So, I'm a musician who believes very much in the value of audiation: that is, not only hearing pitches in my head, but also hearing them in terms of both the current harmony and the current tonal center. I learned to do this by hearing in terms of moveable-do solfege syllables, so for example if I'm hearing a blues on the radio I'll hear the bass line moving from do, to fa, to do, to sol, then to fa, etc. This works really well for me when the tonal center in question is pretty stable, even in the presence of chromaticism, and I've practiced it to the extent that I can compose homophonic four-voice harmonic progressions as well as various species of counterpoint exercises (in two voices) in my head when I'm on the train or before I go to sleep.

My question concerns how to audiate melodies and harmonies when the tonal center changes rapidly, either because of a rapidly modulating tonal center (like you see in early Schoenberg) or because of a brief tonicization of a secondary harmony. In music school, I was a big fan of Schoenberg's "Structural Functions of Harmony," which puts forth a pretty expansive notion of how even remote key areas still relate to the governing tonic of the piece, and so it's tempting to try to understand such passages in terms of the "original" key, using chromatic solfege syllables (e.g. I'd hear V/V in C major as re-fi-la, with "fi" being the solfege syllable for #4), but this becomes very difficult when relatively remote chords such as the major chord on the seventh degree are tonicized. On the other hand, it feels naive to "switch keys" in my head to whatever chord is being tonicized in the moment, and is moreover a difficult thing to predict when attempting to sight-read/sight-audiate a harmonically complex piece. Given all that, I suspect there are three potential answers to my quandary:

  1. Just get better at conceiving tonicizations and brief modulations in terms of the "home" key of the piece, using the relevant chromatic solfege syllables.
  2. Use the solfege syllables relevant to the tonal center being tonicized, while reading ahead to predict what exactly that tonal center might be in cases where it's initially ambiguous.
  3. Stop hearing solfege syllables internally as a means of understanding the relation of any given pitch to the chord or the tonal center in favor of some other approach.

I vaguely suspect that option three is the likely answer, since I assume that a lot of musicians that are effective audiators even in the presence of rapidly changing harmonic contexts and tonal centers (like post-bop jazz players) don't hear tones in terms of solfege but still understand them not just as a sensory phenomenon but also in terms of their relation to the harmony and the key. I'd love any insight into the matter.

2 Answers 2


I grapple with very similar issues. I've been big on ear training the last 2-3 years and have taught myself to use moveable-do solfege quite well in one key, but I do struggle with how to handle key changes, especially the quick or ambiguous tonicizations you describe.

There are definitely moveable-do fans who are willing to move the tonic a lot. Even for atonal pieces, they will just constantly move the tonic as often as every few notes.

I've tried all three of your approaches and they all work to some degree. I've found combining #1 and #2 can be fruitful: if you have a tricky passage that goes by really quick or could be heard with two possible tonics, first try to hear the whole passage in the same key and use your home key syllables. Then try the same passage but try to use the syllables of the new tonic right away when you hit the key change. In all cases, try and make sure the syllables you are using correspond to the tonic that you are currently hearing—no matter whether it's the syllables or your own ear that initially triggers the shift. If you don't do that, syllables tend to become decoupled from their meaning of "this note means this scale degree of the key that I am in," which kind of defeats the whole purpose of moveable-do.

If you try to stick with one way or the other throughout a passage, and it just won't "give," then you've got to check if it's your solfege skills, or it's just that the piece isn't so ambiguous after all. Worst case, you can resort to playing it on your instrument and trying different bass notes to see if you can convince yourself about the various possible keys. And of course, if you do it long enough it just becomes second nature and you can try out the possible keys in your head with good accuracy.

I realize that a lot of the above doesn't quite apply to sight reading/singing where you don't have the option to go through multiple times, but I don't really sight read or sight sing, so I can't give you much on that situation.

So that's my take on options 1 and 2. Flawed, but doable, and some combination is probably the best choice. Option #3 just feels like giving up, honestly. Solfege is a powerful learning tool at almost any level and this stuff isn't anywhere near the level of complexity where it could start to break down.

Lately I've been exploring a fourth option: just give in and use fixed-do, where appropriate. Then you can simply sing the syllables for the notes, and just use your ear to decide how to interpret the harmony.

I much prefer chromatic fixed-do. Although it's a lot to learn and less popular than the conventional fixed-do, I think it's badly underrated, and it has two extra advantages for people coming in from moveable-do:

  1. If you start learning chromatic fixed-do with pieces in C Major (plus C Minor or A Minor, depending on how you handle minor keys), the process is literally identical to using moveable-do without key changes, i.e. your option 1. Then once you're comfortable in C, you can gradually you can move left and right in the circle of fifths: try modulating to F using "te" for the B♭ or to G using "fi" for the F♯, etc. I have just started to do this, but it's coming along.
  2. You still retain all the information about chromatic intervals that we so cherish in moveable-do. The distance from a "re" to a "fa" is always a minor third no matter what key you are in, etc. Also especially helpful when you're trying to be really mindful of all of the harmonic details, which is the goal here.

Fixed-do is well attested as a way to get better at hearing and understanding complex harmony. Some recent research:

One study from 2012 with eighty-five subjects found that people trained in fixed-do are better at learning complex diatonic and chromatic harmony than those trained in moveable-do, with very large effect sizes.

Another study from earlier this year found that 14% of subjects were able to acquire a basic form of absolute pitch as adults with just 12-40 hours of training (with comparable accuracy to natural absolute pitch possessors). Obviously a certain amount of absolute pitch is a huge help when dealing with harmony, and chromatic fixed-do is essentially like constantly training yourself in absolute pitch!

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    The point about chromatic fixed-do being equivalent to moveable-do in highly chromatic circumstances is a great one, and I really appreciate the links to relevant studies! I’m going to work on using fixed-do syllables in my hearing. Thanks! Oct 25, 2018 at 8:45

Solfege works well diatonically, and also with a little modulation. Try it with fixed Doh. It's very confusing initially, but may be a way round.

For me just using real notes would be the way to go. If you don't know the key, and therefore can't audiate in real terms, just choose a key (I'd start on C) and work from there. With movable Doh, you're half way there.

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