Fixed DO Versus Movable DO

Saxophonist Pascal writes:

“I was trained using ‘Fixed DO.’   In other words, if I am playing an E Major scale, I was taught to name the notes ‘MI, FA#, SO#, LA, TI, DO#, RE# MI’.   Your book, “New Ears Resolution,” teaches me to think in terms of ‘Movable DO.’  What is your reason for preferring this method?”

Thank you for bringing this point up, Pascal.  This is an extremely important question you have asked.

My teacher was the great Al Learned, founder of Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles.  Al said, “Fixed DO is useless. We really need to use “Movable DO.” Here’s why:
Your brain is like a file cabinet. If you just throw papers into the cabinet, you cannot find them later. So you put each paper in a folder. Each folder has a label describing its contents. You put the paper in the folder that has the label describing what is on the paper. That way, it is very easy to find what you are looking for.

Your brain stores music in a similar fashion.   The way each note sounds causes you to feel a certain way, depending on its harmonic context.  You need to give that feeling a sensible, consistent name, so you can identify it. That’s what playing by ear is all about.
One person in 10,000 is born with “perfect pitch.”   If you play a note, a perfect pitch person will tell you, “You just played a C#” (or whatever the note is).  For the rest of us, we must develop “relative pitch.” That means we hear the note in relation to the harmonic context surrounding it. That note makes you feel a certain way because of its harmonic context, the harmonies surrounding it.  For example, if you play these chords:

I cannot tell you what NOTES you are playing. But I CAN tell you that the chords are SO-TI-RE-FA-TI and DO-MI-SO-DO. (This is “Exercise One” in your “New Ears Resolution” book and CD titled “TI-DO”.) You learn to hear TI DO…what it sounds like, what it feels like, and where it is on your instrument in all 12 keys. Then you can play it in ANY key.

Then, when someone asks you to play a familiar song like “Happy Birthday,” you know that the melody is: SO SO LA SO DO TI, SO SO LA SO RE DO. and you can play the song in any key.

Some of my students prefer to number the scale “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.”  That works fine up to a point.  However, it is important to remember the difference between numbers and syllables:

DO is not always ONE !

This is discussed in the “New Ears Resolution” book, Units Two and Three, “Diatonic Modes” and “Minority.”

Does that make sense?

3 thoughts on “Fixed DO Versus Movable DO

    1. Hi Brian,
      Thanks a million for playing our record! We really appreciate it. Just curious: Is that the original version from the Orange Honk LP on Epic or the “Coach House Live” version? You know, we still include “Hesitation” in our sets. We played for the “Five Summer Stories” 50-year anniversary celebration at Laguna Festival of Arts Campus last November. Thanks again for your support.


      1. It’s from the orignal studio album, that was the one I remember being blown away by when I heard it on “progressive” album rock stations in the late hippie days in Connecticut in the ’70s, like WPLR, WCCC, WHCN and WWUH. Another one I love playing occasional is Another Light. You guys knocked me out, and listeners today sem to love the sound!

        Brian Battles WS1O

        74B Wrights Crossing Rd Pomfret, CT 06259 USA


        Liked by 1 person

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