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Can one teach themself relative pitch by using solfege?

Any tips or recommendations that I can implement in my journey to learning relative pitch? I understand fixed and moveable do already. Just unsure how to translate effectively to relative pitch.

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What you bring up is a lovely question that generally comes within the study of ear training, but there are many ways to go about it. I think solfege can definitely help, particularly if you use moveable Do (that's my preference, and I know you can start hours of discussion among musician about the relative--no pun intended--value of moveable Do versus fixed Do solfege). I taught high school music for many years and used moveable Do with my students, to good effect, I believe. You could start by taking melodies you like that you have the written notation for and figuring out the solfege syllables to sing to them. I recommend you start with diatonic melodies until you feel more confident. The next step would be doing the same with melodies you hear, without the written notation. This gets into a very wonderful and valuable activity: transcribing. As a jazz musician, I've had a fair amount of practice doing that, and it always strengthens the ears. Just start simple, and with short examples. You could also go about this in the opposite direction: try writing a simple melody away from any instrument, directly to score paper. Then try playing what you wrote and see how much you got right! I hope this is helpful--happy learning!

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Yes. There is actually a specific method of ear training that uses solfege to teach to teach relative pitch. The method is most prominent taught by educator Alain Benbassat. He has some software and an app that teaches the method, but you can learn the basics with just a piano.

Here is an introductory lesson you can do at the piano (in the key of C):

  1. Play the tonic note (C), sing the pitch (Do, in solfege), and get it firmly memorized in your mind
  2. Play one the first five notes of the scale (C-D-E-F-G), for example F, and then sing that note in solfege and also sing all the pitches back down to the tonic (Fa-Mi-Re-Do). Practice this repeatedly from each of the first five steps. The key is to hear the tonic in your mind while the new pitch is being played and feel the pull of these notes down to the tonic.
  3. Next, do a similar exercise but using the last for notes of the scale (G-A-B-C). For example, play an A on the piano and then sing the pitch and all the notes back up to the tonic (La-Ti-Do). The key here is to hear the tonic in your mind while new pitch is being played and feel the pull of these notes up to the tonic (Sol is the pivot point and can go either up or down).

Once you master this, the technique begins adding in different keys, different octaves, chromatic pitches, chords, and many other facets of ear training, but the whole technique is based off of the idea of hearing each pitch in relation to a tonic pitch.

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It'll work using solfege, but avoid fixed do, or you could use simple numbers, 1-7.

By initially 'fixing' the first note you hear as 'do', or '1', all the other diatonic notes can be practised with regard to where they are in the diatonic scale.

I say avoid fixed do, but using the method above is a sort of offshoot from that - making your own 'fixed do'. Using fixed do works easily in key C, but I feel there's no need in early stages to consider what the note names, or keys, actually are. That will inevitably come later, especially when chromatic notes, thus non-diatonic intervals are encountered.

Once you can recognise intervals using the lower note as 'do', (or 1), then try considering, say mi to ti - which is the same as do to so, but mentally thinking in a different key. Let's face it, if you're trying to establish notes by relative pitch, the lower one won't always be 'do'.

And don't forget, relative pitch needs to be working descending, too. Here, perhaps you may need to swap the notes round, so the first, now, is heard as the lower. Intervals seem easier to identify going up - rather like it's easier to count up, or say the alphabet, days of the week, months, forwards...

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  • The system you're describing of "making your own 'fixed do.'" Is called moveable-do, in which you Do can be any pitch. – Peter Dec 10 '20 at 16:04
  • @Peter - well aware, thanks! But moveable do in most cases, actually specifies what do is to be. With my 'making up your own do', it could be any note you hear or sing, regardless of what it actually is: no need to reference it on an instrument. If that makes sense. – Tim Dec 10 '20 at 16:10
  • Yes, that makes sense, but you're still describing moveable-Do. I'm not implying that you aren't aware, but it would be helpful to the questioner if you included that info. – Peter Dec 10 '20 at 16:25
  • This was my first too: use moveable DO – Michael Curtis Dec 10 '20 at 16:43
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Yes, it is: absolutely!

After practicing the scales and modes, intervals and triads try to start with singing and transcribing in movable doremi baby songs, children songs, folksongs church chorals:

  • songs that start with the root note doremido (frère Jacques)

  • pentatonic melodies

  • With up beat so do

  • With triad domiso

  • With solasomi (silent night, we shall over come, how many roads ...

  • then tunes in minor

sing along with doremi when you play piano or guitar.

Try to notate the melody notes and play control you writing by playing.

sing a song sheet music (Baroque, classic melodies) from sight reading and control by playing.

Notate your own melodies you have in mind: ear training by reading by writing.

Play along with songs you’re listening and notate the tunes (and harmony).

Very helpful is also singing with hand signs showing the pitch lever regarding the root note.

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The aim is to 'grok' music. To look at (any form of) notation and just KNOW what it will sound like.

Yes, learning to sight-sing using solfege can be very helpful in achieving this. Also sight-sing from notation. And try to live in a musical world that constantly uses notation. The strange fact is that band and orchestra players are often better at sight-singing than singers are! EVERYTHING they play is from notation. See-play-hear. Grokking it just comes naturally.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grok

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    "...try to live in a musical world that constantly uses notation..." that's such good advice. – Michael Curtis Dec 10 '20 at 16:42
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You might consider what the "relative" relationship is comparing.

In moveable DO solfege the point is to relate the syllables to the tonality, where the tones fit into the key. Or, you could say it relates them to the tonic.

That is different that the relative pitch difference of intervals.

For example MI to SOL is a minor third, but to it's also the mediant and dominant of the key and pretty strongly associated with the tonic chord. Note the difference with DO and MA for a minor third on a tonic and minor third above it.

Another example is a minor sixth. In one context it is the major tonic MI up to DO, but if DO is the bottom, then the minor sixth above is LO and suggests a minor key.

To me, solfege is more about about the identity of degrees in the key than the relative pitch difference of intervals. DO MI SOL are tonic tones and the others RE FA LA TI are tendency tones to the tonic and harmonically subdominant/dominant.

I suppose for relative pitch of any arbitrary interval you could just consider the bottom tone as DO. If the interval wasn't diatonic with DO supposed as the bottom, try a sensible diatonic interval. For example, a tritone, sing TI FA rather than DO SE.

BTW, there is solfege for minor and chromatic tones.

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