Are you wondering how to improve your sight singing skills? Want to be able to read sheet music without having to plunk it out on the piano?
One of my favorite “life hacks” in singing can be traced back to Dame Julie Andrews and The Sound of Music. I am, of course, talking about solfege. You’re probably more confused now than when you started reading this article, yes? If you’ve ever been in an elementary music class, you’ve probably sung the following: “Doe, a deer, a female deer, Ray, a drop of golden sun…”
The words at the beginning of those phrases represent solfege! Congratulations, you’re halfway there to learning how to improve your sight singing! The good news is, you don’t have to be a music theory whiz to master sight singing. Whether you’re someone who does better with syllables or numbers, the Dame, & Rodgers & Hammerstein have already given us a catchy tune in which to make our sight-singing journey a snap!
Starting with the basics, your solfege syllables are “Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do.” For the sake of simplicity & efficiency, everything we will be discussing from here on out will be in reference to the C Major scale. See the picture below from allmusictheory.com for reference.
As you can see, your “Do” is your starting note or, 1, and your ending note, or 8, because they are the same note just an octave apart. “Re” is D, or 2, “Mi” is E, or 3, and so on. When you are sight singing, the most important way to read is not by the note name but rather the intervals between the notes. Mainly because the solfege syllables can be applied to all major scales.
So what’s an interval?
An interval is the distance between one tone to another. The easiest to identify is a 2nd. A second is the distance from Do-Re or, a whole step. Take a moment and sing “Do-Re-Do.” (Side Note: If you’re a fan of the TV show “Big Bang Theory,” “Do-Re-Do” is the ending of “Soft Kitty” – “purr, purr, purr.” Having mental references like this will help you in the long run, I promise.)
The second easiest, and probably most recognizable is a 3rd. Thirds are used most common in singing harmonies. Do-Mi-So is your basic major triad made up of, you guessed, it, thirds! For reference, So-Mi-Do is the ending of “Row, Row, Row, Your Boat.” Speaking of which, let’s apply what you’ve learned so far with something you already know. “Row Row Row Your Boat,” or any nursery rhyme for that matter is a great song to help familiarize yourself with reading music and applying solfege so you can get more comfortable. See the chart below and sing along in solfege!
See, not so scary right?
“But Erin, how do I apply this in real life?!”
I get it, sight singing can seem daunting, and it’s not always as easy as a C major scale or a nursery rhyme! I’ll let you in on a secret: I couldn’t read music when I got to college, let along sight sing. It’s literally learning to read ALL OVER AGAIN. However, once a professor taught me how to apply solfege to my sight singing, everything got much, MUCH easier.
Like I said before in the beginning, whether these syllables work for you, or numbers, once you have them cemented in your musical brains, you’ll be set! Here are some exercises for you to practice your intervals:
Erin’s Exercises for learning sight singing:
- Write solfege below your notes beforehand
- Find the lead sheet (piano/vocal sheet music) for a song you already know and write the solfege underneath the notes, sing along! Just like with Row, Row, Row, Your Boat.
- Practice singing between different syllables *do these SLOWLY and speed up as you master them*:
Before I wrap up, I’d like to address the elephant in the room: sharps and flats.
Simply put, a sharp raises a note by a half step, and a flat lowers the note by a half step. Typically, they are only notated if the note is not already in the key signature (scale) of the song. That is a different article for a different time. For the sake of beginning, start with major scales and simple songs. As you progress, dive into the world of sharps, flats, and (wait for it…) naturals. They’re not as scary as you’d think!
Simply put: sight singing is an advanced skill for all musicians, and especially for singers, since your instrument is coming from your body rather than something you play. However, even beginners can learn how to improve their sight singing – and even master the skill – with time and patience.
Solfege has been around for centuries thanks to Guido of Arezzo but, I’d like to think that because Dame Julie Andrews, and Rodgers and Hammerstein gave us a catchy and clever showtune, everyone is already one step closer to mastering it!