[Smt-talk] Movable-Do subculture in the Romance tradition?

Nicolas Meeùs nicolas.meeus at paris-sorbonne.fr
Sun Jul 15 04:35:34 PDT 2012

The situation in 18th-century France was slightly more complex because 
the solmisation then had seven syllables (including *si*).

The French had tricks to decide where to place the syllables. There were 
basically two, the rule of the *si* -- that the "last sharp" (in the 
signature) and any accidental sharp was to be sung *si* --; and the rule 
of the *fa* -- that the "last flat" and any accidental one was to be 
sung *fa*. Oddly enough, these rules apply both in major and in minor: 
they place *ut* as the tonic in major and *la* (or *re* if a flat is 
missing in the signature) as the tonic in minor. The singer could begin 
singing straight away, but did not know whether he sang in major or in 
minor, i.e. whether *ut* or *la* (or *re*) was the tonic. Also, there 
was no need to look at the clef, which singers disdained as a device for 

French theories of the time (e.g. Rameau's *Traité*) must be read 
keeping this in mind. When Rameau says that it is difficult to know the 
key of a piece, he means precisely that: one readily knows its 
solmisation, but one does not know which syllable is the tonic. He 
therefore suggests notating the key before the clef. And the treatises 
about "transposition" usually are mere treatises of solmisation, stating 
the rules of the *si* and of the *fa*, which allow to sing "au naturel" 
independently of the key (i.e. the "transposition") in which the piece 
is written. François Campion describes the two forms of the minor as 
"layen" (tonic *la*) and "réyen" (tonic *re*).

The problem with this system, of which the consequences are still dearly 
felt in our classes today, is that, as Campion explains, any "diéze 
extraordinaire" (accidental sharp) brings about a modulation -- indeed, 
it displaces the *si*. Our students today still tend to view modulations 
everywhere. And Schenker wrote (I don't remember where) that the French 
are like the blinds: they follow the wall with their hand and feel any 

I don't know when one changed from *ut* to *do*. It must have been at 
some point in the second half of the 19th century. At any rate, nobody 
would say *ut* today.

Nicolas Meeùs
Université Paris-Sorbonne

Le 14/07/2012 03:46, Robert O Gjerdingen a écrit :
> On Jul 12, 2012, at 12:23 PM, Nicolas Meeùs wrote:
>> The solmisation syllables have long been used, in the French 
>> tradition, as ...solmisation syllables. The conversion to fixed-do 
>> solfège, in France, was not performed before the middle or the second 
>> half of the 18th century. Movable-do remained in (diminishing) usage 
>> at least until the creation of the Paris Conservatoire around 1798.
> Nicolas is correct about the situation in France, but for American 
> readers there may be some confusion in his particular use of the term 
> "moveable do."  In Anglo-American contexts, this usually means the 
> systems developed in Victorian England, where "do" equals "tonic." 
>  Various earlier, continental systems going back to Guido himself 
> moved "Do" (or Ut), and note-names reflected that fluidity until the 
> middle of the nineteenth century in many places within the "Romance 
> tradition." But in those systems "Do" did not equal "tonic." "Mi," for 
> instance, was not "3"; it meant a tone with a half-step above it and a 
> whole-step below it. So almost every sharped tone was a "Mi" 
> regardless of scale degree.
> I assume that several subsequent messages will be triggered by the 
> lure of talking about solfège systems. It may be worth mentioning that 
> the flavor of a solfège system may matter less than the age of the 
> student to whom it is applied. College-age students are "adult 
> learners," which is why they may have considerable difficulty learning 
> any type of second language. Adult learners of solfège (of any system) 
> become about as proficient in solfège as adult learners of beginning 
> violin become as violinists (which is to say, not very proficient). On 
> the other hand, almost any system taught to receptive children over a 
> period of many years will produce truly impressive results.
> Best wishes,
> Bob Gjerdingen
> Northwestern Univ.
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