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ALTERNATIVE TONAL SYLLABLES             posted  February 16, 2015

This post is for those readers who are interested in one of the main ideas of this blog: how to adapt Edwin Gordon’s Music Learning Theory to a musical system where the tonal syllables Do,re,mi… are note names and therefore it is impossible to use them to sing tonal patterns (where the syllables used remain the same regardless of the key they are sung in, as long as they are in the same mode).

Tonal syllables are a valuable tool for developing the ability to “audiate”, or think and comprehend music. Used in patterns belonging to different tonal (or harmonic) functions which students learn to differentiate and sing imitating the teacher, the syllables allow them to acquire a “musical vocabulary” and comprehend from a very early age how these functions influence music and how they are used to create musical discourse – all this, aside from educating the voice and pitch differentiation, a requisite for playing an instrument in a truly musical way.

However, in countries like Spain, France, Portugal and many others, the traditional syllables do,re,mi… which are used in Music Learning Theory, are “otherwise occupied” being note names.  Like many other music teachers, I found that when trying to apply Gordon’s ideas, if I used do, re, mi… as tonal syllables I confused my students. I was not enthusiastic about teaching them new note names (that is, the letters used in English- and German-influenced countries) for reasons I explain in a different post (in Spanish) nor was I keen on using numbers, for reasons Gordon explains very well in his book Learning Sequences in Music and which I summarize (also in Spanish) in another post.

What I needed was a set of different tonal syllables that would work in the same way without causing confusion. Since I was unable to find them anywhere I decided to create them. It’s a simple idea, but creating them turned out to be more complicated than I at first expected. I self-imposed several requirements, some of which, to be honest,  I was not completely successful in satisfying to my liking, but the syllables I finally decided on, which I explain here, have shown themselves to be funcional and have given very good results with my students. My requirements were:

  • They should be pleasant and easy to pronounce in the languages they will most likely be used in.
  • They should not contain any of the traditional syllables do, re, mi…
  • They should not contain any of Gordon’s rhythm syllables.
  • When they are combined, they should not form words with undesirable meanings.
  • They should be easy for teachers to remember and learn.
  • They should be modifiable in a coherent way in the case of wanting to use chromatic syllables.

These new syllables are To Ke Ni Sa Lo Na Ti. They work in the same way as the traditional syllables in the moveable Do system used by Gordon, where Do is the tonic in major mode and La is the tonic in minor mode. That is: To is the tonic in the major mode and Na is the tonic in the minor mode.

Sílabas tonales en mayor (con Do como tónica)

Tonal syllables in major mode (where traditionally Do is the tonic)

Sílabas tonales en menor (con La como tónica)

Tonal syllables in minor mode (where traditionally La is the tonic)

As you can observe, the new syllables maintain the same vowels as the traditional ones, changing the consonant to a phonetically similar one so as to aid teachers in remembering them (this was not always completely possible, due to my self-imposed requirements). Of course, theoretically any syllables could be used – these are simply the ones I opted for. However, in my opinion it is essential that the said requirements be met; if anyone finds syllables that work better and meet all of the requirements, I would encourage them to share them with others (including me!).

These tonal syllables have achieved highly positive results with students: they learn them easily and enjoy singing them, teachers memorize them easily because they are similar to the traditional ones, and after working with them, as well as with Gordon’s rhythm syllables, in a short time there is a notable increase in musical comprehension in the students, which leads them to much better reading and understanding of written music, much more natural musical interpretation, and an ability to improvise and transpose that most other students find difficult, to say the least.

If you are interested in more information on how to use these tonal syllables with your students, please leave a comment or email me. I will be happy to respond.


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