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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


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 as well as in Mizoram in Indian, 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, India, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, etc. Click on the following links

for four 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

the fourth documents the use of Tonic Sol-fa in the Indian State of Mizoram          (accompanying PPT slides       ).

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 Herald.

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 (click on the following icon to access

the Curwen College of Music’s website      ). The College offers examinations for offers two diplomas, Associate (ACCM) and

Fellow (FCCM). In addition there is a preliminary Diploma (DipCCM), which, though a separate award, is intended as a

preparation for the Associateship. Each is available in one of three broad pathways – recital, research, composition – with an

additional fourth option of edition for the FCCM (click on the following icon to access the College of Music’s Diploma Syllabus

2021        ).

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. The Curwen Institute appears to have ceased operations in the mid 2000s.

Its parent organisation, The John Curwen Society, gifted its remaining funds, totalling £30,580, to the Royal College of Music

fund an award to be known as The John Curwen Society Award. This award will made annually in the form of an £800 bursary in

the Royal College of Music’s Junior Department on the basis of merit and need until the fund is depleted.

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.

In addition its series of publications, the Curwen Institute in association with the Coventry Education Authority produced a video

recording ttitled It’s All in the Mind that documented the application of the New Curwen Method in primary school settings

(access this video recording on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PN0MXCyI2tk         ).


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 Institute & Coventry Education Authority. It’s All in the Mind (video recording, 1986).

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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