Teaching Modes and Exercises with Solfege

SBO Staff • April/May 2018ChoralOff The Podium • May 7, 2018

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Teaching the Modes with Solfège

We previously discussed the method for teaching Solfège to students in elementary through high school, including a detailed run-down of the syllables, I required beginning and intermediate high school students to memorize for the following scales:

  • Major
  • Natural Minor
  • Harmonic Minor
  • Melodic Minor
  • Chromatic
  • Whole Tone

In addition to all of the scales above, my advanced high school students were in ensembles that sang primarily early music, and were required to be able to sing and write the modes accurately:

  • Ionian
  • Dorian
  • Phrygian
  • Lydian
  • Mixolydian
  • Aeolian
  • Ecclesiastical (Church) Modes

The modes are the musical foundation of Gregorian chant and the music of the Medieval (850 – 1400) and Renaissance (1400 – 1600) periods. They were named by Medieval theorists after the scales upon which ancient Greek music was composed, although they have little or nothing to do with them. During the 17th century, musical styles became dominated by the more “modern” theory of major/minor polarity, which governed the theory underpinning much or most of the music composed through the Baroque (1600 – 1750), Classical (1750 – 1800), and Romantic (1800 – 1900) periods.

Western music is still dominated by major and minor today but use of the modes was revived in the 20th century by classical composers as well as folk musicians, and by jazz musicians in the 1960s at the instigation of Miles Davis.

Here are the syllables for teaching the modes to your advanced students. What follows in bold is how I presented them:

We mark all of our music with Solfège:

  • Always use a pencil
  • Mark Solfège with lower-case letters – save upper-case letters in case you need to mark letter names of notes
  • In most cases mark Solfège above the note
  • The first letter of the applicable Solfège syllable is adequate for diatonic notes – for accidentals it is necessary to write the entire syllable:
    • d for do, r for re, m for mi, etc.
    • write out: fi, si, te, etc.

Ionian Mode (ascending)

  • do re mi fa sol la ti do
  • Ionian Mode is identical to the major scale.  It is sometimes called a “major mode” because of the major third between the first and third scale degrees.

Dorian Mode (ascending)

  • re mi fa sol la ti do re
  • Dorian Mode is sometimes called a “minor mode” because of the minor third between the first and third scale degrees.

Phrygian Mode (ascending) “minor mode”

  • mi fa sol la ti do re mi
  • Phrygian Mode’s distinctive feature is a half-step between the first and second degrees of the scale.

Lydian Mode (ascending) “major mode”

  • fa sol la ti do re mi fa

Mixolydian Mode (ascending) “major mode”

  • sol la ti do re mi fa sol
  • My son called mixolydian the “rock’n’roll mode” when he was in high school, for the rock tradition of playing the final tonic chord of many songs with an added dominant seventh (sol ti re fa) and holding that fermata loud and long!

Aeolian Mode (ascending) “minor mode”

  • la ti do re mi fa sol la
  • Aeolian Mode is identical to the natural minor scale.

Locrian Mode (ascending)

  • ti do re mi fa sol la ti
  • Locrian Mode was not used during the historical period but was adopted and is used by jazz musicians today.  We did not sing Locrian Mode in class but advanced students were required to know it and be able to identify it.

Solfège Exercises

My usual practice was to begin every choir rehearsal with physical stretches followed by vocal warm-ups and Solfège exercises (or both rolled into one) before beginning to work on the material the choir was preparing for performance.  Any teacher or director who uses Solfège will collect these sorts of exercises, games, and activities as ways to address or develop specific skills and competencies.

For instance – and this is a common technique I believe – with children’s choirs trained on Solfège and hand signs, one warm-up I frequently used was to split the choir into two groups and stand before them using Curwen hand signs with both hands, my left hand indicating what one half of the choir would sing and my right hand indicating for the other half.  The simplest form of this exercise would be to hold one group on do while the other group sang the scale slowly and deliberately, tuning each interval, ascending and descending – and then repeating the same exercise reversing the role each group had played in the first time through the exercise.  With more advanced children›s choirs, I was able to do more developed and faster elaborations of this exercise, indicating the scale sung in canon or even freely improvised melodies with different hand signals in each hand – often to limits not dictated by the children’s abilities but by my own!

The “Cumulative” Exercise

One exercise I taught and used frequently I initially learned from students, who had learned it from a previous teacher.  I later found that virtually every choir director or singer who used Solfège knew/used this exercise.  I never learned what it is called although I used it for years.  I am calling it the cumulative exercise here.


The cumulative exercise in major

The cumulative exercise is a good general warm-up and good for developing facility and fluency with the syllables.  In my experience students who had learned this exercise took delight in singing it on their own, as well and enjoyed trying to sing it as fast as possible!  One variation another choir director introduced me to is sing it eliminating one syllable, inserting an eighth rest in its place – for instance, sing it leaving out mi.  This variation was sure to result in laughter from young singers, every time: a very good thing.

I used this exercise regularly but with one extrapolation/modification. In my experience I have observed school music teachers in general, when teaching scales or exercises, to concentrate primarily (or even exclusively) on the major scale, largely ignoring minor scales altogether. I have never heard of (competent) private teachers doing this – it seems to be a school music teacher phenomenon. I believe it comes from the competition-focused climate that (for the most part) instrumental music teachers function in. For instance, the local regional honors band and orchestra auditions (mid-state and all-state) only require students to play major scales, so for the most part, school music teachers do not teach minor scales – at least those I have met, observed, or spoken to about this. It’s basically an example of “teaching to the test”.

However, so much of the repertoire is in minor keys, and it is the other side – the shadow and complement of major – of our entire tonal system.  Since music literacy was always my goal as a teacher and I taught the Solfège method (movable do with la-based minor) that is based on major-minor relativity, I always tried to give both major and minor equal emphasis in my program. So, we sang the cumulative exercise in natural minor as well, every time we sang it.

The cumulative exercise in minor

Once students had mastered the cumulative exercise in both major and minor – and for some reason descending natural minor in this exercise presented a greater challenge to a lot of us – we would also combine both together to add harmony to the exercise.  For example, in a SATB mixed choir, the tenors and basses could sing the major while the sopranos and altos sang the minor, resulting in parallel harmony at the sixth:

Two-part cumulative exercise with parallel harmony at the sixth

After working on this for a bit we could then swap parts and sing it at the tenth – sopranos and altos singing Major and tenors and basses singing minor.  Of course, other variations are possible and any choir director is always on the look-out for ways to keep warmups interesting! – so new ways to keep this sort of exercise fresh may occur on the spur of the moment to those who seek…


Another exercise I used frequently was invented by my friend and mentor Michael Graham.

Section the choir into three groups and assign each one a part.  We would sing this through three times, each time starting a half step higher – until each section had sang each part.  This exercise subtly teaches/reinforces understanding of relative and parallel key relationships as well as major and minor triads, is a great warm up and …students would regularly beg to sing it.

In Part 5: Solfège with Amadeus, we will conclude with some anecdotes about singing Mozart’s Requiem on Solfège syllables, and some unexpected things we learned from doing this.

Walter Bitner is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, conductor, and master teacher, and serves as director of education & community engagement at the Nashville Symphony. He writes about music and education on his blog Off the Podium at walterbitner.com.

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