Conversational Solfege

Developing Music Literacy 
with Conversational Solfege:

An Aural Approach for an Aural Art

John M. Feierabend


What is “True Music Literacy?”

Jason, a young undergraduate music student, answered an ad for part time employment at the Russian Embassy.  Besides the telephone number, the only other information in the ad read “Better than average pay; some computer keyboard skill preferred.”  When he arrived for the interview he was among thirty other hopefuls that had been told to arrive at the same time.  After a short wait, the entire group was brought into a large room where they were each seated at a computer terminal with a document on to  one side.  The group was instructed that as part of the interview they were to type the first five pages of the document into the computer and hit the “control” button as they finished each page.   They would be given ten minutes.  The typing commenced and to Jason’s dismay, he discovered the document to be typed was in Russian.  He decided to do his best but his hope for the job quickly faded.  Sideways “E”.  He searched the keyboard.  Eventually finding the letter, he touched the key.  Circle with a line through it.  Another hunt resulting in an eventual press of the key. Backwards “R”. Hunt. Hit. And so it went with Jason occasionally remembering the location of one of the foreign letters.  “Time! Please stop typing and return to the waiting area.  You will be called back one at a time for a short interview.”  Jason exited with the rest of the group.   When Jason’s name was called he came back into the computer room and was asked to sit at the same terminal as before.  The interviewer reviewed Jason’s work and commented that he had not entered very much of the text, in fact had not completed even one page.  He had not, however, made very many mistakes either.  “Do you read Russian?” asked the interviewer.  Jason responded with a simple “No.”  “Can you begin on Monday?” was the interviewer’s unexpected next question.  Jason responded with a surprised “Yes!”

Jason finished his first day at work a little fatigued from the grueling hunt and peck exercise.  But by the end of the week he was beginning to know the keyboard location for most of the letters.  At the end of two months Jason was employee of the week, typing faster and more accurately than any other who had started when he did.  In speaking to several of the other students who also worked in the computer room, he learned that none of them spoke or read Russian but were hired because of their typing accuracy during the interview.  The following fall he transferred to a new school and resigned from his job. He was told his talents would be missed.

Not long after he learned from one of his friends that the Russian agency had been shut down  as it was set up to dispatch confidential political documents to Russia.  Jason “played” the Russian typewriter better than average all the while remaining Russian illiterate.

How does this compare to the way many of us were taught to read music through playing an instrument? When you see this dot in this space press this key.  This dot…….press this key.  It is slow at first but with practice, we gain familiarity with the location of the keys for each symbol.  In time, our reading and playing proficiency progresses.  Does this mean you have become musically literate?  When looking at a printed piece of music, can you tell what the music sounds like without the instrument to interpret?  Why do so many choral directors spend their summer months at a keyboard, “playing through” prospective choral literature? Could it be because they aren’t able to read and hear the music without the aid of a keyboard interpreter?

True music literacy is often misunderstood.  The ability to identify “letter names” i.e., F, A, C, E, D#, or Bb etc., when looking at notes on a staff and press the corresponding keys on an instrument should not be confused with true music literacy.  Identifying ∆ as “delta” or ∑ as “sigma” or to know the location of those symbols on the keyboard does not enable one to understand the meaning of those words any more than the recognition of “letter names” or instrumental fingerings ensures an understanding of the musical meaning of those tones.

When one becomes truly musically literate the playing of an instrument becomes a natural extension of one’s personal musicianship. The development of true music literacy prior to instrumental instruction will enable instrumentalists to express music through their instrument rather than using the instrument to hear the music.


We should not allow anyone even to go near an instrument until he or she can read and sing correctly.  This is our only hope that one day our musicians will be able to “sing” on their instruments.   [1]


True music literacy develops the ability to hear what is seen and see what is heard.  This is not a recent insight. The sequential development of skills which allows for true music literacy has been explored as far back as Guido d’Arezzo in the 11th Century.  Other historical advocates for hearing eyes and seeing ears have included Lowell Mason, Sarah Glover, John Curwen, Fritz Jöde, Thaddeus Giddings, and later Zoltan Kodály, Edwin Gordon and their students.


Readiness for Literacy

During the first five years of life we are busy making aural sense out of the complex labyrinth of language.  After achieving a certain level of conversational competence we enter school and begin a structured reading and writing curriculum. A similar process takes place when one studies a foreign language first at a conversational level.  The development of ear comprehension precedes reading, writing or grammatical structure education.  These models of learning can be applied to the development of music literacy.

Before embarking on a music literacy program, readiness skills must be in place.  The higher the musical goals the more secure the foundation must be.  Children can begin a literacy program at a very early age but should they? If the goal is to achieve reading comprehension beyond basic levels it is better to invest the time in foundation building than to begin construction of reading skills too soon.

When building the Sears Tower in Chicago many months passed before the first floor was constructed. During that time a foundation was being created that would support 104 stories.  Plans for such an eventual achievement required careful planning and time invested in building a foundation that would support a great building.  If the goal was only to construct a building a few stories high the foundation would not need to be as secure. But achieving great heights is not possible on an inadequate foundation.

Designers of Kindergarten curricula have long advocated spending the year in reading readiness programs.  Postponing teaching reading skills in order to build stronger readiness skills does not delay ultimate reading skills; it actually enhances them.


         In one…program first graders did not even get reading textbooks until January. [When] doing exercises in pure sound awareness…students rapidly overtook and passed children in control groups when they finally got their reading books.[2]


Before embarking on a music literacy program three readiness skills should be in place.

1)      Comfortable and accurate singing skills.  (Tuneful)

2)      Comfortable and accurate moving skills with the beat in metrical groupings of 2 and 3 (Beatful)

3)      Expressive sensitivity (Artful)


This third requirement is often overlooked in music literacy curricula.  One of the mysteries of notation is that the subtleties of expression cannot adequately be represented in notation.  It is the inherent expressiveness, however, that is the art part of music. What appears in notation is merely the skeleton of the music.  The interpreter of the notation must breath life into the skeleton.  This expressive sensitivity development must be assimilated from good musical models and from quality literature that embodies expressiveness. A preschool child who has been read to in an expressive manner will later integrate expression into his/her reading. A child who is sung to in an expressive manner will later sing with expression and be sensitive to the inherent expressive qualities in music.


Conversational Solfege: A Literature Based Curriculum

Conversational Solfege is yet another permutation of the “hearing eyes-seeing ears” axiom. It synthesizes the logical, practical and philosophical issues raised by earlier music literacy advocates while integrating contemporary thinking and research.  Merging true music literacy skills with the conviction that the finest quality music should be used in the process leads to an exciting and effective curriculum.

From a philosophical perspective, Conversational Solfege is greatly influenced by Kodaly philosophy and the Whole Language Approach in that it is a literature driven curriculum.  As recently as two generations ago beginning reading texts taught children general reading skills through contrived stories such as:


See Tip.  See Mitten.  See Tip and Mitten. See the ball. Tip sees the

         ball. Mitten sees the ball. Tip and Mitten see the ball.


Whole Language advocated the development of reading skills with “real literature”.  The love of reading is more than a just skill. It is an affection for the wonder of books, developed through immersion in quality literature.  Reading should not be taught simply for the thrill of being able to decode the printed page, but for the hidden messages that are to be found below the surface of the printed page. Those messages are only buried in quality literature that genuinely reflects the pathos of people and artists.

For generations there has been a subclass of music literature introduced in general music classes.  This contrived “school music” was developed for every imaginable reason; thematic unit, rhythm pattern, formal structure, scale passage, suitability to the beat, meter, tonality, harmonic function or because “the kids liked it.”  Conversational Solfege is built on the natural folk music of people and artists rather than artificially contrived “school music.”  We must be sure to develop in our students an affection for the subtle expressiveness that only quality literature can embody.  Zoltan Kodaly often wrote about the shallowness of the artificially contrived “school music” that permeated the Hungarian schools through the mid-twentieth century.


So by communicating only inferior music, the schools cut off the way to a higher development of the musical sense.  In the name of good taste and of the Hungarian spirit alike, school literature generally used today must be protested against. I include in this the greater part of unison school songs, too. Some writers of textbooks consider Hungarian children idiotic by tutoring them with such little verses and songs as could be improvised much better by any sound child given the chance.[3]


And in another presentation Kodaly stated:


         It is not advisable to peruse (these) collections.  At first one laughs, than one becomes annoyed and finally one despairs and cannot imagine that in a country where such things are printed and even sung aloud, there may still be room for anything better. And what about the masses for whom this remains their only music?  Can we be surprised if, by the time they grow up, they cannot get further than the music of the trashiest hit?[4]


Most music educators are aware that Kodály considered folk music to be a good source of quality music. But he also cautioned, however, there is much second rate music masquerading as folk music.


         But nothing is as harmful as a distorted Hungarian folksong.  The child will become bored, in fact he will come to loathe the hackneyed outward trappings of the superficial Hungarian character before he comes to know the genuine one.  It is the greatest crime to fill the child’s soul with that sort of thing instead of the traditional songs.[5]


Kodály was equally concerned that children have the opportunity to experience exemplary composed music, both historical and contemporary examples. But, again, he cautioned against composed children’s music that was childish rather than child-like.


         …but bad taste in art is a veritable sickness of the soul… No one is more instinctively susceptible to pure art than the child, for as young people recognize in their hearts, in every great artist there is a survival of the child.  Indeed, the superstition should be completely reversed; only the best art is good enough for children, anything else will only do them harm.[6]


Kodály was greatly concerned about the inferior quality of composed music that was frequently used in music education classrooms.


         Nobody can be forbidden to compose melodies-if he keeps them to himself.  But what about someone who uses the authority of his official position to spread his worthless rubbish?[7]


         If, nevertheless, something new is needed, let it be written by talented and qualified composers-there are plenty of them.[8]


         Nobody is too great to write for little ones; indeed, he must do his best to be great enough for them.[9]


Music Literacy “Naturally”

A literature driven curriculum requires the first priority to be the assembly of excellent musical materials including authentic music of a society and the music of artists. Early in the twentieth century Kodály and Bela Bartok spent decades collecting, analyzing and cataloguing Hungarian folk music prior to the organization of that music into a sequence of instruction.

Once the materials were organized, a sequence of instruction emerged that ordered the songs from simple to complex. Where to begin depended on the discovery of the simplest rhythm and tonal patterns, meters and tonalities in the gathered literature.

If patterns, meters and tonalities occur frequently in the indigenous  music of a society and the music of artists of that society then they represent musical characteristics that are most natural to a society. If patterns, meters and tonalities occur less frequently, they must be less natural.  A literature driven curriculum presents musical materials from the familiar to the unfamiliar; from the most common elements to the least common elements; from the simple to the complex.  In France, Kodály curricula often begin with the “Low so” to “do” pattern and in Japan many Kodály curriculua begin with the “re, do, low la, pattern.”

Using the Hungarian model, the finest quality songs of our country, our ancestors, and the music of artists were collected, analyzed and ordered from simple to complex.  The analysis of the song content from our country resulted in the need for a different sequence from the one the Hungarians created which reflected rhythmic and melodic characteristics of their country’s music.  Conversational Solfege begins with simple rhythm patterns in 2/4 and 6/8 and “do re mi” as there is an abundance of “natural music” to suggest this is a natural place to start with citizens of the United States.  Other cultures should likewise invest in a thorough investigation of their people’s indigenous music and create a sequence of instruction that reflects their common patterns, meters and tonalities. A literature driven curriculum should reflect the natural musical characteristics and emotions of a given society.


The Process of Developing Music Literacy Skills 

Experiences with pictures attached, even when they involve looking at picture books and learning new words, are not as valuable (as learning through the ears) because the child needs to learn “sooner, rather than later” to go beyond just naming things that can be seen. Language that always comes with pictures attached will produce different brain organization than that which must be processed only through the ears. Whatever the cause, studies have shown that early experience with careful, analytic listening can dramatically improve auditory processing, listening comprehension, and in turn, reading ability – even in children with an inherited weakness. Unless the adult community decides to help us wrap these growing brains in the mental garments of language, reflection, and thought, I fear we will continue to see increasing numbers of children categorized as “educationally sick.”[10]


Developing music literacy should follow much the same process we follow when we naturally develop our own speaking, reading and writing skills.  In learning one’s own language there are five or six years in which language skills are developed by ear before the reading and/or writing of language is introduced.  This natural process enables one to instinctively communicate verbally with words and later, after learning to read, learn to write those thoughts. While Conversational Solfege does not suggest the first five or six years of music instruction should be only by ear it does recommend that “conversational” skills with rhythm syllables and solfege syllables should be developed prior to the introduction of reading and writing music.

Conversational foreign languages are developed with the same premise.  Students of Conversational French develop an ever-increasing spoken vocabulary without the introduction of reading or writing skills.  Words are introduced aurally by rote.  After sufficient repetition students are asked to recall the words and gradually rearrange the words to express themselves. We learn thousands of words before we come to school.  And then one day we are taught there is a way you can see language; it’s called the alphabet. We should learn to understand music first by ear through rhythm and solfege syllables and then learn there is a way to see those syllables; it’s called notation. In our own language, in studying foreign languages, and in learning music, only after conversational skills are in place should we study of reading and writing of what we know by ear.

Perhaps because Kodaly’s first area of expertise was linguistics, he also advocated, as in language development, that the musical ear should be developed before the eye.

But the singer first understands the meaning of the sound and learns the symbols later, which he then understands better.[11]

Conversational Solfege borrows from these language models and develops  music literacy skills through a 12 stage process culminating in ones’ ability to write original music thoughts (compose).  Beginning with the simplest rhythm and tonal patterns each stage introduces a new level of understanding while building upon the previous understandings.  Gradually, expanded rhythm and tonal content is learned through the same 12 stages.

The twelve stages of Conversational Solfege seem especially well suited to learning an art which is aural; music. Learning to understand music by ear and later, reading and writing, ensures that the ear and musical mind are playing an active role in the processing of musical ideas.  It ensures that understanding and creating music occurs through the musical manipulation of sounds rather than the mere manipulation of symbols  The manipulation of symbols does not necessarily evoke musical thinking; whereas the manipulation of sounds pursues  the desired goal.After all “music” is not the symbols found on the printed page but the sounds that reach the ear.  In most European countries, the word “music” does not refer to the printed copy.  Music can not be seen…only heard. The printed copy is referred to as the “notation.”  Notation is the skeleton of music.   We must breathe life into the skeleton to make music.

The following descriptions of the twelve stages of Conversational Solfege allows for the “music” to be first learned and aurally understood before bonding to the “notation.”


Stage 1: Readiness


Songs and rhymes are learned by rote; they contain rhythm and/or tonal content which will be studied later.  Rhythm and solfege syllables are not used at this stage.


Stage 2: Conversational Solfege


Rhythm syllables and/or tonal syllables are introduced.  Patterns are spoken or sung by the teacher with the rhythm  or tonal syllables and students repeat, by rote, those patterns with the syllables.  During this stage students bond the sounds of rhythm and tonal patterns with aural labels.


Stage 3: Conversational Solfege

Decode – Familiar

This stage serves as an evaluation to see if students have bonded rhythm and/or tonal patterns with the correct syllables.  The teacher speaks or sings familiar patterns, songs and rhymes with neutral syllables or texts. The students repeat the patterns, songs and rhymes using rhythm or tonal syllables. Patterns used at this stage have previously been presented with syllables during the Conversational Solfege-Rote stage. Songs and rhymes used at this stage should have previously been presented by rote during the Readiness stage.  This stage only requires students to aurally recognize and decode previously learned musical examples.


Stage 4: Conversational Solfege

Decode – Unfamiliar

This stage serves as an evaluation to see if students have bonded rhythm and/or tonal patterns with the correct syllables well enough to use the correct syllables when decoding unfamiliar patterns, songs and rhymes. The teacher speaks or sings an unfamiliar pattern with neutral syllables as well as unfamiliar songs and rhymes with texts;the students repeat the patterns, songs and rhymes with rhythm or tonal syllables. Patterns, songs and rhymes used at this stage have not been previously learned.   This stage requires the students to generalize from what they know to make sense out of something new.


Stage 5: Conversational Solfege


This stage develops the ability to think and bring musical meaning to original musical thoughts.  Students create original rhythm or tonal patterns or melodies using rhythm or tonal syllables.  Reading notation should not be introduced until students have achieved success at this stage.  During this stage students begin developing improvisation skills which will enable them to later compose during the Writing-Create stage.


Stage 6: Reading


During this stage students are introduced to notation symbols.  The teacher reads notated patterns for the students. The students repeat the pattern while looking at the notation.  This is much like the introduction of a set of vocabulary words in the elementary grades. While looking at the new words the teacher speaks each word and the children repeat.


Stage 7: Reading

Decode – Familiar

This stage serves as an evaluation to see if students have bonded the notation for rhythm and/or tonal patterns with the correct syllables.  The teacher asks the students to think through notated patterns, songs and rhymes with rhythm or tonal syllables and then speak or sing them aloud using the rhythm or tonal syllables.  Patterns, songs and rhymes used at this stage should have been presented previously. This stage requires students to visually recall the sounds and syllable names of previously introduced material. In learning general reading skills this is similar to students being able to read vocabulary words the teacher previously presented.


Stage 8: Reading

Decode – Unfamiliar

This stage serves as an evaluation to see if students have bonded the notation for rhythm and/or tonal patterns with the correct syllables and can generalize that knowledge to unfamiliar patterns, songs and rhymes. The teacher asks the students to think through unfamiliar notated patterns, songs and rhymes with rhythm or tonal syllables and then speak or sing them aloud using the rhythm or tonal syllables.  Patterns, songs and rhymes used at this stage have not been presented previously. This requires visual decoding skills and inference thinking.  This stage represents true sight-reading skills and is similar to students being able to recognize their new vocabulary words in the context of a new story.


Stage 9: Writing


During this stage students practice writing notation.  Students should copy existing patterns, songs and rhymes and be instructed in proper manuscript techniques.  This is similar to early elementary children practicing penmanship as they learn to write letters, numbers and words.


Stage 10: Writing

Decode – Familiar

During this stage students engage both conversational decoding skills and writing decoding skills.  The teacher speaks, sings or plays familiar patterns or phrases from a song or rhyme with neutral syllables or the text.  Students think each pattern with rhythm or tonal syllables (Conversational – Decoding) and then write the notation for the pattern (Writing-Decode).  This stage requires aural and visual decoding but not inference thinking. This stage is similar to students taking a spelling test based on the latest list of vocabulary words.


Stage 11: Writing

Decode – Unfamiliar

During this stage students engage both conversational decoding skills and writing decoding skills.  The teacher speaks, sings or plays unfamiliar patterns or phrases from a song or rhyme with neutral syllables or the text.  Students think the pattern with rhythm or tonal syllables (Conversational – Decoding) and then write the pattern (Writing-Decode).  This stage requires aural and visual decoding as well as inference thinking. If you can sing it with syllables you can write it.  The syllables tell you what to write. This stage is commonly understood as “taking dictation.” In language development this stage would be the equivalent to children determining the spelling and writing of an unfamiliar word by “sounding it out.”


Stage 12: Writing


This skill requires students to conversationally Create through inner hearing and then Writing-Decode by transferring their musical thoughts into notation.  Musical improvisations can now become compositions.


Developing Literacy Skills with “Music Art”

An individual is considered literate when he/she can read new material with expression and write his/her thoughts.  When an individual is truly musically literate he/she can expressively read new musical material without the aid of an instrument and can write his/her own musical thoughts. Developing music literacy skills with quality literature enables students to develop the skills to hear, read and write music while introducing them to the rich repertoire of our cultures expressive music as well as exemplary composed pieces.  With these skills and musical influences we may just inspire a new generation of citizens who will be able to not only read and write music but be able to understand and appreciate the subtle expressions of music that are embodied below the surface in art.

  1. Kodaly, Zoltan, 55 Two-Part Exercises. Boosey and Hawkes, New York p. 2
  2. Healy, Jane, Endangered Minds. Touchstone. New York, New York. 1990 Page 287
  3. Zoltan Kodaly, “Children’s Choirs,” The Selected Writings of Zoltan Kodály, Boosey and Hawkes, London, 1974, p.125
  4. Zoltan Kodály, “Music in the Kindergarten,” The Selected Writings of Zoltan Kodály, Boosey and Hawkes, London, 1974, p.142
  5. Zoltan Kodály, “Music in the Kindergarten,” The Selected Writings of Zoltan Kodály, Boosey and Hawkes, London, 1974, p.145
  6. Zoltan Kodály, “Music in the Kindergarten,” The Selected Writings of Zoltan Kodály, Boosey and Hawkes, London, 1974, p.120
  7. Zoltan Kodály, “Music in the Kindergarten,” The Selected Writings of Zoltan Kodály, Boosey and Hawkes, London, 1974, p.137
  8. Zoltan Kodály, “Music in the Kindergarten,” The Selected Writings of Zoltan Kodály, Boosey and Hawkes, London, 1974, p.147
  9. Zoltan Kodaly, “Children’s Choirs,” The Selected Writings of Zoltan Kodály, Boosey and Hawkes, London, 1974, p.125
  10. Healy, Jane, Endangered Minds. Touchstone. New York, New York. 1990 Chapter 7
  11. Kodály Zoltan, 24 Little Canons on the Black Keys, Boosey and Hawkes, New York. p. 2