Seasons and Solfège

Posted on December 27, 2012 by

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There are so many basic facts about the world that we take for granted – things that have surrounded us our entire lives, things that we never even considered might be called into question. Things that no one really talks about because everyone is expected to already know them and everyone more or less assumes we’re all on the same page. Things that we know so strongly that when someone says or does something that contradicts our preconceptions, we assume they must just be mistaken, or there must just be some miscommunication.

For example, this month I learned that winter actually does start on December 1st – not only in Georgia, but in many other countries as well. This came about because I noticed a back-and-forth on facebook between Georgians heralding the beginning of winter and Americans pointing out that winter hadn’t actually started yet. I largely ignored this, until on about December 5th my coteacher told the students it was winter and then asked me what was wrong when my eyes bugged out of my head. “It’s not winter yet in America,” I explained.

It turns out that while Americans observe astronomical seasons – which start on solstices and equinoxes – Georgians observe meteorological seasons, which coincide with calendar months. There’s not really any hard and fast rule of which countries use which designations for their seasons, and astronomical and meteorological aren’t even the only two designation systems – apparently Shakespeare’s winter would have started on November 1st, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream took place on what was midsummer for Shakespeare but the first day of summer for modern Americans. Other countries have yet other start dates for seasons – some start winter on October 14, some on November 10, etc. – based on various factors I won’t get into here.

There’s no widespread international agreement about when seasons start and end. Generally speaking, there is no official or legal definition for seasons. It seems that the UK has no strict adherence to either reckoning system but is more likely to use meteorological reckoning. It also seems that the start and end dates of seasons are largely irrelevant for most purposes and that there is very little discussion of the fact that different countries use different dates. It’s certainly not a fact I’ve come across in any information resource or guidebook I’ve ever read about any country that has four seasons. (In contrast, countries with wet-dry-monsoon seasons make it clear that they have very different sorts of climate patterns than visitors might be used to, and that the four-season model doesn’t hold up there.)

The second example is – you guessed it – solfège, and if you’ve already googled solfège to see what it means you might know where I’m going with this. Solfège is a fancy French word for attaching a sequence of syllables to a sequence of notes – for instance, “do re mi fa so la ti do”. I was taught these syllables when I was in chorus in 7th grade, and I still remember a couple of singing exercises, but of course the example that stands out for me and I would guess for most non-music people would be The Sound of Music’s “Do-Re-Mi”.

So I was surprised one day to hear my wife playing the piano and singing “do re mi fa so la si do” – specifically, the “si” syllable, which I had never heard before. I’ve learned from experience never to bet against my wife in a dispute over language (because she always wins!), so I went and looked up this “si” situation. To make a long story short, the “si” was changed to “ti” by a British music teacher sometime around 1845 so that each syllable would begin with a different letter; this change took hold in some countries and not in others, and also the whole solfège system happens to have two variants and the “si” happens to be associated with one variant and the “ti” with the other.

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I know these examples are somewhat trivial – I mean, you could certainly get by for a week, or a month, or a year in Georgia without ever relying on information like what season it is or what the seventh solfège syllable is, and so neither fact is likely to cause anyone any kind of culture shock or miscommunication. It’s not necessary information for visitors, in other words.

And yet, information like the songs from The Sound of Music or the dates that the seasons begin and end on is embedded incredibly deeply in our shared cultural knowledge. Yes, they’re arbitrary, but they’re also conventional, and the fact that there are different conventions for all of these little things no one ever has to really pay attention to is really interesting to me.

It just goes to show that no matter how well you think you know a place, there’s always something else to uncover. Even after five semesters of teaching in Georgia, I still find out new things nearly every day.