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What Is The Purpose Of Solfege Hand Signs?

The Solfege system has been around for quite a while, first developed in the 1800s. Today, you can find it used in a range of teaching and aural work. But, if you are not familiar with it, you may be wondering, “What is the purpose of solfege hand signs?”

A Hungarian

Possibly one of the most well-known and popular methods for teaching music is the Kodaly method. This was developed by a Hungarian music teacher and composer, Zoltan Kodaly, as recently as the middle of the 20th century. 

He devised his system to improve the effectiveness of teaching music in Hungarian schools. One of the techniques he used was solfege.

An Englishman

He used ideas that had been developed in other countries, including Britain and Switzerland. It was the Englishman, John Curwen, where Kodaly found solfege. However, one addition Kodaly made to his system was the addition of those solfege hand signs. 

It was Curwen who developed the hand sign practice. But, it was through the Kodaly system that they became popular to use.

What is Solfege?

What is Solfege

Before we go into looking at the hand signs we are going to be talking about, let’s just clarify what solfege is. Solfege is set around the diatonic scale. This has seven notes, A – B – C – D – E – F and G. There are two diatonic scales, major and minor. Solfege notes are from the major scale.

The solfege system assigns a specific syllable that is used for that note. To make it clearer, let’s use the scale of C major. That scale has seven notes and an octave. They are:

  • C – D – E – F – G – A – B and C.

In solfege these notes are written and sung as:

  • Doh, Re, Mi, Fah, Sol, La, Ti, Doh.

The Doh is always the starting note of the major scale. For example, we used the major scale of ‘C,’ where Doh is the ‘C’ note. Therefore, if we used ‘D,’ then Doh would be the ‘D’ note. And so on.

Moveable Doh

This is known as the Moveable Doh System. By that, we mean that the symbol ‘doh’ moves and goes to the starting note of the major scale we are in. That is, it moves to a ‘C’ or ‘D’ or any other note; that is the starting note.

There is a Fixed Doh system, but that is not seen so often these days.

So What Exactly Are Solfege Hand Signs?

The solfege hand signs, or to give them their correct name, the Curwen hand signs, are a set of hand movements. Each of these hand signs represents a different pitch in tonal scale. 

The idea was to give the student a physical association within the pitch system. Furthermore, this will assist with recognition and the reading of the pitches for musical performance.

A Hand Shape For Each Tone

The seven notes of the solfege system are each given a hand shape. They can all be made by using just one hand. They are linked with the solfege pitches doh – re – mi – fa – sol – la – ti.

Making The Shape Of The Sign With Your Hand

  • Doh – Simply make a fist, with the palm of your hand facing in a downward direction.
  • Re – Keeping the fingers together, palm down, and raise the fingers until they are at a 45-degree angle.
  • Mi – Make sure the hand shape remains the same, fingers together, palm down, and change your hand position, so the fingers are parallel to the floor.
  • Fa – Clench your fingers loosely, almost in a fist, extend your thumb out and point it down towards the ground
  • Sol – Straighten out your fingers and let the hand take up the same position as for ‘Mi’ but then turn your hand so that your palm is facing towards you.
  • La – Keeping your fingers together, extend the thumb out as if you were going to pick something up, making sure your hand is flat to the floor.
  • Ti – Make a very loose fist and then extend your forefinger upward at about 45 degrees.

“Which brings us back to doh”… someone should write a song.

An Extra Component

There is an extra consideration when making solfege hand signals, and that is the height. The level is used to demonstrate the pitch intervals between solfege pitches. For example:

  • Doh – Hand in front of your stomach.
  • Re – A little higher in front of your chest.
  • Mi – Shoulder height.
  • Fa – Level with your chin.
  • Sol – Level with your eyes.
  • La – Same level with your forehead.
  • Ti – At the top of your head.
  • High Do – Slightly above head level.

What Is The Purpose Of Solfege Hand Signs?

Teachers and Music Tutors wouldn’t use them if there was not a worthwhile reason. Going back to my childhood, I can remember music lessons at my secondary school. The teacher, Mr. Tibbles, and his wife would put colored thimbles on their fingers. He would put five on his left hand and two on her right hand. Each color represents doh, re, mi, etc. He would use his right hand to point. 

We learned our doh, re, mi that way. Later on, those who continued with their music had the beginnings of solfege hand signs explained.

Connecting Aural and Kinesthetic Skills

It isn’t easy to learn anything about ‘sight-singing.’ However, it can be made easier by connecting aural skills with hand signs. Teaching that way can teach the brain to associate hand movements with a pitch.

Retaining that information is enhanced by the hand shapes and the height differences. After a while, you can take up the postures automatically on request.

Developing Inner Hearing

That sounds like a strange description, but it has a simple meaning and one you may already be familiar with. Inner Hearing is sometimes called “Audiation.” It is the concept of being able to hear individual notes or even music in our head just by looking at the written score. 

There is no need to play, sing, or hum it. You can see the notes and hear the sound. Furthermore, if your inner hearing skills are developed, you can look at the music score and hear it in your head. You can appreciate what an advantage this can be. 

Therefore, these hand signals can help you develop inner hearing skills because you learn to internalize and recognize the pitches you are seeing. 

Adds An Interest Value

Going back to Mr. Tibbles (no, he honestly wasn’t a cat!), at the time, I don’t think any of us realized what an excellent teacher he was. Music theory is not high on the ‘interest scale’ for twelve-year-old boys. 

But he deliberately made it interesting. Using solfege and the associated hand signs was one way he introduced something new into the learning process. It relieved the boredom, if you want to call it that. But, while he was doing that, we were learning, probably without even realizing it.

Do Solfege Hand Signs Work?

Hand Signs Work

There is some debate over this. Some statistical analysis has been undertaken to justify its inclusion in the teaching program. Additionally, there seems to be little difference between those who were taught using it and those that weren’t.

However, confer with students who have been taught using it, and there is positivity. They think it made a difference. I certainly do.

Not Difficult To Justify

Any method that improves the learning experience is a good thing. And in my view, this applies to whether there are any quantifiable statistics or not. If just a few in a class of twenty get something from it, then it is worth it.

However, it is worth remembering that it isn’t an end in itself. It is an aid and not the final result. And, for students who have progressed beyond the early stages, it may well become obsolete very quickly. But, identifying that stage is quite hard.

And, like just about most things in life, everything is not for everyone. Therefore, it may help some but may not be so important to others. But doesn’t that apply to a lot of educational principles?

If you are thinking of using the solfege hand signal system to teach, then these teaching aids may be of some use:

Interested in Learning More About Music?

We can help. Take a look at our comprehensive articles on A Guide To The Chromatic ScaleDiatonic ScalesThe Minor ScalesA Complete Guide To Major ScalesThe Scale Degree Names Explained, and Relative vs Parallel Minor for more useful information.

Also, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Digital Grand Piano, the Best Digital Piano With Weighted Keys, the Best 88-Key Keyboards, the Best Portable Keyboard Pianos, the Best Digital Pianos, and the Best Cheap Keyboard Piano you can buy in 2022.

What Is The Purpose Of Solfege Hand Signs – Conclusion

To be fair to both points of view, the jury is out on the effectiveness of solfege hand signs. I can only offer a personal view in that I was taught using the system, and I found that it helped.

And, as I said, it also offered a welcome break from just being ‘lectured’ about theory non-stop. It certainly hasn’t got a negative aspect. And, as I previously said, if it helps a few students, then it would be worth trying such a system.

Until next time, let the music play.

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About Warren Barrett

Warren has spent nearly half a century (now that's a long time!) as an ink-stained wretch writing for music magazines and websites and has no plans on giving up soon.

He is curious about all types of music and instruments apart from any genre with 'Urban' in the title. He's also not so keen on Plastic Potted Plants, Reality TV, and any movies with Kevin Costner in them.

He lives in Delaware with his wife Wendy and lots of great memories...

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