7 reasons for using sol-fa in piano lessons

Teachers are often a bit scared of using sol-fa in piano lessons. Yet sol-fa is such a useful tool for piano teachers and once learnt is a real time-saver.


Sol-fa is the use of singing names for vocal pitch: doh, rah, mi, fah, soh, lah, ti. doh’. As pitch cannot be seen, sol-fa helps our brain to make sense of pitch changes and build a sense of the relationship of one pitch to another.

It is sometimes thought somewhat ‘old-fashioned’, however, this is far from the truth. It is certainly old though. stretching back to the 13th century and a monk called Guido d’Arezzo. It’s still around 7 centuries later because it works in a way that nothing else has quite managed to match. Of course, it has evolved since the 13th century and continues to develop to this day.

Its potential and benefits are immense. As Julie Andrews sang:

‘once you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything’.


The real beauty of sol-fa is its ability to create sensitive and knowledgable musicians. We are all musicians first and pianists second. The piano is merely our instrument of expression – it is not the maker of music. That is down to us as individuals.


One of the things I love about using sol-fa is the energy and enjoyment that it brings into a lesson. With beginners and elementary pupils a song or a chant often has a clapping game associated with it. Older students can be challenged to tap rhythm ostinati or sing and play in canon with themselves. It’s quite challenging but that’s the whole point!


There are lots of reasons for getting off the piano bench at some point during a lesson. Most importantly music starts with us and exists away from any instrument. Getting away from the piano and singing a phrase in sol-fa and then letter names helps the brain to make sense of it. Then, playing it on the piano is the simple bit – once the brain understands what it is doing.


Using sol-fa as part of the learning process provides a structure and framework for the individual pitches and their relationship to each other. This makes it easier for students to engage the sounds internally. Internalisation (called audiation in U.S) is a fundamental part of the process I was introduced to the term the Thinking Voice via The Voices Foundation and use it continuously with children. It is an immensely powerful but underused tool for all musicians.


One of the really beauties of using sol-fa from early days is that each song has its own tone-set. A tone-set is a subsection of a scale. The tradition is to start with soh and mi. The older the student though the less important it is to follow the progression exactly.
Building up the pentatonic scale often follows this order:

  • soh-mi
  • lah-soh-mi
  • mi-ray-doh
  • soh-mi-doh
  • soh-mi-ray-doh
  • lah-soh-mi-ray-doh

Members of The Community by the Curious Piano Teachers can access more training on this in the Develop your own Aural Skills Curiosity Box – CLICK HERE


Using sol-fa regularly in lessons helps to put listening exactly where it should be – at the heart of the learning process. Through the process of listening, singing and internalising students can then play with more musical awareness.


Using sol-fa helps to establish the relationships between patterns of notes. To help more advanced players improve their sight-reading in complex keys give them Elementary pieces to sing. Then ask them to transpose into more challenging keys.

You’ll only find out how useful a tool sol-fa is (and remember it is just a tool) when you start to use it. So why not give it a go and start to experience some of the benefits that it brings.

Finally, here’s one of my Tuesday Teaching Tips where I demonstrate some of the ideas.

This blog post was written by Dr. Sally Cathcart, co-founder and Director of The Curious Piano Teachers.

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