Department of Music

The Solfeggio Tradition

Leo Primi elementi, sheet music

The Solfeggio Tradition

The first music lesson for almost every 18th-century musician: singing plainchant with Guidonian scales (from Leonardo Leo's Primi elementi, c.1740).


Project summary

Project date: 2013 - 2015

Solfeggi, or studies in melody, were central to the training of European musicians c.1670-1850. The method originated in Italian conservatoires for disadvantaged children, especially at Naples and Bologna. The presence of large ms. collections in European archives (almost 300 in Italy alone) testifies to the importance of this kind of exercise for composition and performance in the 18th and 19th centuries, including for the ‘Classical Style’ of Haydn and Mozart, which continues to underpin modern notions of art-music as an academic discipline and creative industry.

Despite its historical significance and its potential to enliven current debates, the tradition has featured fleetingly, if at all, in modern scholarship. The reasons for this are complex, but can be explained in part by a prevailing Germanocentric bias and a continuing reliance on 19th-century theories.

In mapping out a significant new direction for musicology, this project challenges ingrained attitudes founded on a dominant national(ist) meta-narrative, framed in 19th-century Germany. It demonstrates the importance of music as a mechanism of transnational cultural exchange, which in many ways transcends linguistic barriers. It explores a vanished network of cultural relations – a shared understanding of melody – that once brought together the poorest and richest on (almost) equal terms. Although the conservatoires that pioneered solfeggi produced musicians for the super-rich, to provide entertainment at courts and chapels, they were at the same time charitable institutions that offered vocational training for the poor and dispossessed. Many great musicians of the western tradition (including Haydn) rose to exalted status from humble backgrounds, primarily through the spread of these training methods.

This Fellowship will produce the first monograph on the solfeggio tradition, supported by a free online database, public engagement and networking activities. It will reconstruct a forgotten art of melody, drawing on primary source material not available elsewhere, to provide scholars with a framework for further studies and performers, teachers, and learners with new insights (by, eg, informing the development of curricula and music education software, facilitating collaboration through an international network, offering workshops at schools and conservatoires, preparing an international conference and exhibition, attracting PhD students, and mentoring a research assistant).

To focus its scope, the study investigates Haydn’s operas and string quartets in light of the teachings of Neapolitan maestro Nicola Porpora, from whom he claimed to have learned ‘the true fundamentals of composition’. This involves the construction of a new theory, which inverts the conventional modern understanding of western ‘common practice’ music by identifying the main compositional determinant not in the bass, as bearer of harmony, but in the melody, as bearer of form (or discourse). Solfeggi taught melodic writing and ‘conduct’, or what would now be called musical form.

The solfeggio tradition embodies the meritocratic spirit of the Enlightenment. It testifies to a shared European heritage of melody as a cultural practice (or a kind of language) that crossed national boundaries. Meaningful parallels can be drawn with contemporary popular music culture, which can similarly unite people across linguistic and social barriers. Haydn learned his craft busking on the streets and backing singers. His music was founded on the elaboration of simple well-known formulas, like modern pop music. Its aim was to entertain.

With appropriate leadership, this seminal study of the solfeggio tradition will contribute to an increased understanding of inter-cultural relations in terms of the influence of a transnational diaspora (primarily of Italian musicians, transmitting their practices across Europe through oral teachings) and the power of music as a common language of popular culture.



Ever wondered how...

... baroque and classical musicians  really understood melody, keys, and modulation? Sung lessons in the rudiments, or 'solfeggi', provide the answer.

A solfeggio is...

... an instructional melody sung to syllables. Mastering a series of solfa exercises was an essential prerequisite for any eighteenth-century musician wishing to learn thoroughbass or keyboard playing.

The Western music tradition...

... was, in this sense, and in some places still is, a solfeggio tradition.


Solfeggi: Forgotten Secrets of Italian Music-Making

From 1680 to 1830, the period from Scarlatti to Bellini, professional music-making in Europe was dominated by Italians. Their traditions of composition, performance, and pedagogy were everywhere in vogue. By the middle of the nineteenth century, these traditions had been overshadowed by a new 'classical' music culture, to the extent that they were eventually forgotten in English and German-speaking regions. They survived elsewhere in Europe, however, well into the twentieth century (most notably at the Paris Conservatoire). The theory textbook still in regular use at the Athens Conservatoire in the 1990s consisted of eighteenth-century Neapolitan partimenti.

Cotumacci Solfa 1755, sheet music
Carlo Cotumacci, Solfa exercise with mutations (1755)

Until recently, almost nothing was known about the historical traditions of compositional practice which underpinned the work of, among others, Haydn and Mozart. Professor Thomas Christensen, one of the world's leading scholars of eighteenth-century music theory, tells a story of long sessions at the Prussian State Library in Berlin, where, in the hunt for rare treatises, he had to leaf through hundreds of manuscripts containing what appeared to be useless exercises in thoroughbass and counterpoint. These exercises – called partimenti, solfeggi, or disposizioni – turned out to be the core documents in a mostly non-verbal tradition of apprenticeship.

Cotumacci Solfa 1755, sheet music
Carlo Cotumacci, Solfa exercise in different keys (1755)

The past decade has witnessed rapid advances in our knowledge of these Italian traditions and their significance. Yet vast collections of archive material remain unexplored and many questions unanswered. This is why the project sought to uncover the sophisticated techniques of learning to sing and compose in Italian conservatories, with the help of solfeggi. The integral use of sol-fa syllables, derived from Guidonian hexachords, may have provided a key to unlocking many secrets of eighteenth-century tonality.

Nick Baragwanath's completed monograph is now available: 

The SolfeggioTradition: A Forgotten Art of Melody in the Long Eighteenth Century (Oxford UP, 2020) 


The Historical Music Pedagogy Network

The network Historical Music Pedagogy is open to all relevant topics, from Baroque performance practice through Neapolitan partimenti, to modern Suzuki and Kodály methods. Its core aim is to contribute to a fundamental reappraisal and rebalancing of music history which is currently underway. Increased awareness of the importance of hitherto marginalised (mainly Italian) traditions serve as a counterweight against the universal claims of a romantic heritage. 

We welcome and encourage contacts with researchers, teachers, and performers interested in music pedagogy from the seventeenth century to today.


Past events

Cheltenham Music Festival: 
Craft Secrets of the 18th-Century Musician

Nicholas Baragwanath explored the 18th-century musical techniques that would have been taught to the likes of Haydn, Bellini and Farinelli. In the interactive workshop participants had the opportunity to learn some tricks of the trade, secrets of the schoolroom, and some surprising hidden meanings to famous melodies.

This event was held on Saturday 11 July 2015, 3:30pm-5:00pm, Cheltenham Town Hall, Pillar Room, 5GBP

Cheltenham Music Festival:
Maestro'sMusicSchool  (for children 7+)

School on a Saturday? No way! But did you know that being a student in an 18th-century singing school involved everything from angel wings and donkey skins to stocks and fishing rods? Audiences were welcomed into Maestro Nick's classroom for an afternoon of learning to sing like an 18th century superstar!

This session was held on Saturday 11 July 2015, 2:00pm-3:00pm, Cheltenham Town Hall, Pillar Room, 5GBP


Teaching materials

Workshops, book, and app for an innovative approach to keyboard playing



Databases and online collections

Monuments of Partimenti (Robert O. Gjerdingen's edited and transcribed collection of 18th-century instructional music, hosted by Northwestern University)

Solfeggio (A comprehensive database of solfeggio sources compiled by Peter van Tour, hosted by Uppsala University)

Saggi musicali italiani (Andreas Giger's database of historical texts on music theory and aesthetics, hosted by Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University) (A searchable catalogue of Italian research libraries, including many digitalised sources)

Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica di Bologna (A searchable catalogue with digitalised sources, including material from Padre Martini's library)  

Conservatorio di Milano (Digitalised collections of pedagogical material)

IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library (International Music Score Library Project, digitalised sheet music)

Virtuelle Fachbibliothek Musikwissenschaft (A searchable catalogue of music libraries in Germany and Austria)

Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (Digitalised collections of German libraries)  

Related groups and network initiatives
The Art of Partimento (Facebook group dedicated to exploring historical Italian music pedagogy)

Pedagogy Study Group of the American Musicological Society  

Solfeggio group on

Partimento group on

Historical music pedagogy in the media
Educating Isaac (Nick Baragwanath's BBC Radio 3 Sunday Feature on the history of music pedagogy in the Neapolitan conservatories)

Find out how an eight-year-old girl, Alma Deutscher, learned to play and compose the old Neapolitan way, in The Sunday Times, 28 July 2013, p. 13.  


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Social media 

The Art of Solfeggio  

Project team Solfeggi 

Principal Investigator
Nicholas Baragwanath
(University of Nottingham)

Research Fellow
Annika Forkert
(University of Nottingham)

Historical Music Pedagogy Network 

Advisory committee
Rosa Cafiero
(Università cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan)
Thomas Christensen
(University of Chicago)
Robert O. Gjerdingen
(Northwestern University)
Giorgio Sanguinetti
(Università di Roma, Tor Vergata)

Associate members
Nicoleta Paraschivescu
(Musikakademie Basel)
Marco Pollaci
(University of Nottingham)
Peter van Tour
(Uppsala Universitet) 


Nick Baragwanath's completed monograph is now available:

The Solfeggio Tradition (Oxford UP, 2020) 




Department of Music

The University of Nottingham
Lakeside Arts Centre
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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