I went to music school a few years ago, and earned a second BA degree. Anybody who has been through any music school knows that it’s hard. Especially if you’re not particularly talented going in. So I learned a lot, but still came out the other end relatively incapable.
But, as all good education does, it put the ability to learn in me. Some of the tools and disciplines I learned for studying music and practicing, I try to apply from time to time in order to keep my musical mind growing, and to keep my facility with these tools in some order.
My ear training instructor, David Xiques, taught us a form of movable-do solfa, the syllables most people are familiar with because of their famous use in the musical “The Sound Of Music.” Using these syllables allows me to look at any (simple) piece of music, identify the key, and sing out the melody with relative ease. As my ability progresses, I should be able to read more complicated pieces, and eventually have a good shot and hearing the melodies without applying solfa mnemonics to them.
Let’s take a look at a simple folk song I found in a library book. “Careless Love” is apparently a well-known song to some people, but it is new to me.
My first step is to identify the key of the piece. In this case it’s E Major. So the E (the bottom line of the staff) is the “Do” in this key. I will often start by singing a scale in the key, just to get my brain “in the key.”
Now, I can take a look at the song and try to make a slow reading of the melody with my solfa technique. Notice that I stumble and feel out the pitches sometimes, especially where you see accidentals (the ♯ and ♮ symbols alter the pitch slightly). Solfa has names for all these accidental notes, but I only know a few of them, and don’t use them correctly. Still, it helps me to utter something while squeaking past those spots.
Careless Love: Sung With Solfa
Once I’ve practiced singing through a few times with solfa, I try to read the actual words. Sometimes I have to switch back to solfa momentarily to get the “scale” back in my head. The song is still very sterile and unemotive. I’m pretty much just trying to get the right notes out.
Careless Love: Simple With Lyrics
Having the basic pitches down frees me up to start concentrating on the style I want to present the song in. Instead of the rote “on the beat” guitar strumming, I decide to give it a little strumming rhythm. I am also able to start loosening up my singing style because I’m not painstakingly seeking the correct pitch for every note.
Careless Love: An Acceptable Performance
At this point I’ve got a pretty decent understanding of the song, and I can play and sing it a nearly entertaining fashion. So I decide to start fooling around with it. Once I know the actual notes, I can take liberties and substitute other notes which are not technically in the original song, but which still work harmonically.
Careless Love: Personalized With My Style
I hope this serves as an interesting example of how a simple song can be dissected and, with the help of movable-do solfa, understood and performed with increasing artistry.