The Curwen Method (Tonic Sol-fa) Homepage History Pedagogy Notation Bicentenary
© Robin S. Stevens, 2017
Notational System
Notational Features As mentioned, by 1872, Tonic Sol-fa notation was no longer being applied to staff notation but had became a notational system in its own right.  Part of the reason for this was Curwen’s belief that his notation was sufficiently comprehensive that it could provide for all aspects of musical representation and therefore, for vocal and choral music, could effectively supplant the “Old [Staff] Notation”. Pitch was notated using the first letters of the solmisation syllables together with vertical dash above or below note to indicate octave placement.  The only exception to “first letter” representation was the use of chromatic notes such as fe, se, ba, ta, etc. to indicate accidentals either in a minor mode or for modulation.  Rhythmic notation consisted of vertical “bar” lines—a double bar to indicate the end of a musical section, a barline to indicate main (strong) metrical divisions, half bar lines for subsidiary (medium) metrical divisions (as with the third beat in quadruple metre)—and standard punctuation marks—a colon to indicate beat divisions, a period for half-beat divisions, a comma for quarter-beat divisions, a rotated comma for third-beat division (i.e.for triplets),  with a dash to indicate the continuation of a note to a subsequent beat.  Rests were notated by a blank space preceded by a punctuation mark to indicate duration.  Slurring, where two or more notes are sung to a single word or syllable, was indicated by a horizontal line place below the notation. The following example indicates these notational elements in the first two phrases of a well-known chorale melody.     Hymn Tune "Eternal Father, Strong to Save"   Many Western-trained musicians are familiar with the historical development of staff notation.  However, as Scholes (1963, p.696) points out, “our present universal notation has ‘grown up’ rather than been designed, and that, moreover, its main features were fixed at a period when music was merely melodic and in other respects enormously simpler than at present.  Musicians generally are so accustomed to it that they do note stop to reflect upon its defects…”.  It is the serendipitous nature of its evolution that has created many problems for the teaching and learning of staff notation.  The spatial representation of the two principle dimensions of music—rhythm and pitch—requires a complex system of symbols firstly to represent rhythm on the horizontal plane and secondly use of the same symbols on the vertical plane to indicate absolute pitch.  In addition, there are other aspects of notation—dynamics, tempo, accentuation, etc.—that result in a highly complex visual representation of music which, particularly for the young learner, makes the acquiring of music literacy a long and often arduous process.  Moreover, there is a need to have an understanding of the theory of music—scale construction, key signatures, time signatures, etc.—in order to decipher the meaning of many additional symbols that relate to the tonal and rhythmic characteristics of a musical work.  Scholes (1963, p.696) points out that there have been many “bold attempts…made to reform the staff notation but they have invariably failed and probably always will do so until a change in the whole musical system brings about an unavoidable corresponding change in the methods of representing music on paper”.  Nevertheless he concludes with the comment that “The only reformed notations that up to the present have ever established themselves have been certain notations for choral music. The chief of these [is]…Tonic Sol- fa.” (p.697). From a contemporary perspective, Curwen notation has several inherent advantages over staff notation for choral singing.  Firstly, both the pitch and the rhythmic dimensions of melody are contained within a “single cell” as opposed to staff notation where two dimensions—vertical and horizontal—are required for the representation of melody.  Although it may be argued that the vertical representation of pitch is a useful way of visualising its relate pitch position, its addition to the left to right horizontal progression of rhythm (which is common to both staff and Tonic Sol-fa)—particularly with leger lines—often makes the notational “spread” too wide for immediate visual perception.  Another advantage, particularly in certain developing countries, is alluded to by Jorgensen (1994)—in countries where the written language is based on the Roman alphabet (which is also the means for representing pitch in the Curwen method), people are already familiar with alphabetical letters.  This also represents a distinct advantage over the two-dimensional system of staff lines and spaces for pitch and of note and rest shapes for rhythm.  Moreover, Curwen notation does not require any significant knowledge of music theory—once an understanding of pitch and rhythmic notation is achieved, no other “interpretive” information (such as a knowledge of time or key signatures) is required for realising the notation.
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