Moveable Do or Fixed Do?

Wondering what I might add to the fixed-do versus moveable-do debate, probably the best thing would be to relate my own experience in becoming a musician.  Growing up as a violinist in America, the only system I was given for referring to notes was an absolute one: letter note names that could be fingered on the instrument.  Early on, I had to find a note on my violin by its note name in order to know what it sounded like.  I had not been taught how the tones related to each other to make music. Later, I surprised myself when, as a high school student, I found I could pick out tunes by making lucky guesses for fingerings.  As a music major in college, I attended all my theory and aural skills classes, learning intervals by their numbers, sometimes being helped by attaching the sound of a well-known tune to that interval.  For me, this system was not adequate in helping me to hear in my head what I was reading on the page. Using my ears to form pure intonation with other instrumentalists or with myself was not a problem, since matching tones is a different skill from being able to perceive musical structure and tonal relationships.

It wasn’t until I was taught, much later, the use of moveable-do sol-fa that my ears awakened to tonal structure.  I rejoice that now I can hear a note as a sol, or a fa, or a ti, in any key.  The system is such a simple, marvelous template that can be moved anywhere around the tonal universe! It was a huge light bulb! I found this to be such an important piece of the musicianship puzzle that was previously missing in my own education, that I created a curriculum of my own for teaching my students from the beginning to have well-trained ears.

As I became aware that a fixed-do system existed as another way of learning the absolutes, I wondered why use it?  We already have a set of note names that functions very well.  Not until I learned that not all countries use these letter note names, but use sol-fa names for their notes did I begin to understand the problem.  And so, what it boils down to is what you were brought up with and your willingness to master both an absolute and a relative system for referring to pitches.  I went for a long time with ears which were asleep, because I was never taught any kind of relative system.  Now, I can hear in my head what I am going to play, instead of what I just played.

It is true that as music becomes more complex and/or atonal, the relative system becomes less useful and the absolutes more useful.  That is one reason why both are necessary.  As an educator, it seems to me the logical learning sequence is to teach the basic rules of tonality first as the foundation for understanding more complex forms.  When it comes right down to it, most of the music we enjoy today is tonal anyway.

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