3

At a recent gig in France, someone asked me for a 'mi bemol' to pitch some singers. Had to consider for a moment, then realised they wanted Eb. (French system uses fixed do). A hand signal would have done, but it seems they don't use that either! It seems the musos here are quite versed in that speak, and prefer it to what most of the Western world uses - real note names. I wonder if one system has any advantages over another, or is it just what one has got used to? On a personal note, movable do has more going for it. But that's not the issue.

In response to the first answer, and subsequent comments - Which actually is more widely used - fixed do, or note names? It's obvious from the question that I assumed, perhaps erroneously, the latter.

  • 7
    Is it true that most of the world uses the A, B, C... system? Isn't fixed do the naming used in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and all of Central and South America? Seems like the divide is mainly between Romance and Germanic languages. – Todd Wilcox May 9 '18 at 13:48
  • 3
    Looks like Slavic language speakers prefer fixed do, along with Israelis. Oh, and Arabic and Persian speakers. Wikipedia claims that the A, B, C system is less popular than fixed do. – Todd Wilcox May 9 '18 at 13:58
  • Related question from a more neutral viewpoint. – guidot May 9 '18 at 14:20
  • 6
    Just a point about your last sentence, the fixed do system is a system of note names, and it seems like calling the C D E system "normal" might be making the question seem a bit biased. Regarding which is actually more common, do you not trust the information already given regarding the numbers of countries, cultures, and language groups using fixed do, nor the Wikipedia page on the topic? There seems to be broad consensus that fixed do is more popular. – Todd Wilcox May 9 '18 at 17:23
  • 1
    The only real arguments I've heard for whether fixed do or movable do is better has to do with what we end up learning from it. Fixed Do is supposed to help us get closer to perfect pitch, where we are always calling the same notes the same thing, regardless of context. Movable Do is more geared toward having a strong sense of context, so that we always know what Mi sounds like within any setting. Since it seems that perfect pitch can't actually be developed, movable Do makes more sense to me. All that said, I had to take my sight singing final jury 3 times to pass, so don't listen to me. – Basstickler May 14 '18 at 21:13
21

First, beware of ethnocentrism. I disagree with your characterization of "real note names". Mi bemol is a real note name, just in a different language. Solfege is used as note names in Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Romanian, Greek, Russian, Mongolian, Flemish, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Ukrainian, Bulgarian and Turkish. (See History of Note Names for more on this.) Both systems are well over 1000 years old, so there is plenty of history to point to for proponents of both systems.

As to advantages, I don't think that any purported advantages or disadvantages have had much real impact on these systems. Just like the different alphabets in use today, they evolved at different historical times and places, and much of what has been carried down is anachronistic.

If we were to create a new musical notation system today, 'A' would almost certainly be placed where 'C' is today, intervals would begin counting from 0 instead of 1, and time signatures would be notated differently, perhaps more akin to Carl Orff's method. We maintain what we have because these systems are painstakingly learned, and there is little motivation by those who have learned them to change anything once they can finally use the systems fluently. This is akin to grammar. Systems maintain or change, but not always for obvious reasons, not always at obvious times, and not always in the most advantageous ways.

  • 2
    +1 even though I'm not so sure about interval names. Mathematically, the current system seems silly at first, but if one views it as an ordinal rather than cardinal numbering system, then it not only makes more sense, but seems more appropriate than cardinal numbering - in many cases. That's why it's called "fifth" instead of "five", for example. – Todd Wilcox May 9 '18 at 14:07
  • 5
    @ToddWilcox That's the first defense I've ever heard of our crazy interval system, and I'd genuinely love to hear more. The problem is that we don't really use intervals ordinally. In practice, we use them to characterize distances. If I move a 3rd, and then another 3rd, I have moved a 5th, which is a nonsensical result. – Ben I. May 9 '18 at 14:09
  • 2
    Again, it seems crazy from a cardinal point of view. One way to see how using ordinal numbers has some value is to consider what to call playing the same note. A "unison" makes a lot of sense, and essentially means a "first", as in the first note. We could call the notes of the scale the first, second, third, etc. notes, and name the intervals 0, 1, 2, etc., but then going to the third note from the tonic would a 2 interval. So the current interval names don't indicate distance, they name which note you'll land on starting with the note you're on. – Todd Wilcox May 9 '18 at 14:12
  • Mathematically, if you imagine the interval names to be sort of like a dual space where the interval name indicates both the final element (note) and the transformation (interval) it makes more sense. – Todd Wilcox May 9 '18 at 14:14
  • 2
    +1 for the comment on the ethnocentrism – Tim H May 9 '18 at 14:34
1

I invite you to think about going from C, D, E to do, re, mi (fixed do) as nothing more than a translation. In essence there's no difference between the two, except words, and as such there is no (dis)advantage to either.

What complicates matters from an anglosaxon viewpoint is that in their sytem the words 'do', 're', 'mi',... have a different meaning as movable do syllables, which is something entirely different. The cultures using the solfege syllables in a 'fixed do'-system refer to the notes with their scale degree when their relative position in their scale is important, either by tonic, submediant, mediant, ... or as 1, 2, 3,...

So see it as a translation:

Anglosaxon -> Latin

C, D, E,... -> do, re, mi...

do, re, mi,... -> 1, 2, 3,...

  • Good ideas. My problem, I guess, is that I've been steeped in do re mi and letter names for a long, long time, and trying to get around the same letter names representing a different set of notes (except in key C) isn't easy. – Tim May 15 '18 at 13:29

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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