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Website developed by Robin Stevens

14 November 2016 marked the

Bicentenary of the Birth of John Curwen

This website aims to promote and celebrate the life and work of John Curwen, the developer of the Tonic Sol-

fa, and to recognise the contribution of Sarah Ann Glover (1785 - 1867), inventor of Norwich Sol-fa upon which

Curwen based his music teaching method and its notational system.

The website also aims to encourage the celebration of the bicentenary year of Curwen’s birth (2016) as well as publicise special events that are being organised.

Rev John Curwen, 1816 - 1880

John Curwen was born on 14 November 1816 at the Yorkshire village of Heckmondwike.  His father was the Rev. Spedding Curwen, a non-conformist minister, and his mother was Mary Curwen, a teacher.  After a relatively brief period as a non-conformist minister himself, John Curwen developed the Tonic Sol-fa method of teaching music (see below).  Curwen died on 26 May 1880.

Tonic Sol-fa

Often referred to as the Curwen method, this method of teaching music was developed by John Curwen from the 1840s using several English and Continental sources including Sarah Glover’s Norwich Sol-fa method. The bases of the method were two mnemonic (memory-aid) methods—one for performing pitch (solmisation or, as it is more commonly known, sol-fa) and the other for performing rhythm (time names). These, together with the Modulator chart, the pitch hand signs, rhythm finger signs and a system of "letter" notation enabled students to become musically literate and to become competent sight singers. Although Curwen originally used his method as a means of teaching music reading from staff notation, by the 1872 edition of The Standard Course, staff notation was dispensed with altogether in favour of letter notation. The motto of the Tonic Sol-fa movement—"Easy, Cheap and True" (see logo above)—was adopted by Curwen during the 1860s. This motto aptly describes firstly the relative ease of teaching music literacy through the Curwen method as compared with other contemporary approaches, secondly the fact that standard printing press characters could be used for Tonic Sol-fa notation instead of the special characters and printing processes required for staff notation, and finally the underlying logic of the system’s theoretical and notational principles. 

Contact for Further Information

Further information is available from: Dr Robin Stevens Email:  robinstevens@music-ed.net
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