John Curwen and Tonic Sol-fa—An Historical Overview

The Tonic Sol-fa method of teaching vocal music was codified by an English Congregational minister, the Reverend John Curwen (1816-1880) who drew upon a number of earlier European and English music teaching systems including an indigenous English music teaching method known as Norwich Sol-fa (Rainbow, 1967, pp.150-151).  The Norwich method had been devised by Sarah Glover (1785-1867) of Norwich in the English county of Norfolk who, until recently, had remained largely unrecognised for her significant contribution to the development of the moveable do music reading system (Bennett, 1984, p.64).

As a young minister in his first pastorate, Curwen recognised the moral and religious value of hymn singing for his Sunday school children and, having experienced considerable difficulty himself with music reading music from staff notation, he became interested in Glover's method.  Her method utilized movable solmisation syllables as an aid to sight reading and also a sol-fa notation which she had devised as a stepping stone to reading music from the staff.

sketch of Sarah Glover

Sarah Glover (1785-1867)

 In 1841 Curwen received a commission from a conference of Sunday school teachers to discover and promote the simplest way of teaching music for use in Sunday school singing.   Curwen made several modifications to Glover's sol-fa notation and finally decided upon a pitch representation system which utilised the first letter (in lower case) of each of the solmisation tones (doh, ray, me fah, soh, lah, te) and a rhythmic notation system which utilised bar lines, half bar lines and semicolons prefixing strong beats, medium beats and weak beats respectively in each measure.  For marking the subdivisions of beats he used a full stop for half divisions and a comma for quarter divisions, and for continuation of a tone from one beat to the next he employed a dash.  As he originally conceived it, Curwen aimed to develop music literacy in three successive phases: firstly reading from sol-fa notation, secondly reading from staff notation in conjunction with sol-fa notation below (see Figure 1), and thirdly reading from staff notation alone.




Figure 1.  From The Standard Course of Lessons on the Tonic Sol-fa Method of Teaching to Sing (pp.19-20)
by J. Curwen, no date (circa 1866), London, England: Tonic Sol-fa Agency.

He also made use of Glover's Sol-fa Ladder which he adapted into what he called The Tonic Sol-fa Modulator.   Later still, Curwen incorporated French time names (adapted from Aime Paris's Langue de durees) into his method (Rainbow, 1974, p.151) and devised the pitch hand signs (see Figure 2) which, in a slightly modified form, are familiar to most contemporary music educators as part of the currently-popular Kodály method.

hand signs

Figure 2.  Curwen handsigns.

One of the means Curwen used to propagate his method was the publication of a number of textbooks and songbooks including The Standard Course of Lessons on the Tonic Sol-fa Method of Teaching to Sing which was first published in 1858.   However in the 1872 edition of The Standard Course, Curwen allowed the tonic sol-fa notation to overstep its former function as a mnemonic aid to sight singing from the staff and to become an end in itself.  He took this decisive step by totally excluding the staff system of notation from the tonic sol-fa course, henceforth relying solely on his own notational system in the publication of textbooks, vocal music and even instrumental music (see Figure 3 for an example of Tonic Sol-fa notation).  It was this isolation from the mainstream of music printed in staff notation which was to lead to the eventual decline of tone sol-fa as a choral singing method.

example of Tonic Sol-fa notation

Figure 3.  An example of Tonic Sol-fa notation.

Nevertheless, it was not until after the turn of the century that any real manifestation of this decline was to become apparent.  Indeed the growth of tonic sol-fa as a choral singing method in Britain surpassed that of any other choral singing method during the nineteenth century.  From modest beginnings and an estimated 2,000 tonic sol-fa-ists in 1853, the movement was able to claim 315,000 followers by 1872 (Curwen and Graham, n.d., pp.21,23) and to spread throughout the British Isles and to far outreaches of the British Empire including the Australian colonies, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada as well as to the United States.  It was also introduced by missionaries to their converts in India, Madagascar, China, Japan and the South Sea Islands.

 As a school music teaching method, the tonic sol-fa system was officially recognised by the English Education Department in 1860 and by 1891, two-and-a-half million children in Britain were receiving instruction in tonic sol-fa in elementary schools (Curwen and Graham, n.d., p.33).  The tonic sol-fa method was also officially adopted by educational authorities overseas, one of the earliest to do so being the Council of Education in the Australian colony of New South Wales in 1867 (Stevens, 1980, p.81).

Two of the principle means that Curwen used to dissimate his Tonic Sol-fa method were firstly the Tonic Sol-fa College and secondly J. Curwen and Sons, Music Publishers.  The Tonic Sol-fa College was founded in 1879 as the Tonic Sol-fa School with a building at Forest Gate on the east side of London.  During its early years, the Tonic Sol-fa College instituted a system of certificate and diploma examinations (see Figure 4 for an Elementary Tonic Sol-fa Certiticate).  In 1944 the College moved to Queensborough Terrace, W 2 and took on the name of' the 'Curwen Memorial College'.  More recently the College was reconstituted as the Curwen Institute under the auspices of The John Curwen Society.

an Elementary Tonic Sol-fa Certiticate

Figure 4.  An Elementary Tonic Sol-fa Certificate.

John Curwen established the firm of J. Curwen and Sons (previously the Tonic Sol-fa Agency) as the music publisher for the Tonic Sol-fa movement in 1863 (see Figure 5 for the Building occupied by the Tonic Sol-fa Agency and then J. Curwen and Sons and Figure 6 for J. Curwen and Sons printing works c.1896).  Aside from its publication of music in Tonic Sol-fa notation and later during the twentieth century in staff notation, J. Curwen and Sons were publishers of the Tonic Sol-fa journal under the successive titles of The Tonic Sol-fa Reporterand The Musical Herald. The firm then changed its name to the Curwen Press and continued up until the mid 1970s when it finally ceased operations.
J. Curwen & Sons, London, Music Publishers
        Figure 5.  J. Curwen & Sons, London, Music Publishers.

printing works

Figure 6.

    Although the tonic sol-fa system was not as widely employed as a school music teaching method nor was it as prominent in church and community choral singing as it was in Britain, it was "not without influence in the United States in the nineteenth century" (Tellstrom, 1971, p.247).  The method was propagated in America chiefly by Theodore Seward from 1879, but even prior to this, Lowell Mason had made use of the tonic sol-fa modulator in his teaching method and many other music educators of Mason's generation "accepted and used, consciously or unconsciously, much of the Tonic Sol-fa teaching of tone relations" (Birge, 1966, p.106).  Later, John W. Tufts and Hosea E. Holt made use of Curwen's sol-fa hand signs in their Teacher’s Manual for the Normal Music Course published in 1884 (Tellstrom, 1971, p.83).  Moreover, the issue of the relative merits of the tonic sol-fa and staff notations virtually monopolised discussion at annual meetings of the Music Section of the National Education Association during the late 1880s (Birge, 1966, p.234).
  • Link to Wikipedia article on John Curwen.
  • Link to information about the John Curwen Manuscripts held by the University of Maryland Libraries Special Collections in Performing Arts, Arts Library.

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Author: Associate Professor Robin Stevens, Principal Fellow, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, The University of Melbourne -- contact and other details:

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Last Updated: 29 September 2011
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