A Cognitive Basis for Choosing a Solmization System

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Gary Karpinski


This article focuses on the perception and cognition involved in music listening skills as essential criteria in selecting solmization systems. Drawing on the aural key-identification studies of Butler and Brown (summarized in Butler & Brown, 1994) and the model for music perception developed by Karpinski (1990) and formalized in Karpinski (2000), it concludes that the first and most fundamental process listeners carry out while attending to the pitches of tonal music is tonic inference. In addition, a tonic is inferable without reference to a complete diatonic pitch collection. Melodies that are unambiguous with regard to their tonic might never employ all seven diatonic pitch classes, they might state those pitch classes only gradually, or they might even change the collection without changing tonic. Nonetheless, listeners are able to infer tonics quickly and dynamically under any of the above conditions. According to Butler (1992, p. 119), “listeners make assessments of tonal center swiftly and apparently without conscious effort” certainly well in advance of inferring or perceiving entire diatonic pitch collections. This article examines the means through which do-based minor moveable-do solmization most closely models this mental process and contrasts that with la-based minor and its inherent inability to model the pitches of a musical passage until all seven of its diatonic members are explicitly stated (or at least implicitly present). This is not to say that la-based minor is ineffective, but simply that do-based minor most closely reflects and represents the way listeners infer tonality.

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