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Tonic Sol-fa Today … and in the Recent Past

The Kodály Method


The most direct link from the nineteenth and early twentieth century application of the Tonic Sol-fa method

is that of the Kodály approach to classroom music teaching.

The composer and music educator Zoltan Kodály visited England in 1925 where he observed the Tonic Sol-

fa method being used to teach music in schools. As a result of this visit, Kodály adapted several of the Tonic

Sol-fa teaching methods for use in his own method which has spread as widely during the twentieth century

as the Tonic Sol-fa method had done during the nineteenth century.  For accounts of the influence of

Curwen’s method on the Kodály method, refer to the following article:

“’Where do you think we come from?’: The Origins and Foundations of the Kodály Approach to Music

Education” (Stevens 2010).

Tonic Sol-fa in Developing Countries—The Missionary Inheritance

Almost from its inception, John Curwen and his colleagues saw the potential of the method as a means

through which missionaries, particularly in British colonies in Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, could attract

indigenous people to Christianity. Since that time, Tonic Sol-fa (or adaptations of the system) has become

the mainstay of musical culture in several developing countries such as South Africa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu,

etc. Click on the following links for three articles:

the first argues the case for the continued use of Tonic Sol-fa in developing countries

the second outlines the use of Tonic Sol-fa in Asia-Pacific countries

the third documents the use of Tonic Sol-fa in South Africa during the mid 2000s. 

Tonic Sol-fa in Britain during the Twentieth Century

From the 1930s, Tonic Sol-fa in Britain began to wane in terms of its influence both in schools and in

amateur choral singing.  The Tonic Sol-fa College was one of the principal means through which Tonic Sol-

fa had been propagated. In order to motivate students to learn Tonic Sol-fa as well as to provide them with

a systematic course of study, Curwen established a series of examinations beginning with a Certificate of

Proficiency in 1852.  Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Certificates followed in 1859 and a training

institution, called the Tonic Sol-fa School, was established in 1864 with the objective of training Tonic Sol-fa

teachers. Curwen then proposed the establishment of a Tonic Sol-fa College which was formally

incorporated on 19 June 1875 and opened on 4 July 1879 at a site in West London at Earlham Grove,

Forest Gate.


The Tonic Sol-fa College conducted a wide range of educational activities including singing classes, postal

courses and summer term courses and also administered the system of graded public music examinations

that now included Junior, Elementary, Intermediate, Matriculation and Advanced Certificates as well as the

School Teacher’s Music Certificate. In addition, the College awarded Associate, Licentiate, Graduate and

Fellowship diplomas by prescribed examinations. Unlike most other music examining bodies at the time, the

examination of candidates for Tonic Sol-fa certificates was undertaken by teachers—often their own—who

had been proposed in “The Tonic Sol-fa College” columns of The Tonic Sol-fa Reporter / The Musical


The highest qualification offered by the Tonic Sol-fa College was the Fellowship diploma which required the

candidate to have passed the Advanced Certificate, Branch II (Music Composition) together with two other

branches (Vocal Music, Solo Singing, Orchestration, Piano, Harmonium or Organ), together with the

Advanced Theory Certificate.  The latter certificate included examinations in English composition and

elocution, acoustics, and music history and literature. 

The Tonic Sol-fa College moved to 27 Finbury Square in London in October 1890, and later, in 1939, to

Great Ormond Street, and then in 1944 to Queensborough Terrace. In 1967, the College had moved again

to Bromley in Kent and its activities became more diverse so that it was teaching not only for its own

examinations, but also GCE music and other public examinations.

In 1972, a major reorganization of the Tonic Sol-fa College took place under the then Warden, Dr Paul

Faunch.  This saw the College, that had been re-named as the Curwen Memorial College in 1944, divide

into two institutions.  The first was the Curwen College of Music which offered external diploma

examinations in practical and theoretical music and undergone ongoing revision, so that its focus was as an

examining body rather than as a teaching institution (see the Curwen College of Music’s website at

https://curwencollegeofmusic.org/). The second institution became The Curwen Institute which was founded

by several members of the former Tonic Sol-fa College/Curwen Memorial College who were led by Dr

Bernarr Rainbow, John Dowling and Dr W. H. Swinburne.  The Curwen Institute focused on the

dissemination and use of Tonic Sol-fa in primary schools and offered teacher examinations leading to the

awarding of a Certificate and a Teacher’s Diploma (see the PDF of “Tonic Sol-fa Today” published by The

Curwen Institute - link in the References below).   The Curwen Institute was funded by The John Curwen

Society and during part of its existence was located at 108 Battersea High Street in London. Both the

Curwen College of Music and the Curwen Institute (The John Curwen Society) now appear to have ceased


Nevertheless, The Curwen Institute through its Educational Advisor, Dr W. H, Swinburne, developed a new

classroom music methodthe New Curwen Methodthat was based on Tonic Sol-fa principles but applied

to staff notation.  A series of publications included a teacher’s guide entitled The New Curwen Method

(Book One—Tonic Sol-fa in Class) which represented a comprehensive course for primary students aged 7

to 11 years in aural training and music (staff) notation using among other teaching techniques Tonic Sol-fa

syllables to represent pitch relationships.

J.Curwen and Sons Ltd., Music Publishers

In 1863, John Curwen established a printing business at Plaistow to print Tonic Sol-fa music and textbooks.  This became the music publishing house of J. Curwen and Sons in 1897 with a large printing works located at Plaistow. From 1933 the part of the business that published art work and prints (high-quality colour lithography) became the Curwen Press but ceased operating in 1964.  However, one department continued as The Curwen Studio from 1958 and is now located at Worton Hall Estate, Isleworth in Middlesex.  There is also the Curwen Print Study Centre that was established as an educational fine art printmaking charity in the late 1990s by Master Printer Stanley Jones and local entrepreneur and art lover Sam Alper. This Centre is located in Cambridge. In 2011, the Curwen Press was re-established by Alexander Hamilton. The new Curwen Press has a focus on engaging with artist printmakers in collaborative projects exploring themes surrounding art and ecology, art and human rights, art and healthcare,and art and social justice. J. Curwen and Sons Ltd. ceased business as a music publisher in 1969.


Bernarr Rainbow, “Curwen, Kodaly and the Future”, The Australian Journal of Music Education, pp. 33-35.

Bernarr Rainbow, Bernarr Rainbow on Music (with Introductions by Gordon Cox and Charles Plummeridge

(Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2010).

Curwen College of Music (website), https://curwencollegeofmusic.org/

The Curwen Institute, Tonic Sol-fa Today (London: The Curwen Institute, n.d.)

The Curwen Press website, http://curwenpress.com/ W. H. Swinburne, The New Curwen Method - Book One (London: The Curwen Institute, n.d.)
John Curwen - Developer of the Tonic Sol-fa Method The Curwen Bicentenary 1816 - 2016
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