Instead of trying to memorize every interval out of context, a more useful ear training goal is the "memorization" of each scale degree in relation to the tonic (Movable-do solfege). Each degree will eventually produce a certain sensation. [The context of a C major scale is used in this post when examples are given]

Some degrees are more stable than others (1, 3 and 5; 1 being the most stable) and some degrees are more unstable (2, 4, 6 and 7; 7 being the most unstable). The unstable tones produce a certain desire to step into another close stable degree. It's like 7 wants to be followed by 1; 2 wants to be followed by 1 or 3; etc...

My question is: How does that work if there is an underlying harmony?

If we play some melody on our solo instrument alone, the feeling of tendency tones and stable tones is easily heard. However, the degrees of the same melody will produce a different sensation over a different set of chords. A "C" would become less stable when played over an F chord and a "B" would be more stable if played over an Em chord.

It seems that solfege books don't introduce the "problem" of existing background chords. It seems to me that there is a "main center of gravity" (the tonality) and "movable satellite centers of gravity" (the chords). So, when you finish exercises of internalizing degrees and you are able to audiate simple melodies, you are an expert of doing so over a C chord, but when the harmony changes to an F chord, everything becomes much more difficult (the unstable "F" doesn't have such a strong desire to be followed by an "E", for example).

Would the recommendation still be to hear everything in relation to the tonic? It's not very natural to keep the tonic in mind while the harmony changes and it somewhat ruins the experience of hearing the music.

  • 1
    When you write stable and unstable degrees, you do mean strong and weak degrees, don't you? – user45784 Nov 30 '17 at 21:58
  • I'm not sure about the nomenclature. I'm talking about this as a solfege learning technique: What are Active Tones and Restive Tones? or this Why Do Chord Progressions Progress? (around 20:40) – Allan Felipe Nov 30 '17 at 23:11
  • Just found something like what I had in mind: Tonal Gravity – Allan Felipe Dec 27 '17 at 1:13
  • 2
    the same way you are hearing tendencies in the melodic notes the chords have tendencies as well, and this is why we have functional harmony to analyse these types of problems. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – b3ko Apr 30 '18 at 19:23
  • @user45784 I don’t believe the OP knows what scale degrees are. From the directions they assign to the notes I believe they hear the notes of the scale in context of a tonic chord (otherwise the directions make no sense, the chord on the third degree is certainly not more stable than the chord on the fourth degree, whereas the 1st, 3rd and 5th note are clearly the three most stable notes of the scale in context of a tonic chord) so when they talk about degrees they talk about single notes of the scale and not harmonies. – 11684 Jul 31 '18 at 0:11

Not exactly sure where you're coming from - as differing intervals will mean different things to different listeners. You mention 1,3,5 as stable. But when you're in C, but on F, the C note is a 5, so could be construed as stable, it now being a 5. Just like your B example over an Em - another 5. The concept seems a little confused with these examples.

And, the stable/unstable is questionable - 1, 4 and 5 could easily be seen as very stable, as it's the staple diet of most sequences - take any '3 chord trick' and there's 1,4 and 5.

  • Ok, some clarification: in my first paragraph, I mean the idea of memorizing the 12 intervals (ascending and descending) and sometimes even associating some song with each interval. When I write numbers, I mean the scale degree in relation to the tonic, which is the idea of solfege (So, in C major, 5 will always be "G"). – Allan Felipe Nov 30 '17 at 22:42
  • I understand, but have the feeling that some will feel that G in a C chord may take on a different mantle when it's in a G chord, if that makes sense. – Tim Dec 1 '17 at 8:37
  • 1
    Yes, that's my point. So, you would say that we should get used to hear "5" played over a C, over a Dm, over an Em, ... ? (By the way, I added some links in a comment in the original post) – Allan Felipe Dec 1 '17 at 20:04
  • I think that's the way to go, as the harmony will keep changing during a piece, and while we may recognise a B in Em as the 5th, it becomes a maj7 in Cmaj7, which effectively gives it a different job, even though it's the same note - but it can't be called a 5th anywhere else except in an E something. – Tim Dec 1 '17 at 20:23
  • So, you would disagree with the practice and teaching of solfege as aural skill? Because calling 5 everywhere is the definition of solfege (..., 3 = mi, 4 = fa, 5 = sol, ...). A "sol" is a "sol" over any chord. – Allan Felipe Dec 1 '17 at 21:29

I'd still recommend hearing everything in relation to the tonic. Movable-do solfege and Roman numeral notation are analogous in that regard.

As an extreme example, secondary dominants like #4 and borrowed notes like b6 should stay that way to denote how foreign they are in the context of the greater tonic (yet we're able to get away with using them at all because of the underlying harmony).

Only switch solfege note labels once you modulate and switch tonics.

  • That makes sense, but don't you think that the feeling of the "1 = do", for example, changes over each chord of a progression like: I-III7-vi-IV-ii-V7-iv-I ? For every chord, the feeling of "do" is a little bit different from the one acquired when practicing while singing alone without varied backgrounds in aural skills classes. – Allan Felipe Dec 4 '17 at 7:18
  • 1
    It does, but according to what I've read, solfege generally isn't fine-grained enough to pick up on the contrast in roles that "1 = do" has between implied I and implied vi (for example). For an exercise in getting used to that lack of devotion, try notating Schubert's "Die Forelle" in movable do solfege. – Dekkadeci Dec 4 '17 at 15:53

I was taught that solfege meant that the symbols are always the same in any key, and therefore there is no distinction between whether underlying harmony is present or not. In C, Re is always D, and solfege doesn't show how the notes wish to resolve, even if that D feels stable over a Dm chord. In a more classical analysis, yes, certain scale degrees do tend to resolve in certain directions, but these are separate ideas from solfege, as solfege doesn't reflect resolution patterns by itself.


you should be able to do both. Hear what the intervals are over each chord, and also in relation to the main key of the song.

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.