Atonal Melodies

Art Levine. Where It's Art! Atonal Melodies.

The fundamentals of fixed-do pedagogy.

In the Directions for Study to “Modus Novus,” one of the few books to deal exclusively with singing atonal music, Lars Edlund offers the following advice: “From the point of view of method, there is no cause for great anxiety because of a pupil’s possible tendency to read major/minor cells in to the melodies or to feel them. If the pupils will only accustom themselves to the frequent ‘mutations’ between these cells, it will promote their routine music-reading in spite of this feeling of major/minor tonality. With increased experience, the need for it will disappear.”

It has always seemed to me that Edlund touched on a very important idea here, but that he did so almost by accident, like someone stumbling around in the dark. Had that not been the case, he would have elaborated on it, to the point of considering which of the various methods for articulating those major/minor cells was best suited to his agenda.

There are three solfa systems in general use: fixed-do, and two branches of movable-do, one in which the tonic note is always called do, and one in which the tonic note can be any one of the seven syllables. The one I use is the last of these, and it’s the only one that can manage the demands of the sort of music Edlund is referring to. What are it’s advantages?

It is more than a little ironic that the criticism frequently levelled at the movable-do system is that it is only suited to simple music. To read about the background of solmization systems is quickly to discover that fixed-do is a later spinoff from the movable-do method (itself derived from hexachordal solmization). More important, from a psychological or cognitive point of view, it is demonstrably bankrupt. By consistently assigning the same name to the same pitch or pitch class regardless of context, fixed-do decontextualizes everything it touches. The notion that such an agent-orange approach can contribute to the development of the imagination, or the ability to analyse a piece, or to articulate any aspect of how it is being experienced in real time is flatly absurd. In reality, the fixed-do system attempts to turn its conscripts into machines, robotically spitting out letter-names (which is what fixed-do is) like so many computer keyboards. How such an appalling distortion of the relationship between notation and singing came about is a mystery, and a sorry one. Perhaps its origins lie in the economics of music-making in the nineteenth century. Where’s Karl Marx when I need him?

The movable-do system in which the tonic is always called do (tonic-do, I guess) represents another devolution from the earlier movable-do (or movable-ut) method, and is equally a disaster. Perhaps this deviation was the product of an overdose of singing too many non-modulating tunes in major keys. Evidence for that assertion is that this stands as the only sort of music for which this foreshortened technique is suitable. Nursery rhymes and campfire songs. And said foreshortening has not only to do with the highly restrictive view of tonality it reflects, but also with the suppression of historical awareness, particularly with regard to the modal system of the 16th-century and earlier, from which the major/minor world emerged.

Maybe the problem here is that musicianship instructors are usually not well educated on the historical side of things and, as instrumentalists, offer only a token sort of engagement with singing at all. In any case, the current situation is that in many music programmes in Canada, the U.S., and Europe, students continue to be led down a blind alley by the benighted followers of one of these deviant systems. This section of my website is dedicated to all of the students who have suffered at the hands of these dunderheaded incompetents.

What you’ll find here is evidence. I’ve uploaded some examples of the sorts of exercises and music Edlund was talking about, and added the movable-do syllables to suggest how they might be sung. If you are a student at a university with a fixed-do or tonic-do booby for a teacher, you might want to ask them how they would sing it, or even better, just ask them to sing it themselves. But be careful – embarrassing a phony can always be a dangerous undertaking, especially when they’re grading you at the end of their useless course.

Feb 13, 2015

Music for Percussion, Strings, and Celesta (1936). B. Bartok (1881-1945). mov’t I – fugue subject click here
Examples from Modus Novus. Lars Edlund click here
Commentary & examples from Modus Novus Chapter 4. Lars Edlund click here
Excerpt from Threni (1957-58). I. Stravinsky. De Elegia tertia: Querimonia click here
A Sermon, a narrative, and a prayer: III. I. Stravinsky (1961) click here

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