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This is a guest post by Leland Paul Kusmer, a linguist, musician, and friend of the blog, discussing to what extent solfège syllables like do, re, mi are non-lexical vocables (nonsense syllables), and other interesting musical uses of syllables. For previous discussion, see Why we sing fa la la instead of fra spla spla.
There are varying degrees of overlap in different cultures and different pedagogical traditions between the names of the notes of a scale and the vocables for that scale. For instance, in the Western tradition of solfège, we have two distinct systems. One is called fixed-do and is most closely associated with the French language and education system. Fixed-do uses the do-re-mi solfège syllables just as alternate names for notes (so it’s always the case that do = C, re = D, etc.).
The other major system is called moveable-do, and this is where it gets interesting: this system uses the solfège syllables as names for scale degrees (so if you’re in G Major, do = G, re = A). This means that the solfège syllables correspond more to the musical function of the note, rather than to the note itself. Since we already have letter names to refer to the fixed values of notes, I find the movable-do system more useful because otherwise you’re basically have double names for the same things. But this gets at the question of whether solfège syllabes are lexical or not: in a fixed-do system, the syllables are basically just proper names for the notes, and so really do seem to be lexical; in a moveable-do system, it’s much less clear. (More on fixed versus movable do.)
But it gets even more interesting when you step outside of the Western musical tradition.