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Consider this excerpt from Te Deum Laudamus by C.V. Stanford:

"Te Deum Laudamus", C.V. Stanford, mm. 1–4

What is the notation used on top of the voice?

I suppose the letters indicate the notes (d(o)-r(e)-m(i)-s(ol) for re-mi-fa#-la in D major), and the symbols relate to the rhythm?

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2 Answers 2

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This is the Tonic Sol-fa system developed by John Curwen (Wikipedia). His primer on the subject can be found at IMSLP.

colon (:) = weak rhythmic accent
vertical line (|) = strong rhythmic accent (beat 1 is preceded by the bar line)
dash (-) = held note
underline (_) = melisma
apostrophy (') = octave

A video explaining the system:

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  • This video says that the short vertical line | divides the bar into two halves, like another source which I based my answer off of (which I lost track of, unfortunately). This may just be true in the special case that we only care about 2- 3- and 4- beat bars, though. No sources I found address how to notate 5/4 for example. "| : | : :" would make sense to me (for a 2+3 feel), violating the rule that it divides the bar in half, and instead taking it to divide a bar at a strong pulse.
    – Edward
    Dec 19, 2021 at 18:32
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    @Edward Take a look at the link to Curwen's book. That's where the 3/4 interpretation I used is specified. I doubt Curwen addressed 5/4 as it would have been extremely uncommon in the 19th century.
    – Aaron
    Dec 19, 2021 at 18:50
  • Ok, I think I found the passage of interest. Curwen says that the upright bar appears "In the middle of measures which contain four or six beats...", so it's easy to see why these secondary sources say that the bar divides the measure in half. It is technically true. But Curwen also says the line expresses a subordinate accent, and I believe that is the real important part.
    – Edward
    Dec 19, 2021 at 20:20
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This is known as Tonic Sol-fa notation. The notation indicates a key and then represents pitches as letters, much like the common solfege system. The chromatic scale is as follows:

d de r re m f fe s se l le t

The sharps de, re, fe, se, and le are enharmonic to flats ra, ma, sa, la, and ta.

The single letters are all pitches diatonic to the major key, and they use the same letter as the first letter of the usual solfege (do re mi fa sol la ti).

As for rhythm, the bar is divided by the symbols

| : | :

Each symbol functions like a bar line, except they're really "beat lines" or "half beat lines" or maybe something else, depending on the time signature. The "|" is the first pulse in the measure (and also, a strong pulse), "|" is a strong pulse besides the measure start, and ":" indicates a weak pulse. A period (.) divides a beat (or half beat, or...) in half. Underscores represent slurs/melisma. The dash (—) represents that the last note is being held over this beat.

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  • The chromatic scale example above uses naturals and sharps. How do you notate flats in tonic sol fa? Dec 19, 2021 at 14:11
  • i think this is good casue, because singers use it to kind of be in tune easier, you have to remember not auto in tune, so seeing A note is one thing but you got to sing the A note. Dec 19, 2021 at 16:14
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    @BrianTHOMAS from the link in this answer: "Chromatic alterations are marked by the following vowel, "e" for sharp (pronounced "ee") and "a" for flat (pronounced "aw")." But note that the system descends from movable do, which I assume is why it's called "tonic," so F sharp is not the product of chromatic alteration in D major; it's just m.
    – phoog
    Dec 19, 2021 at 16:53
  • @phoog - What would the name of E# be in tonic solfa? (given that C is Do). When I tried this I got Mi for E natural and Mee for E# and Mi and Mee have the same vowel sound... Dec 19, 2021 at 17:06
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    @BrianTHOMAS I suspect that the system assumes that one never encounters E sharp in the key of C without first modulating into some other key. I further suspect that one would have to look long and hard to find an example where this assumption causes a problem.
    – phoog
    Dec 19, 2021 at 17:30

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