Culture and communication
The Solfeggio Tradition: the historic method transforming the way music is taught
Across the world, millions of children are currently learning to play a musical instrument. Be it a piano, violin, or clarinet, music brings joy to so many people but, often, the process of learning can be difficult and the culture surrounding it somewhat elitist.
Modern ‘classical’ music practice focuses on learning a notated score and encourages standardisation – leaving little room for creativity. It’s a museum culture, which seeks to preserve rather than develop. Learners train their minds and bodies to be able to play or sing the same printed scores as flawlessly as possible. If successful, they will produce millions of near-identical renditions of the same pieces.
My research seeks ways to make learning music more creative, fun, and personally fulfilling by discovering forgotten practices of the past. Musicians then could conjure up music instantaneously, without the need for scores. Can we learn to do the same?
When I was taught music as a child, I would always ask my teacher if the theory and methods I had to learn were the same as those used by, say, Bach or Mozart. The answer was always no, because no-one knew how Bach or Mozart learned their skills or conceived their music. My research seeks to provide an answer. I uncover real historical practices and ask how they might inform and enhance music tuition and performance today.
It was this desire to learn from the greats that led me to uncover the Solfeggio Tradition.
From 1680 to 1830, the so-called ‘golden age’ of composers like Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, professional music-making in Europe was dominated by Italian traditions of composition, performance, and teaching.
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.
My work looks back at the Italian traditions, reconstructing forgotten theories and practices. It involved interpreting over 12,000 unstudied manuscript sources, and led me to publish the first major study of the fundamentals of music education in the 18th century.
It explains, for the first time, several fundamental aspects of music practice, including how musicians learned to read seven clefs and 12 key signatures with just two staff layouts, how they used simple syllabic frameworks as bases for complex melodic improvisation and composition, and how they learned to ‘speak’ music like a language.
The result? Using my research I can teach anyone, even a non-musician, how to create a pleasing melody in a matter of minutes. I can also explain how famous melodies were put together. This has a transformative effect on all who have come across it. I regularly receive unsolicited emails from musicians telling me how my insights have changed their entire view of music. One lady even said she burst into tears when, because of my research, she finally achieved her lifelong dream of understanding the music of Bach.
"One lady burst into tears when [..] she finally achieved her lifelong dream of understanding the music of Bach"
I’ve delivered workshops on my research across Europe, which have resulted in the incorporation of historical solfeggio practice into the core curricula at several prestigious conservatoires and musical institutions, including the Amsterdam Conservatorium, the Academy of Arts in Bern, the University of Pavia in Italy, the Catholic University of Milan and the Norwegian Academy of Music.
This has resulted in a shift in core performance practices of a new generation of musicians and music teachers. As one academic reviewer put it: “Having one’s eyes opened to an entire world of music history, especially one that you thought you understood but clearly did not, can be an exhilarating experience.” Another reviewer commented: “Baragwanath has placed before us a historical truth that from now on will be difficult to ignore.”
"Using my research I can teach anyone, even a non-musician, how to create a pleasing melody in a matter of minutes"
It has also led to changes in musical education for children across Europe and beyond, with many schools and private music teachers incorporating elements of the Solfeggio Tradition into their teaching. I have taught at a summer school in Basel, Switzerland, held two public workshops at the Cheltenham Festival, and the research has transformed the curriculum at The Songbird Academy music school in Singapore.
Its global reach has been extended further by media coverage, the creation of a webpage dedicated to the subject and the creation of a Facebook group ‘The Art of Solfeggio’ which has 2,500 members.
This interest has also led to a rather special partnership with The Foundling Museum in London, which tells the story of how orphans were lifted out of poverty through music. I have worked with staff there to create an exhibition about Solfeggio and orphan musicians, entitled ‘Street Child to Superstar: Orphanages and the X-Factor’, which has been delayed by the pandemic but is now scheduled for early 2023.
Nicholas Baragwanath, Professor of Music, Faculty of Arts