic, dominant and subdominant. Mind the leadtones.
  • Practice the triads of all degrees in all keys.
  • Study the circle of fifths.
  • Play the tune with simple chords in C major or a minor.
  • Transpose it in all other keys still singing it on doremi.

When listening to music notate some fix-points of orientation (marking the min. and sec. in a timeline (e.g. when you here a cadence, a sequence, a triad, an up-beat of a fourth, a passage of a scale, a lead tone, a suspension or the entry of a motif.) and after this you control what you have identified with the notes of the score.

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  • Thanks. I'm sorry for obviously confusing different issues here due to my ignorance. I guess to put it simply: Do re mi fa so la si is the way I recognize the notes of a new song/tune and because of that I can easily play the song on piano upon hearing it. It's also how I react to the lines & spaces on 5-line sheet. It seems to me most professional musicians in the U.S. don't use do re mi.... in this way. I want to learn how they do it, what goes on in their mind if it's not do re mi, whether they instead hum "C D E..." or nothing.... (maybe my title should not focus on the word "solfege"). – seamurmurs May 25 at 23:07
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    If you here a tune like e.g. the Ode of the 9th symphony by “do re mi” even if it is played in Bb major or any other key then you use the term solfege correct. But if your doremi is fixed to the cdefg of C major you don’t understand or apply the concept of the movable Do. I understand what you mean. Sometimes I need also to transpose a piece in major C to analyze the progression! – Albrecht Hügli May 26 at 5:30
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    I'm the former: any sequence that sounds relatively like do re mi fa so la si with the appropriate intervals, regardless where the first key is, is to me "do re mi fa....". Glad, then, I used the term solfege correctly :). – seamurmurs May 26 at 16:49
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Solfege - unprofessional? Not at all. I have been working with French musos who only think, speak and play using solfege! But it gets worse! They use fixed do, not like some of us are used to, movable do, where do is the tonic in whatever key. In fixed do, do is C, and is only C, regardless of key.

I have to literally transpose, mentally, to understand what's going on. Letter names used to work well for me, and still would, in the appropriate circumstances.

When learning, it's usual to look at a dot, establish its letter name from the music, find the note with that letter name on the piano (say), and consequently, play it. It's a prolonged process, which does get short-circuited in time.

On to the answer. It depends on who it is. A lot of good players will see a note on a stave, and instinctively play that note - the middle process may take place unconsciously, but the letter name at that point is academic. Some may occasionally think C, E, etc, and refer to the instrument. To read well, that middle stage needs to be eliminated.

But I think a lot will use (when reading) the intervals. Playing an E on bottom line, and the next note is G, on next line, they'll mentally skip F, and automatically play the G. So, while they may be thinking along the lines of intervals, they won't necessarily be thinking 'that's m3'. And their mind will be in the prevalent key, so sharps and flats will come automatically.

Then, we have players who are playing 'off the top of their heads' - improvising - I'm sure they don't think in any terms such as solfege or letter names. I certainly don't. It's more likely interval sounds, and knowing the instrument well obviously helps! If you stopped anyone playing in this way and asked what note they were playing the answer would most likely be - 'the right one!'. Yes, most could tell you after a quick think, but we don't play in that way mentally considering solfege or the letter names notes have.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Dom May 27 at 20:06
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I never learned solfeggio, I learned intervals. This works particularly well with an instrument like the piano, where the size of an interval musically is proportional to the distance between the notes.

I also have a small group of songs that start with each interval:

Major 3rd: Bach, Violin Concerto in E Major

Perfect 4th: Here Comes the Bride

Tritone: Maria from West Side Story

Perfect 5th: Star Wars

Major 6th: My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean

Minor 7th: There's A Place For Us, also from West Side Story

Octave: Somewhere Over the Rainbow

It's rather simple: you figure out where the first note is. Then the interval on the page corresponds to a physical distance corresponds to the interval in the ear, and you get the next note. And so on.

One advantage of the interval method: it trains the ear wonderfully in relative pitch, which I regard as FAR more valuable in a choir than absolute pitch.

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    One addition: for a major seventh, the first and third notes of Bali Ha'i from South Pacific. — At least, that's what my younger brother used, when he learned intervals in the same way you did. I, on the other hand, have never needed mnemonics like that; the sound of the interval is enough. (I may have started by imagining the notes on a piano, which I learned from a young age. But consciously, I can just recognise intervals directly from the way they sound/feel.) – gidds May 27 at 10:16
  • Cool to know, thanks! – Adrian Keister May 27 at 15:02
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    Might be worth mentioning that some people train with different songs for rising and falling intervals. – gormadoc May 27 at 17:00
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    I've always had a problem with this sort of 'method'. The lower note isn't necessarily a root, so there's no reality. My Bonnie, for example, uses 5 and M3 to produce M6. It is M6, but produced in a spurious way. – Tim May 27 at 18:39
  • @Tim I agree with Tim and would strongly advise against using this method. I would argue that it actually hurts learning relative pitch, because you're often changing your conception of tonic based on the interval that you're singing. This method is almost universally panned among theory and sight singing pedagogues. – Richard Jun 6 at 14:31
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Two thoughts here:

First, I think it's important to acknowledge the absolute-pitch population here.

Those with absolute pitch can recognize and reproduce musical frequencies (within a given error range) at will. Because of this, I've had students with absolute pitch that were frankly annoyed with the idea of solfège, because it was an added layer of information that they didn't need. In fact, it often slowed them down: they could sing a melody perfectly just by reproducing the pitches, and thinking about all of the syllables got in their way.

In other words, absolute-pitch individuals don't really think about anything; they just re-create what have become stored memories for each of these pitches in their minds.

But this is a rather small subset of the population; the overwhelming majority of us do not have absolute pitch.

And second, many traditions teach not solfège but rather scale degrees. Instead of singing "do mi la fa sol mi do," they sing "1 3 6 4 5 3 1." But ultimately this is another solfège system, one using numbers instead of letter names. So even if they aren't thinking "do re mi...," they're still mapping functional labels onto individual notes, which is the same pedagogical logic as solfège.

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  • 0.005%, according to a google search! Which goes on to state <11% of musicians have perfect pitch! Thought the two were synonymous! – Tim May 25 at 14:59
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    I’m not sure the issue you’re describing is specifically to do with absolute pitch (“an added layer of information that they didn't need” […] “they could sing a melody perfectly just by reproducing the pitches, and thinking about all of the syllables got in their way.”). I have no absolute pitch, just decent relative pitch, but once I’m given (or pick) a tonic or other reference note, what you write describes exactly how it feels for me. I think it’s just about being trained to conceptualise pitches non-verbally from an early stage. – PLL May 26 at 7:24
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    I speak English by re-creating what have become stored memories and I have enough of them to use reasonably correct grammar even though I never paid attention in class. Anyone who doesn't have at least near perfect pitch has to learn 'english' as a second language up until the point they're fluent enough that they don't have to stop and check their mental grammar book. – Mazura May 26 at 10:17
  • I'm far from having absolute pitch, but this completely describes me as a brass player. My brain maps directly between a note on the page and which valves to press and the embouchure to use (the horn's physics take it from there). Note names or solfege are just layers of indirection that require extra mental steps and introduce opportunities for error. A lot of folks are the exact opposite, though, I have a feeling it's a side effect of how your particular brain is wired. – bta May 27 at 19:05
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Edit. Maybe I didn't really answer the question. I originally concentrated only on the memorizing aspect, not how to read music. When reading, I have to imagine playing the written melodies on an instrument, usually the piano, and then I "hear" the sounds. If I actually play or sing the notes, then I physically hear the notes, then it's easier to remember. But in order to sing, I have to imagine playing the notes to be able to sing the notes resulting from the imaginary playing. It's difficult to sing or even listen to pitches without seeing them on the piano or guitar at the same time. Not absolutely, but relative to an imaginary tonic.

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I don't use solfege, because I was never forced to learn it and it just adds an extra layer of stuff over things I'm already familiar with. Movable do solfege assigns weird names for scale degrees, and fixed do assigns weird names for absolute pitches, which is even weirder.

Every scale degree (including basically the whole chromatic scale, but with the ones belonging to the major scale as having special familiarity) has an emotional place in my thinking, but without having verbal or textual names. If I had to describe the feeling, it's more like faces, recognizeable shapes or cartoon characters in my mind. They're like roles in a theatrical play or movie. When you play the same thing in a different key, the actors swap roles but the set of roles is the same. But at the same time, when thinking about, say the third degree of the major scale, depending on what chordal harmony there's behind it and if it's the bass note, melody note or something in between, it gives me different feelings and a slightly different "face". As time goes on and I accumulate more musical memories, they get connected with the scale degrees - and chords as well. I think when entering teen age, the cartoon characters started to get replaced in my thinking with more abstract memories, but the basic idea is the same. Emotional and visual, non-verbal memories. For example, whenever I play a tritone substitution on a dominant chord, the "flat nine" scale degree somehow reminds me of the time when I learned to do that trick, sitting at the piano in my childhood home - the color of the wood and the sound of that particular piano, etc. It doesn't have any solfege name or anything, because I think assigning such names to these things that are almost like my friends is a mockery and a bad joke. I met all of these characters myself, and other people can keep their stupid names to themselves.

In addition to these cartoon characters and memories, these places are associated with various visual patterns like where the notes are relatively on the piano keyboard or guitar fretboard. These associations are built by playing songs, bass lines, harmony progressions, melodies, rhythms, ... if it feels good, I get emotionally attached to the pattern. For example, the major sixth in Dorian mode harmony is a blueish-orange evening lake view for me, because I learned to associate that harmony trick to a certain song that tells about watching the sunset at a lake. Then again, if the major sixth is simply played in a minor six chord without really going into Dorian feelings too deeply, then the note is like sour mustard, and it's a taste more than a view. I don't know where the mustard came from, that's just what it tastes like.

Verbal or textual names feel unnecessary and clumsy. Talking about music is, after all, like dancing about architecture. You should talk about music in music.

Ok, well, sometimes you have to use words, when nothing else helps. For talking about relative pitches, and if you know your solfege and the other people know it the same way, then it might be a good tool. I've never been in such a situation though. In general I feel that even among musicians, people are "out of words" quite fast, and it's just a lot easier to play something on your instrument than it is to try to describe its content verbally.

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  • Movable do isn't weird. The tonic is always do, the M3 is always mi, the P5 is always so, whatever the key and whatever sharps/flats are involved. – Tim May 25 at 9:43
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    @Tim it is super weird, if you've already learned know them by entirely different monikers. Like, what if I decided to call your brother "Re" and your cousin "Mi" or something. You'd have to start remembering this extra set of names that you don't need for any other purpose than talking to a solfege person. For my own use, I see no added value in attaching these extra words to familiar everyday things. There are lots of things I can use and think about without labelling them with textual tags. For example my hands and fingers. And scale degrees. – piiperi Reinstate Monica May 25 at 10:54
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    Yes, I understand. I also understand that when I started working with some French players, they only spoke in fixed do solfege. So in order for things to work, I had to change my way of thinking - or not work. Being entrenched isn't going to be productive. Intervals have different names for the same two pitches, how do you get round that? – Tim May 25 at 11:02
  • @Tim Intervals ... interesting question. As soon as I hear a pitch, it goes somewhere in a context with an imagined tonic, either on an imagined piano keyboard or guitar fretboard - not necessarily the absolutely right pitch because I don't have perfect pitch, but the note goes somewhere anyway - and when I hear another pitch it lands on the imagined tonal context as well, so I just "look" at the difference between the two notes. Like, jump from major third to minor seventh ... and then I think about what that interval is called. Though sometimes the first note immediately becomes the tonic. – piiperi Reinstate Monica May 25 at 16:50
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    Granted the specific syllables DO etc. are meaningless, but the syllables are both singable and use unique consonants so not nonsensical choices. It's much easier to sing TI DO than "leading-tone tonic." Singing absolute pitch names like B natural C natural is both awkward and missing the harmonic context. – Michael Curtis May 26 at 17:36
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Reading notes on a staff is not unlike reading words on a page; at first, you have to sound out each letter, but as you gain more experience, you can read without thinking about it because the words that you have read many times before are logged in your memory. This is why we still have to think about reading whenever we encounter a word we have never seen before.

For reading notes on a staff, you start off having to think of the actual letter name for each note, but as you get more comfortable with it, it becomes automatic, and each spot on the staff becomes synonymous with that note on your instrument (a key on a piano in your case).

As for what goes through our minds when singing or humming, typically people will just hum generically and without thinking of the note names, unless they are doing so in the context of the same note on their instrument, in which case they might be thinking of the note names and where that note is on their instrument.

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  • "For reading notes on a staff, you start off having to think of the actual letter name for each note," This is the difference for me: I start off thinking of it being a "do" or "re" or "mi", etc., from which I immediately know its (relative) pitch. But if you first think of the letter name C, D, E... then unlike do, re, mi.... those letters don't ring a pitch in my mind as immediately as the Do, Re, Mi... that's because I'm very familiar with the scale pitch sound of do re mi fa...., while I never pronounce the pitches as "SEE, DEE, EE, EFF, GEE....". – seamurmurs May 26 at 17:47
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    @cmm What I was referring to was the process of learning to read music for the first time. The key to what you are trying to accomplish is to consciously think of neither do, re, mi, nor C, D, E, and to skip that step and get straight to the pitch you need. Please feel free to ask any questions you might have. – NovaCord May 26 at 18:22
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There are a few systems similar to moveable do solfege DO RE MI... where DO is the tonic.

  • Scale degree numbers: ^1 ^2 ^3...
  • Scale degree names: tonic, supertonic, mediant... (not practical for singing)
  • Shape notes:

enter image description here

...I know about this from American spirituals, but it maybe used in other places.

Not equivalent to solfege - where tones are mapped to scales degrees - but still working with relative relationships is thinking about tones in terms of chord members:

  • the root, third, fifth, seventh, etc. of the chord

...if the music is in C minor and the tone is A♭ I can think LE in solfege, but if the A♭ is part of an F minor chord I can also think of it as the third of F minor, or the third of the Cm: iv chord.

...For example, the notes "mi fa so mi do", I suppose you don't hum like "E F G E C" (in corresponding pitches)...

FWIW, I didn't grow up learning solfege. I know about it, but about 5 years ago I started to really pay attention to it to better understand harmony.

mi fa so mi do is much more immediately clear to me in harmonic terms.

E F G E C first looks like a jumble of letters and I'm burdened with sorting out the harmonic implications.

I don't think you need to stop using solfege. If someone doesn't understand solfege, you can probably use the scale degree names (tonic, leading-tone, etc.) to talk with them. If they don't understand either, the problem is not you. :-)

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I learned backwards from what you have described, and I look at a note or chord and think of the fret and string or key I need to play to produce the written note. And when I sing, I get my pitch from the lead-in to the song and rely on relative pitch to keep me on key. The funny thing about this is I thought everyone did it this way and I'm just now realizing that others might do it differently, perhaps I'll try your approach and see if I like it or not.

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I don't think there is anything wrong with solfege, but it doesn't work for me. My personal way of thinking is either hand-shapes on a piano, or trumpet fingerings. Those are the two instruments I play. Or I just think sounds, and if I am writing I associate them with the written notes. For me using solfa is hard and unnatural, but then I never had singing lessons. To "calibrate" my mind's pitch I use my memory of a couple of recordings I know well - one of them is the start of Beethoven's 7th. I do find it difficult sometimes to use the transpose feature on electronic keyboards, or to sing in a different key to what is written.

Ultimately it is a matter of what works for the individual. Obviously solfege works for lots of singers or it wouldn't still be taught. I wouldn't advise a conscious effort to stop using it, but if you do lots of stuff where it doesn't work for you I think you will naturally find something that replaces or supplements it.

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The important thing to keep in mind is, there are actually three things to describe:

  • The absolute pitch of a note (or notes)
  • The interval between two notes
  • The relative position of a note in regards to the tonic

I'm a musician in the United States, and the terminology I'd use to describe each:

  • That started on a B and went to a D.
  • That interval is a minor third.
  • That went from the 3rd to the 5th, or Mi to So. (This has been referred to as "Movable 'Do'"; the 'Do' in this case happens to be G, and the notes went from the third to the fifth in that tonic)

You might think that's overkill, but each concept is unique. The first is what specific notes I need to play on an instrument. The second has to do with the relationship with two notes, regardless of the context of what song/harmonic/tonic/whatever it's in. And finally, the last is what gives the interval context - which is what helps you understand what the song is doing, so that you can play it any key.

So that brings up the first possible problem: people use 'Solfege' to describe two completely different things. Some people use it to describe specific notes, while some use it to describe notes in relation to the tonic. In the context of an orchestra, using Movable Do solfege would likely be a bit unprofessional - the person you're talking to would have to then translate to the actual notes you're talking about. But using Fixed Do is simply a way of describing a specific note - which is entirely professional (assuming, of course, that the person knows what you're talking about; as a US player, it'd go over my head.)

As for what I think, what goes through my head when playing? I have to admit, I'm not a typical musician. My hobby is listening to music and then trying to play it on the piano, often with no music whatsoever, and often with merely a few chord lookups when I can't figure out a progression. The specific notes often don't go through my head at all. I know the chord progression goes from E to B to C#m to A - but playing those chords in various styles is pretty instinctive. If I had to consciously think "Okay, so the 3rd in the B chord is a D#" there's no way I'd be able to play the song at a reasonable speed.

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I used to play brass as a child and I could play from a score no trouble - but I realised later that I could not actually "read music", I went straight from stave to finger position / correct pressure to get the right note. Not stave - note name - finger position. I didn't think about notes at all, really.

I am mainly a singer, in the rock music area, and I memorise music 100% by ear, as do the majority of the musicians that I work with. We do know the names of chords and notes and use them sometimes, but mainly by ear (though quite a few can also read / transcribe music, they rarely do in practice). I guess that is OK when the longest piece you play is less than 10 minutes, usually less than 5! I can repeat back fairly long sections of melody accurately on first hearing - I am not sure that's a general talent, UCL in London tested me and though I was unusally gifted in that respect - but I know many singers and musicians who can do the same.

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    +1 Yeah, a lot of the answer depends on what you're doing with music. You being a singer and you being a trumpet player were two completely different concepts in terms of how you treated the music mentally. If someone asked you, as a singer, to perform the music down three half steps, you'd shrug and do so without any problems; if someone asked you to do that on the trumpet, and you'd have a much harder time - because in one, you were thinking entirely in terms of relative pitch, and the other you were thinking in absolute notes (even if it was 'finger position' instead of note name.) – Kevin May 27 at 14:59
  • Indeed, I would not be able to do that on a trumpet without a ton of practice. Except for going up a half tone - we often had to do that to play with other instruments when we didnt have music scored in Bb! – kpollock May 27 at 16:20
  • You went up half a tone? Bet that sounded awful. Maybe a whole tone? – Tim May 31 at 7:46
  • lol, of course, a whole tone!! Did I really write that. Wow! – kpollock Jun 10 at 9:28
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I love this question! Like many of the folks answering here, I am basically a completely fluent sight-singer and I was not exposed in any serious way to solfege until graduate school, long after I'd learned to sight-sing. I also think I have something to add that hasn't been addressed in the other answers so far, and it speaks to a general truth about how people approach systems that require great fluency.

As an odd wrinkle, I was giving voice lessons at the same time as I entered graduate school, and the school where I taught made me teach strictly in movable-do, and the school where I studied made me learn strictly in fixed-do. While this was quite difficult to juggle for the first several years, I eventually emerged fluent in both systems (though if I'm totally honest, I don't think that my sight-singing was much improved by either.)

The General Idea

I outline what I personally do below, but if I were to generalize, I would suggest that really fluent sight-readers don't typically use just one system, but develop a series of strategies that they use interchangeably, and mix and match those strategies as needed.

I also teach many students with absolute pitch, and I can say with some confidence that those among them who are excellent sight-singers also mix and match multiple strategies. (I say this because not all of them are what I would describe as particularly great sight-readers, and often begin to sing slightly out of tune with themselves when notes start to move very fast. Those with richer sets of strategies do much better.)

For further evidence that our absolute pitch friends and students also utilize relational pitch understandings, there was a nifty study that took advantage of relational pitch understanding to trip up the perfect pitch.)

What I Do

I would say that I switch back and forth rapidly between many different systems of thinking, depending on the needs of the moment. I've tried to put these roughly in order that I think I tend to use them.

  1. Knowing where I am within my chord, and singing there. (1 - 3 - 5 - 7, etc, with little reference to the broader scale or key.)
  2. Using numbers as scale degrees, which is similar to movable-do.
  3. Using fixed-do solfege
  4. Working strictly by interval ("now move up a major 6th")
  5. Creating quick mental intermediate notes to sing in my head for particularly disjointed melodies. ("Can't quite figure out how to get to that A# in time? Well, what can I easily get up to? A is easy from where I am? Great! Now just sing out loud a half step up from the note in my head.")
  6. Using movable-do solfege
  7. Knowing how certain notes sound/feel in my own voice. (High 'F' resonates very prominently in my head when I sing it, and I can easily sing it without any reference to an original pitch just by sliding up until I feel my head light up like a lightbulb.)
  8. Simply knowing how certain strongly-flavored notes sound/feel (such as flat 2).
  9. Converting notes to finger motions on a mental piano or clarinet, and using that to get the "feeling" of the next note.

I just picked up something challenging to sight-sing out of curiosity, and as the music became harder, I found myself switching schema more often. I might go through an entire hymn just using scale-step numbers, but if you give me something atonal to read with large jumps, I will switch among systems at almost every note.

Not Just One Strategy Then Another

When I say that I switch frequently, I mean that I switch between groups of these. That is to say that I typically use several systems simultaneously. This way, if, say, the scale degree doesn't get me my answer quickly enough, I still have a mental image of how my hand would move on the piano, and a sense of what that sharp-6 I am jumping down into would feel like. One of the

Very few of these choices are careful and deliberate, and the pool of strategies I choose at any given moment are largely instinctual at this point.

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There are great answers already, but I thought it could be useful to some to add my own experience.

I play bass, and sing a little, more casually. I have basic knowledge of solfège but cannot read a score in real time. For my instruments tabs are really easier to read (lines for strings, and numbers for the fret to play, sometimes with sticks to display the rythm with the same convention than scores). I would say I am average in music theory, figured it out most by myself, and more recently with youtube videos.

Now to the point: depending on the "rationality in building" of your instrument, it can be easier or harder to figure out patterns, and to remember/recognize them, and then create strong mental bounds between positions on the instruments and the corresponding notes.

Some examples with our instruments:

  • On a (regular) bass, the instrument's structure helps, it's always the same interval between strings and a half tone between frets, it means for any note on the neck, it's pretty easy to instantly know where is the octave or a 5th. Each scale forms the same exact visual pattern all across the neck. This way I was able to figure out myself early that a major and a minor scale are the same chain of notes, just started from a different point.
  • The piano is pretty well structured too, so it's easy to recognize patterns, but it's already organized following a scale (white keys form a major scale). There are differents things one can figure out just from that. For example that all the black keys form a pentatonic scale (I actually found it on my bass by trying to play only the sharps). So it's also easy on it to find useful patterns.

Those patterns can be really useful to recognize what you hear and link it to musical theory, and also to remember what to play.

The funny thing: I said that I sing too, what I noticed is that I can improvise more freely while singing than while playing bass. Some will probably shout at this, but theory/solfège can be restrictive bounds too (or at least you need to pass your whole life studying before you can be "free"). I realized that in songs I won't limitate myself to patterns, so I can pick inspiration from music I don't know any theory about, and it usually ends richer in possibilities.

So if you have trouble with solfège, it's not an absolute need to go further in music (but it will be useful), you can learn music theory with a pattern based approach (and your ears of course, you don't need the name of an interval if you know how it will sound).

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It doesn't actually take long to get past the point of needing any intermediary stage - you just KNOW the notes and their pitches. Similar to reading a book - I HOPE you got past spelling words out or moving your lips years ago!

I guesswe all use the concept behind solfege - recognition of interval patterns with reference to an assumed tonic. But you can do this without conscious reference to solfege or even (like me) without ever having studied solfege as such.

Which in no way denigrates learning solfege. Perhaps my sight-singing would be even better if I had!

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    As other answers note, lots of superb professional musicians use solfége. I was taught without solfége, and if I imagine trying to use it myself, then I agree, it feels clumsy and childish and like reading by spelling out words — but it’s clear from the professionals who use it that this analogy really doesn’t hold up, for people who’ve been trained with it from an early stage. – PLL May 26 at 7:28
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    @PLL I think it's hard to avoid developing some kind of conceptual map for relative scale degrees, if you just keep playing music by ear and if it means something to you. Solfege is just one particular explicated written-down way to label the conceptual map. You don't need those exact textual names for your thinking. Every musician uses the same concept, but with different names. The names don't matter, and there don't have to be textual names at all. They could be Huey, Dewey, Louie, Gooie, Oohie, Mooey, Yngwie. Or they could be visual patterns. Same idea. – piiperi Reinstate Monica May 26 at 8:27
  • @piiperi: Yes, totally agreed. For me there’s no verbal component at all — maybe more spatial/visual? — and it feels weird trying to imagine using something verbal for it. But it’s clear this is just a limitation of my intuitive imagination — it works for plenty who are better musicians than me :-) – PLL May 26 at 8:55

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