The Curwen Method (Tonic Sol-fa) Homepage History Pedagogy Notation Bicentenary
© Robin S. Stevens, 2017
Pedagogy & Teaching Techniques
The Curwen method represents a carefully graded and systematic method of teaching not only music literacy but also aural perception and "audition" (mental hearing).  It uses several teaching methods and techniques to achieve its outcomes. Solmisation Syllables and the Modulator The pedagogical mainstay of the Curwen method is the use of solmisation (sol-fa) as a mnemonic (memory) aid. The seven tones of the major scale are named doh, ray, me, fah, soh, lah and te which are arranged into the following ascending and descending scale (see Figure 1 below) (Note that the key is always specified at the outset.) There is evidence to suggest that solmisation originated in India with the series sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni  and then passed through Persians to the Abrabs and then to Europe (Landkave Sngeetha Sameavaya [Historical Development of Music in Sri Lanka], p.19, footnote 39).  The European solmisation method was developed by the eleventh-century monk, Guido d’Arezzo, as a fixed doh system but Curwen, like Glover, employed the movable sol-fa method. The seven tones of the major scale—doh, ray, me, fah, soh, lah, and te—can also be applied to the relative minor scale by starting and ending on lah and using the syllables fe and se for the raised sixth and seventh degrees (see Figure 2 below).   Key is C doh   ray  me  fah   soh   lah   te    doh'  —  doh'   te    lah   soh    fah    me   ray   doh Figure 1 -- The Major Scale of C   Key is C lah    te    doh    ray    me    fe    se   lah'  —  lah  soh    fah    me   ray   doh   te    lah' Figure 2 -- The Relative Minor Scale (melodic form) of A Modulation to related keys is effected by means of "pivot notes" or "bridge-tones" such as  fe for the leading note to the dominant key, ta as the dominant seventh note for the subdominant key, and so on.   Key is C doh    ray    me    fe    soh / doh   me    ray    doh   ta    lah / me     ray    doh (Key of C major)   (Modulation to G ma via "bridge tone")   (Modulation back to C ma)   Figure 3 -- Modulation from C major to G major and back to C major Curwen also borrowed Glover’s Norwich Sol-fa Ladder which he adapted into The Tonic Sol-fa Modulator (click HERE to view Curwen's Tonic Sol-fa Modulator).  This vertically-arranged chart of sol-fa names enabled pitch exercises to be pointed out for students to sing, thereby instilling the relationship of each note to its tonality and to each other.   Pitch Hand Signs                               Mental Effects Later Curwen introduced the so-called “mental effects” which were extra-musical associations for each of the seven tones as follows.                             Solmisation Syllable                                                                   Mental Effect te                                                                     the piercing or sensitive tone lah                                                                   the sad or weeping tone soh                                                                  the grand or bright tone fah                                                                   the desolate or awe-inspriring tone me                                                                   the steady or calm tone ray                                                                    the rousing or hopeful tone doh                                                                  the strong or firm tone French Time Names For teaching rhythm, Curwen adopted French time names—derived from Aimé Paris—in 1867 and also devised a system of finger-signs for time.  The French time names began with the consonant “t” (or “f”) for tones, with the consonant “s” for rests as in the following table of examples.                       Durations                                                                 French Time Names one beat note followed by a one beat rest                                     taa saa two beat note followed by a two beat rest                                     taa-aa  saa-aa four beat note                                                                                      taa-aa-aa-aa two half-beat notes followed by a one beat note                          taa-tai  taa four quarter-beat notes                                                                     ta-fa-te-fe three third-beat notes                                                                        taa-tai-tee a half-beat note and two quarter-beat notes                                 taa-te-fe a half-beat rest and two quarter-beat notes                                  saa-te-fe Six Step Learning Sequence In addition, Curwen devised a “Six Step” learning sequence that formed the basis for his textbook The Standard Course.  The learning sequence included aspects such as vocal tone production, breathing, and the progressive introduction of pitched tones, rhythmic durations and metres, expression, tempo, harmony, tonality, modulation, etc.   Pedagogical Precepts Another feature of the Curwen Method was a well-founded pedagogy.  In his Teacher’s Manual (n.d.[c.1876]), Curwen set out the following precepts: … let the easy come before the difficult. … introduce the real and concrete before the ideal or abstract. … teach the elemental before the compound and do one thing at a     time. … introduce, both for explanation and practice, the common    before the uncommon. … teach the thing before the sign, and when the thing is     apprehended, attach to it a distinct sign. … let each step, as far as possible, rise out of that which goes     before, and lead up to that which comes after. … call in the understanding to assist the skill at every stage. Many of these precepts are fundamental not only to other music teaching methods such as the Orff, Kodály and Dalcroze approaches, but also to general educational practice.
In 1870, Curwen devised the sol-fa hand-signs (see these as illustrated in The Standard Course of 1901) which are currently employed as part of the Kodaly method but in slightly modified form.  From the cognitive developmental perspective of Jerome Bruner, they represent a useful teaching strategy that builds on both the enactive and iconic stages of child development.
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