In the previous article in this series on using moveable do solfege to play by ear, we finally found do on your instrument. In our little case study, we have landed in the key of D major, meaning that do is the note D.

Now we’ll take the big step of singing through the whole song in solfège. Don’t worry, I’ll do the heavy lifting this time.

Sing The Song All The Way Through in Solfège

This step will take some time to master, but it will pay off. The more cultured your ear is to the sounds of the notes in the scale, the easier it will be to sing songs you want to play in solfege. If you can sing them in solfège, you can imagine them clearly, and that will make it way easier to play on an instrument.

Remember, we are making every effort to remove the guesswork from playing by ear. I know that my error rate goes way, way up whenever I just dive in and start playing notes without prehearing. When my error rate goes up, I start to doubt myself. My confidence tanks.

When I slow down, find do, and imagine each note before I play it, my error rate falls back down and my confidence rises up again. I like being confident.

In this scenario, I’m going to give you the solfège, and you’ll be able to figure out your own songs over time. The way I teach, students come to solfège in a number of ways, ranging from figuring it out by ear themselves, decoding it from a written score, and having it given to them all at once. Each one of these approaches has its advantages, and the advantage your going to feel right now is that we are going to get this on your instrument sooner!

Here’s “Happy Birthday to You” in solfège:

so, so, la, so, do ti, so, so, la, so, re, do so, so, so mi do ti, la, fa fa mi do re do

Notice the commas? Those tell you that the first few notes are in the lower octave. Some people use arrows to indicate going up and down. In the system I learned, we indicate the low octave with a comma (so, la, ti,) the main octave with nothing and the high octave with an apostrophe (so’ la’ ti’)

Now sing that melody in solfege. Memorize it. Make it yours. Marry the sound of the solfège words to your sense of each of the notes of the scale. It’s not like notes sung on do are going to sound like the word “do”. Instead, what will happen is you will continue to notice when each of these notes happens and you will reinforce the feeling (or flavor) each note in the scale possesses.

Put The Melody on Your Instrument

Back to the piano. We are in the key of D major. Knowing the D major scale helps us eliminate five notes we know we are not going to play. This is important: knowing what notes NOT to play is as important as knowing which ones TO play. If you play a wrong note and it’s in the right key, that usually sounds ok. If you play a wrong note and it doesn’t even belong to the key, it doesn’t sound so great.

Here’s the D major scale, connected to the corresponding moveable do notes:

do = D | re = E | mi = F-sharp | fa = G | so = A | la = B | ti = C-sharp.

And, knowing that so, (“low so”) is the lowest note and so is the highest, we can arrange the scale like this:

so, = A | la, = B | ti, = C# | do = D | re = E | mi = F-sharp | fa = G | so = A.

Notice on your instrument which notes ARE part of the song and which notes are left out. Make a real strong mental note of that. This will ensure that you don’t start playing random notes. I assure you, the notes above are the ONLY notes in this tune!

I know you want to play this on your instrument really badly at this point, especially if you have had the discipline not to noodle or guess it out on the instrument. But there’s one more thing I’m going to ask you to do before playing it on your instrument: Sing the melody in solfège while pointing to notes in the above diagram. This will continue to glue your understanding of the solfege notes to your visual-spatial imagination, and that’s what you need activated to put this melody on the instrument.

Ok, now you’re ready, and I bet that if you go slowly enough, you’ll able able to play the song correctly the first time. Don’t worry about the rhythm or playing smoothly. You just want to get the notes out and… have a great time!

Learn Other Songs by Ear

Remember, you can put pretty much any melody through this recipe and the result will be the same: you will have internalized a song by ear in a way that you can apply it to any instrument in any key (as long as you know the scale you are going to play in, but that’s another matter.)

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