We're all aware of tonic sol-fa - sometimes otherwise called solfege in the U.S., but in U.K. meaning moveable doh. But the question I can't find an answer to is why sol-fa. Doh is the root/tonic, sol is V, fa is IV. Is 5 and 4 relevant, is the reason that I, IV and V are the main notes creating the three major chords in a key?

1 Answer 1


The literal answer is "because that's what the person who popularized it (John Curwen) called it". The name was presumably based on an "Englished" version of the French "solfège" and similar names in other European languages.

But the 7-note naming system (do re mi fa so la ti), which may have come to medieval Europe from Arabic, was used in parallel with an interlocking system which only named 6 notes, "ut" (= do) to "la". See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guidonian_hand for an explanation, and diagrams of how it was used in practice. "Ut" was later changed to "do" so that all the names ended with an open vowel sound, making them easier to sing.

In the Elizabethan period, only 4 or these 6 note names were used, and the notes of the major scale were named "fa sol la fa sol la mi". That naming system was used in the (Latin) tag about the interval of a tritone, "Mi contra fa est diabolus in musica".

The duplication of "fa sol la" in the Elizabethan note names also illustrates that "scales" and "modes" in the modern sense are not the only way to think about "tonality" - and they perhaps show that IV was considered to be a more "important" chord than V, which contained that pesky leading note...

  • There is that possibility that it is an Anglicised 'sol-fege'. (I can't find the roots of solfege yet). The system itself apparently was published in America by D. Sower, a good ten years before J. Curwen came out with it. Using the same seven names, too. Co-incidence? On 'important' chords, I reckon after I, the commonest overall will be V, rather than IV, but prevalence doesn't necessarily equal important.
    – Tim
    Jul 11, 2017 at 11:10
  • @Tim "On 'important' chords, I reckon after I, the commonest overall will be V, rather than IV," - but the Elizabethan composers didn't think like that. In fact they hardly thought about "chords" at all, as opposed to "intervals from the bass note". You can find complete (and long) pieces which never use a V chord anywhere, for example.
    – user19146
    Jul 11, 2017 at 15:06
  • Solfege is one particular version of "solmization" (associating syllables with distinct notes). The English word solmization derived from the French "solmisation." The idea goes back to the 12th century (or earlier) in Europe and possibly earlier still in India, but (as you probably already know!) finding the origin of the name isn't so easy to do on the Web.
    – user19146
    Jul 11, 2017 at 15:17
  • ... re "important" chords, don't forget that the theoretical idea of "inversions" of chords was not invented and published until 1744 (by Rameau) and even after that date, some theoretical writers considered C-E-G and E-G-C to be completely unrelated "chords". "It's harmony, Jim, but not as we know it..."
    – user19146
    Jul 11, 2017 at 15:20
  • Or it could be that John Curwen had started working on it, and someone asked how it was going, and the answer was ' I've established the tonic, so far...'
    – Tim
    Nov 9, 2018 at 10:03

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