Music Theory For Cellists Part One: Solfege & Intervals Warm-Up

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By Miranda Wilson

This is my first post in a projected series on learning and using music theory in cello practice. As well as my cello studio at the University of Idaho, I also teach a class in aural skills -- essentially the laboratory class for what students learn in music theory. In most theory methods, the material is taught in a piano-centric way, and I've been looking for a way to make it more applicable to the cello. Over the next few weeks, I'll be sharing some exercises that "kill two birds with one stone" -- that is, teach the principles of music theory at the same time as getting a good cello warm-up.

Intervals and Solfege

Intervals quizzes are the bugbear of many of my students. Most of us hear intervals just fine within melodic and harmonic contexts; what's hard is taking them out of context. I find that assigning certain solfege syllables to every interval based on the commonest melodic context in which we're likely to find that interval is the key to correctly identifying them. I also like to use intervals from the major scale for this in the earliest stages of teaching interval theory, to avoid confusion.

Er, so what exactly is this solfege....?

I'm a relatively late convert to movable-do solfege, since I grew up in New Zealand, where most people use the Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music theory and practical syllabuses. Solfege wasn't really part of the conversation for us. When I moved to America, however, I had to learn the American theory system, which relies heavily on solfege, and I have to say I like it. The syllables -- which it turned out I already knew from The Sound of Music -- provided an easily memorable way of articulating music theory.

 Well, mi re do, actually, but who's quibbling?

Well, mi re do, actually, but who's quibbling?

Essentially: "do" is always the tonic of the key we're in (so this may change within the course of a piece, since we'll be modulating to other keys). Therefore, in D major, D=do, A=sol, and so on. We use solfege to train our brains to understand the relationship between a note and its predecessor and its successor -- that is, training ourselves to have relative pitch. (A concept that is far more useful than its more famous relative, perfect pitch.)

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Common Interval Associations

Certain intervals are associated with certain melodic and harmonic roles in diatonic music. There are multiple possibilities for solfege for any interval; however, certain solfege associations are more common than others. For example, the interval of the tritone is associated with diminished 7 chord, and the V7 chord, and for that reason we assign it the solfege ti and fa (or the other way around). The minor seventh is associated with V7 and the dominant function, so we assign it the solfege sol and fa. It's tempting to relate every interval to "do," but I discourage this: there really isn't much of a context in diatonic music for, say, "do-te" for the minor seventh, whereas "sol-fa" is omnipresent in music from the past hundreds of years. (Don't believe me? Try singing "There's A Place For Us" from West Side Story, where you'll hear that intensely strong pull of the dominant seventh towards resolution on mi.)

Why the emphasis on the major mode? Well, I find this the easiest way to teach beginning intervals. Therefore, I like to use "do-mi" for the major third and "mi-sol" for the minor third. Of course "do-me" is a perfectly acceptable way to label the minor third, but I prefer not to do this because the major and minor thirds are commonly muddled, and assigning them both parts of the major triad (do-mi-sol) helps sort them out.

By the same token, the major third is the inverse of the minor sixth, so it makes sense to assign the same solfege syllables to these intervals (and the same goes for the minor third-major sixth combination, since most native English speakers know the very useful song "My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean," which begins with a major sixth).

With this in mind, I created a cello warm-up that goes through the intervals together with their commonest solfege contexts. This is great for multi-tasking because it also gives you a good shifting workout.

Just like for the shifting exercises that I wrote in Chapter Three of Cello Practice, Cello Performance, you'll need to establish a consistent contact point between bow and string, and ensure that your stance is balanced and relaxed.

Step One: sing through the exercise using solfege to the best of your ability (it doesn't matter if you're a bad singer, that's really not the point).

Step Two: play it on the cello! Use the bow from frog to tip. Shift slowly, "feeling" the shifts with your bow. Try to imagine that your shift is "powered" by the efficient pull of your bow, and that your bow's consistency and friction against the string are powered by the efficiency of the shift. As I stated several times over in Cello Practice, Cello Performanceall techniques are both-hands techniques.

Going further: theory is part of practice, and practice is part of theory.

Step Three: Using movable-do solfege, transpose the exercise into any key you like. You can play it on any string, using any finger. Five minutes of this every day will transform your ability to recognize intervals by assigning them with solfege contexts, and it'll improve your shifting and bowing. Win-win!

Exercise below, or download a free PDF complete with instructions here.

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