Staff Directory Calendar itslearning

Historic and Contemporary Applications of Mnemonics and Solfege in Music Education











Jill Hackney

Mu777 – Foundations in Music Education: Philosophy and History

April 27, 2008





            “All children have the right to a comprehensive musical education.”[1]This sentiment, expressed by Edwin E. Gordon has been echoed within the history and philosophies of music education from the time of Lowell Mason in the early 1800’s. An important part of music’s comprehensiveness can be explored by tracing the history and usage of mnemonics and solfege as realized in the Kodaly Method, the Orff Schulwerk process, and especially Gordon’s Music Learning Theory, and by looking at the current “conversational solfege” approach by Feierabend which brings together some of the best ideas of others. This discussion begins with a look at the historical roots of solfege in education.

            Solfege is a French term defined in the Harvard Dictionary of Music as “the singing of scales, intervals and melodic exercises to solmization syllables.” At the heart of solfege, an old and world-wide phenomenon, specific pitches and pitch relationships are associated with specific syllables. For example, “the Balinese name the pitches of their pentatonic scale 'ding-dong-deng-dung-dang,’ while classical Indian singing begins with the seven tones ‘sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni-(sa),’ … . In Europe, the practice that led to our familiar do re mi began almost a millennium ago.”[2]

Inspired by the stepwise ascension recognized at the beginning of each phrase of the familiar hymn, “Ut queant laxis” (“Hymn to St. John,”), the solfege scale was developed by Guido d’Arezzo (c. 990-1050), a medieval monk and choirmaster. He used his invention to train singers whom he apparently considered “the most stupid men of our times.”[3]Notice the first


syllable of each phrase of the hymn:

1.      Ut queant laxis

2.      resonare fibris

3.      Mira gestorum

4.      famuli tuorum

5.      Solve polluti

6.      labii reatum[4]


Representing the first Western solfege system, this hexachord was modified around 1600 to include the syllable “si” as a seventh pitch allowing the scale to span an octave. About the same time, “Ut” was changed to “Do”, possibly inspired by “Domine” – the Godhead, “reinforcing Do as the source of the whole scale.”[5]Later still, “si” was changed to “ti,” logically allowing a distinction between “sol” and “si” when abbreviating the scale, “d,r,m,f,s,l,t.”

Several centuries later, an important pedagogue to apply solfege to choral singing and ear training was Lowell Mason (1792-1872). Known as the “father of singing among the children,” Mason, along with Woodbridge and Ives compiled tune books for children containing introductions detailing the rudiments of music. Prepared in 1829, The Juvenile Psalmist offered thirteen pages of questions on staff, clefs, notes, rests, bars, slurs, sharps, flats, solmizations, key signatures, and time.[6] Additionally, consistent practice of ascending and descending scales in both major and minor modes was recommended.

            As the concepts of Swiss educator Johann Pestalozzi began to influence American education in the early 19th century, changes in pedagogical sections of tune books were made. Adapted for music instruction, the Pestalozzian principles had a great influence on American music education still recognized today:

1.      To teach sounds before signs – to make the child sing before he learns written notes or their names.

2.      To lead the child to observe, by hearing and imitating sounds, their resemblances and differences…

3.      To teach but one thing at a time – rhythm, melody, and expression are taught and practiced separately before the child is called to the difficult task of attending to all at once.

4.      To make children practice each step of each of these divisions until they master it before passing to the next.

5.      To give the principles and theory after practice, and as an induction from it. (This represented the sound before symbol principle.)

6.      To analyze and practice the elements of articulate sound in order to apply them to music.

7.      To have the names of the notes correspond to those used in instrumental music. (Mason 1843, 25-28)[7]

With these principles in mind, Mason developed a new format of instruction as noticed in his Boston Handel and Haydn Societys Collection of Church Music (ninth edition). He presented instructional materials with the music lessons, instead of apart from them. In 1830, Elam Ives divided instruction into three distinct sections - rhythm, pitch, and dynamics. Mason adopted the section names as headings in 1839. An important change made by Mason in his Modern Psalmist was the addition of exercises to the pedagogical section. The Pestalozzian concepts applied to music education made a lasting impression in the field, not only in the United States, but in Europe as well. Today, the idea of separating the elements of rhythm and pitch is certainly present in the teaching strategies of Orff and particularly, Kodaly and Gordon, but expression is encouraged along the way through sequenced lesson plans. Promoting the important learning of rhythm and pitch, each approach applies the practicing of mnemonics (or rhythm duration syllables) and solfege.

Like solfege, mnemonics has a long history, but this time as far back as Ancient times, and is cross-cultural. The practice of rhythmic vocalizations ranges from percussionists worldwide imitating the sounds of their instruments, to West Africans chanting poems and proverbs, to a highly developed system of vocal syllables in India. A prominent European system of rhythm syllables was developed by the Frenchman, Jacques Cheve in the early nineteenth century.  While mnemonics have no semantic meaning, they help children internalize the sound of rhythm.

The Kodaly Method, as understood in North America, was developed by the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967), his colleagues, and students in the 1940’s and 50’s.[8] Based on the philosophy that all people capable of linguistic literacy are also capable of musical literacy, the objectives of Kodaly musical training are as follows:

1.      to develop to the fullest extent possible the innate musicality present in all children

2.      to make the language of music known to children; to help them become musically literate in the fullest sense of the word – able to read, write, and create with the vocabulary of music

3.      to make the children’s musical heritage – folk songs of their language and culture – know to them

4.      to make available to children the great art music of the world, so that through performing, listening, studying, and analyzing masterworks they will come to a love and appreciation of music based on knowledge about music.[9]

Realizing these objectives the Kodaly method prominently involves the use of tonic solfa, hand signs, and rhythm duration syllables (mnemonics).

            Tonic solfa is a system of syllables – do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do – in which do is considered to be the keynote or tonal center in all major keys and la is considered to be the keynote or tonal center in all minor keys.[10] Also known as the moveable do system, tonic solfa is based on relative rather than absolute pitch (“fixed do”).  Since it focuses attention on pitch relationships and pitch functions within a tonal system, do to so in any key is easily recognized as the sound of the perfect fifth; so to mi, the sound of the minor third. Moveable do works well in any mode. (Kodaly included modal scales, beyond Mason’s major and minor.) The significance of understanding pitch relationships and functions is in the successful training of children’s voices and ears. Later, solfege syllables are transferred to absolute pitch names, for example C-D-E’s stand in for do-re-mi’s.  Solfege syllables and pitch names are used side by side by about the third grade as students develop their ears and work toward attaining music literacy.

            A prominent practice of the Kodaly method is the use of hand signs. Based on the work of Sarah Glover of Norwich, and popularized by the English minister John Curwen (1816-1880), Kodaly adopted the practice of combining each syllable of solfa with a specific hand sign to help students accomplish tonal memory more quickly.

            Rhythm duration syllables are taught by pattern. Relative durations over the beat are expressed in an adapted version of mnemonic syllables invented by Jacques Cheve in the 1800s. Using patterns and phrases largely from folk songs, the syllables are taught as representations of sounds and sound relationships rather than as mathematical values. The quarter note is spoken as “ta,” two eighth notes “ti-ti,” four sixteenth notes “tika-tika,” while triplets are “triola.”

            Overall, it should be understood that although presented here as separate entities, the teaching techniques of solfa, hand signs, and mnemonics are combined into one unified approach. This is done through highly sequential lesson activities with children’s natural development in mind. “In any lesson all the elements of music are intertwined. While the first-grade class is practicing known patterns of eighth notes and quarter notes, they are also singing rote songs with the soon-to-be-learned new note la.”[11]

            The use of mnemonics in West Africa, rendered through poems and proverbs, is the model for Orff Schulwerk teachers who extensively use speech patterns, rhymes and poems when teaching rhythms. Carl Orff (1895-1982) a German composer, and his colleague, Gunild Keetman wrote five volumes of Musik fur Kinder, along with several supplemental materials. Since Orff failed to offer guidance in the use of mnemonics, many teachers look to the Kodaly method. Borrowing from the modified Cheve system adopted by Kodaly, Goodkin prefers an alternative system of mnemonics developed by Cheve’s brother-in-law, Aime Paris (1798-1866). This French time-name system has as its fundamental premise the use of “ta” to define the beat. Any duration value can be called “ta” as long as it falls on the beat. “Te” defines the offbeat, halfway between beats. Every common division and subdivision of the beat has a corresponding syllable.[12] With a slight modification by Goodkin, a quarter, two eighths, four sixteenths, a triplet, and a dotted quarter are rendered as ta, ta-ti, ta-ka-te-ke, ta-ka-ti, ta. Elongated sounds are applied to longer note values falling on the beat: ta-a-a-a (whole) and ta-a (half).

            Carl Orff did not originally set out to develop a musical pedagogy for children.  The Schulwerk (school work) grew out of Orff’s collaborations with professional dance teachers. Today, Orff Schulwerk is known as a “process” not a method.The elements of music are explored first in their simplest, almost crude, forms. Gradually, through experience, these elements are refined and elevated to more complex levels of exploration and experience.”[13] Throughout the process, movement and the playing of percussion instruments in particular, are explored and experienced.

Like mnemonics, direction concerning solfege is not offered in the Schulwerk. At the point in 1948 where Orff turned the attention of his Schulwerk to children, he realized, “what the Schulwerk had so far lacked: apart from a start, in the Guntherschule we had not allowed the word or the singing voice its fully rightful place.”[14] But solfege in the contemporary Orff classroom is not uncommon. “Minus the scaffolding of what Orff called ‘the whole riches of the old, appropriate children’s songs,’ the child may be in desperate need of some kind of anchoring device.”[15] Solfege offers this. Goodkin practices certain physicalizations of pitch according to age. The youngest ages apply the largest motions in “sol-mi” chants as they tap their heads on “sol” and pat their shoulders on “mi.” Second graders begin experimenting with Curwen hand signs, while others use general hand gestures to show the shape of a melody.

            The ultimate goal of the Orff process is for children to be able to sing, play, and dance to music, as well as read and write it. Not systematized in Orff practice, the teaching of reading and writing music (literacy) is left to the imagination and instincts of the teacher.

            The approach of Edwin E. Gordon (b. 1928) and his Music Learning Theory (MLT) quite oppositely offers teachers detailed, sequenced lessons with the ultimate aim of literacy through the development of audiation skills. Audiation, a term coined by Gordon, refers to inner hearing, or the ability to hear music in the mind when it is not physically present.[16]In MLT, students progress through eight steps of sequential skill building, divided into two hierarchies of learning; discrimination and inference. For the purposes of this discussion we will focus on discrimination as it heavily involves solfege and mnemonics.

            The five steps of discrimination learning begin with the aural/oral stage. Listening is the aural part, while speaking or singing is the oral part. At this stage, tonal and rhythm patterns are performed on neutral syllables, often using “bah” for the former and “bum” for the latter. In stage two, the tonal and rhythm patterns are given verbal association by way of solfege and mnemonics. Solfege may be supported with Curwen hand signs as in Kodaly. Beyond Mason’s use of major and minor keys, Gordon includes modal and altered scales. Mnemonics are performed differently on a metrical basis.

            Gordon’s system of mnemonics is based on rhythm syllables first suggested by McHose and Tibbs in the 1940’s.[17]“’Du’ is used whenever the melodic rhythm pattern coincides with the underlying macro beat feeling. For example, in 4/4 where four macro beats are felt in a measure, a series of eight eighth notes would be ‘du-de-du-de-du-de-du-de,’ and if only two macro beats are felt in the measure, the syllables would be ‘du-ta-de-ta-du-ta-de-ta’”[18]Unlike Kodaly, but similar to Goodkin’s Paris-based system, Gordon’s mnemonic system is associated with meter as it is based on the underlying feeling of the macro and micro beats.

            The third step, partial synthesis involves assessing students in their ability to aurally recognize and discriminate the tonal and rhythm patterns taught.  Symbolic associations (step four) are made as tonal and rhythm patterns are learned visually with written symbols (notation). As with Mason, the Pestalozzian “sound before symbol” principle is noticed here. Durational note-name values like “quarter note” and “eighth note” are not named at this point. Finally step five involves a composite synthesis of children’s ability to read with ease and take aural dictation. It is important to note that MLT is not meant to stand alone as a sole method of teaching. Music teachers at all levels and disciplines are encouraged to integrate audiation learning sequences into their existing lesson plans.

            At its heart, MLT is concerned with the rhythmic and tonal dimensions of music training. As these elements are developed, audiation, a cognitive process by which the brain gives meaning to musical sounds, is strengthened.  According to the Gordon Institute of Music Learning, “Audiation is the musical equivalent of thinking in language. When we listen to someone speak we must retain in memory their vocal sounds long enough to recognize and give meaning to the words the sounds represent. Likewise, when listening to music we are at any given moment organizing in audiation sounds that were recently heard. We also predict, based on our familiarity with the tonal and rhythmic conventions of the music being heard, what will come next.  Audiation is a multistage process.”[19]

            Based on research and understanding in child development, and rooted in historically successful techniques and philosophies, each approach, Kodaly, Orff, and Gordon has stood the test of time. But Gordon, still living, has been able to take his research further. In a 1998 interview, he shared his thoughts that the others knew something was wrong (concerning music education) but that he has enough understanding in music, psychology, testing, and research to take their techniques to the next level.[20]He believes by applying the teaching tools of audiation and music aptitude tests, students can reach their full music potential. Gordon’s research indicates that music aptitude is innate at birth, “but can fluctuate until about age nine according to the richness and diversity of musical experiences the child undergoes.  After age nine, one cannot expect to achieve in music beyond the limit of one’s stabilized music aptitude.”[21]

            Granted Gordon’s research is accurate concerning music aptitude development by age nine, should not elementary music teachers do all they can to provided rich musical experiences for their students, including highly structured training in audiation? The answer is yes. Children deserve thorough music training just like they deserve to eat healthy complete meals. The part of the lesson that includes audiation training by way of mnemonics and solfege is like an enzyme supplement. As enzymes help the body assimilate nutrients, so can audiation training help students assimilate understanding of musical experiences. How can music teachers make the hard work of music training palatable?

            It all starts with a love of music, and a love and honoring of children and the way they learn. A sense of fun is certainly helpful. Most importantly, teachers who care get training. Each pedagogical approach offers training classes and level certificates. Particularly reminiscent of Kodaly and Gordon techniques, Dr. John Feierabend’s “Conversational Solfege” offers creative, child-friendly teaching strategies that implement rich musical experiences along with inner ear training. Of course mnemonics and solfege are key parts of his sequenced lesson plans.

            Concerning mnemonics, Feierabend encourages the use of Gordon syllables.[22]Du, du-de, du-tuh -de-tuh represent the quarter, two eighths, and four sixteenths. The benefits of using this system over others are many. As Du always represents the macro beat, de always represents the half point of the beat, and tuh, the subdivided point. The metrical underpinnings of the macro/micro concept support the overall expression or musicality of the piece at hand. Singing du’s and tuh’s further supports musicality. These syllables naturally open the aperture encouraging north/south formations which produce a lovely, open singing tone. Kodaly’s ti’s encourage too much east/west formation, resulting in a chomped sound. Finally, Gordon’s use of the consonant “d” is marked enough to suit its purpose on the heavy part of the beat, encouraging a more lovely sound than its harsher Kodaly counterpart, “t.”

            In regards to the practice of singing solfege syllables while forming Curwen hand signs, all of the approaches encourage this. The physical representations of the hand signs often formed somewhere between the hips (do) and the top of the head (high do) benefit visual, aural, oral, and kinesthetic learners. It is no wonder the practice is so popular. Kinesthetic learners may particularly benefit as the hand signs seem to render tangibility to inherently intangible tones.

Each approach to music education discussed here is valid. Within the methods, processes, and philosophies of Kodaly, Orff, and Gordon, common strategies and philosophies, age-old, are still realized today. The historically rooted common strategies of mnemonics, solfege, and hand signs, along with Pestalozzian elemental philosophy can be credited to the success and popularity of each major approach. The Kodaly method, developed in Hungary, was so successful it spread widely and rapidly from pre-school to conservatory. Today, while there are more than 240 primary singing schools in Hungary, the method has spread globally to include Japan, China, New Zealand, Australia, and Africa, most of Europe, and North and South America. Orff-Schulwerk has spread globally as well to include associations all over Europe and in Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States.  It is yet to be seen the total impact Gordon’s research will have on music education, globally speaking. For now he is a giant in the world of music education in the West as his MLT is gaining momentum alongside established Kodaly, Orff, Dalcroze, and Suzuki approaches. Feierabend’s “conversational solfege” ideas bring together the best of what each approach has to offer.













Birge, Edward B. History of Public School Music in the United States. Washington D.C.: Music

Educators National Conference, 1966.


Campbell, Patricia S. Music in Early Childhood: From Preschool through the Elementary

            Grades. Australia: Schirmer, 2002.


Choksy, Lois, Robert M. Abramson, Avon E. Gillespie, David Woods, and Frank York.

Teaching Music in the Twenty-first Century. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001.


Feierabend, John M. Conversational Solfege: Level 1. Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2001.


Goodkin, Doug. Play, Sing, and Dance: An Introduction to Orff Schulwerk. Mainz: Schott, 2004.


Mark, Michael L. Contemporary Music Education. Australia: Schirmer, 1996.


Mark, Michael L. and Charles L. Gary. A History of American Music Education. Lanham:

            Rowman and Littlefield Education, 2007.


Gordon, Edwin E. “All About Audiation and Music Aptitudes.” Music Educators Journal vol.

86, No. 2 (September, 1999). (accessed April 26, 2008).


Perrin, Phil D. “Pedagogical Philosophy, Methods, and Materials of American Tune Book

Introductions: 1801-1860.” Journal of Research in Music Education, vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring, 1970), (accessed April 4, 2008).


“The Gordon Institute for Music Learning,” (accessed April 21, 2008).

[1]The Gordon Institute for Music Learning, April 21, 2008).

[2]Doug Goodkin, Play, Sing, and Dance: An Introduction to Orff Schulwerk (Mainz: Schott, 2004), 135.

[3]Doug Goodkin, 136.

[4]Doug Goodkin, Play, Sing, and Dance: An Introduction to Orff Schulwerk (Mainz: Schott, 2004), 135.

[5]Doug Goodkin, 136.

[6]Michael L. Mark and Charles L. Gary, A History of American Music Education (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield   Education, 2007), 134.

[7]Michael L. Mark and Charles L. Gary, A History of American Music Education (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Education, 2007), 127.

[8]Lois Choksy et. al., Teaching Music in the Twenty-First Century (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001), 81.

[9]Lois Choksy, 101.

[10]Lois Choksy et. al., Teaching Music in the Twenty-First Century (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001), 84.

[11]Lois Choksy et. al., Teaching Music in the Twenty-First Century (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001), 101.

[12]Doug Goodkin, Play, Sing, and Dance: An Introduction to Orff Schulwerk (Mainz: Schott, 2004), 129.

[13]Lois Choksy et. al., Teaching Music in the Twenty-First Century (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001), 107.

[14]Doug Goodkin, Play, Sing, and Dance: An Introduction to Orff Schulwerk (Mainz: Schott, 2004), 138.

[15]Doug Goodkin, 139.

[16]Patricia S. Campbell, Music in Childhood: From Preschool through the Elementary Grades (Australia: Schirmer, 2002), 83.

[17]Patricia S. Campbell, 117

[18]Patricia S. Campbell, 117

[19]The Gordon Institute for Music Learning, “Audiation,” April 21, 2008).

[20]The Gordon Institute for Music Learning, “Edwin E. Gordon,” April 21, 2008).


[21]The Gordon Institute for Music Learning, “Music Aptitude,” April 21, 2008).

[22]John M. Feierabend, Conversational Solfege: Level 1 (Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2001), 10.