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  • Music for Little People

    Learning Through Music
  • Music for Little People

    Social Development and Education
  • Music for Little People

    Qualified teachers and musicians
  • Music for Little People

    We provide music classes for nurseries,
    preschools and birthday parties

John Curwen

John Curwen was a self-taught musician, having trained originally for the ministry at University College, London, and Wymondeley College. While still a student he became aware of his vocation as a teacher, studying the writings of the progressive teachers of the day and teaching regularly in the school attached to his father's chapel in the Barbican. While there he also developed his 'Look and Say' method of teaching reading as well as putting into practice the basic tenets of Pestalozzi first made known to him by Elizabeth Mayo's Lessons on Objects. The Swiss educator Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746 - 1827) advocated learning through the senses by following the logic of "sound before sight" and "practice before theory". In musical terms, this means that listening and singing experiences lead on to an understanding of notation and theory.

The popularity of Curwen's storybook, the History of Nelly Vanner (1841), soon made his name widely known and passed through fourteen editions. As a result he was invited to address meetings and conferences of teachers, and to outline his views on the educational approach to young children. In 1841 the chairman of a conference for Sunday School teachers, impressed by Curwen's grasp of educational principles, publicly commissioned him to investigate existing methods of teaching singing, and to recommend 'some simple method to the churches which should enable all "to sing with ease and propriety".

Curwen did not particularly have any missionary zeal and consequently accepted his charge to improve singing in the churches with some misgiving. He had no musical training and had limited his own efforts to teaching children tunes by rote. However he did resolve to carry out the task, and began investigating various primers on musical rudiments then popular with instrumental pupils. He also enquired about various methods being used at that time, but nothing seemed suited to the needs of children.

At this stage he turned to examine Sarah Glover's Scheme for Rendering Psalmody Congregational. He found that her method was in harmony with his own teaching ideals by delaying a study of musical symbols until experience of music itself had been gained. He began teaching a child living in his lodgings from Miss Glover's book, while at the same time critically appraising it. Various modifications occurred to him as the lessons proceeded, each revealing Curwen's educational insight. They were to be the first in a lifelong series of refinements that he added in developing from Sarah Glover's Scheme his own Tonic Sol-fa Method. In January 1842, as soon as he was convinced that he had found in Glover's Scheme the basis of "a simple method which should enable all to sing with ease and propriety", Curwen published a specimen singing lesson in the Independent Magazine, a new Nonconformist paper with a tiny circulation. His aim was not to dictate what people sang or played but to enable them to read whatever music they wanted.

What made Curwen's method of teaching unique from that of his contemporaries was that before introducing any form of musical notation he concentrated on training the beginner's ear. In his first lesson he invites children to note the rise and fall of pitch aurally and then goes on to help them to recognize precise musical intervals. His predecessors had attempted to do this by getting pupils to sing up and down the scale with the notes in front of them on a blackboard stave and C was always "doh" (known as the fixed-doh method which is still used in France today). Curwen concentrated instead on a simpler series of notes. He believed the structure of the scale was far from elementary and therefore introduced pupils first to the notes of the common chord. Once the pupil had grown familiar with the aural effect of these three notes, he was taught their names - doh, me, soh. Then followed opportunities to recapture all three notes when only doh was sounded. The aim was to imagine the three sounds in the mind, then to sing them, eventually in any order. This involved developing an 'inner ear' which was capable of conjuring up precise musical intervals by a subtle form of pitch memory.

The next step, taken in a subsequent lesson when the pupil could infallibly recall the sounds doh, me, soh, was to repeat the process with the triad standing upon the dominant- soh, te, ray'. Later still came the subdominant triad- fah, lah, doh'. Once mastered, these two note patterns completed the whole range of the scale. A pupil who had successfully learned to relate each of the note names to its place in the scale was then ready to hear 'in his head' different arrangements of notes, at first in very short phrases and later whole sentences and melodies. Exercises in Curwen's method were devised by the various teachers who practiced it. He also drew on a wide range of music then popular in Victorian England for the demonstration of salient points such as syncopation or a change of key. Provided each step was pursued patiently without forcing the pace, the association between name and sound became little short of instinctive.

The unquestionable popularity of Curwen's Tonic Sol-fa induced many publishers to issue hymnals employing sol-fa notation. In addition, a considerable amount of choral music had been published, also in sol-fa notation (for the sake of cheapness) in the movement's magazine, the Tonic Sol-fa Reporter. Consequently many of Curwen's pupils and their teachers found that they did not need to employ staff notation at all. With the establishment of an independent printing press in 1862 an extended repertory printed in sol-fa notation became possible, at rates within reach of the poor. As a result, Curwen decided to abandon teaching staff notation, leaving it to more serious students to master it at home by transcribing sol-fa exercises to staff, although the majority of pupils thought this unnecessary. Rainbow believes that the consequences of this decision to regard sol-fa notation as adequate in it's own right led many of Curwen's followers into a musical cul-de-sac which was not considered disadvantageous at the time (Rainbow: 246).

Followers of Curwen could read at sight anything put before them in their familiar notation, but deprived of it, they were powerless. As a result many criticisms were leveled against this use of an alternative form of notation. Curwen called his notation an "interpreting" notation and insisted that it was merely a preparation for reading from the staff. However, Rainbow maintains that it could not be said that sol-fa notation was only an 'approach device' as this answer was invalidated by Curwen's failure to integrate sol-fa and staff in his later textbooks. His insistence that sol-fa provided a "New Notation", and his consistent use of the term "Old Notation" in contradistinction, revealed a dogged determination not to give way on this point.

Curwen was not a practicing musician in any accepted sense and his work led him to deal with social classes not usually approached by professional musicians at that period. As a result his work remained unknown, was misunderstood, or was simply scorned by other musical educators (Simpson: 31). His work was viewed as having more to do with social and religious reform rather than with musical training. This obscured his insight into musical processes and his principles were never accepted during his lifetime in the elementary education system of Britain where the "fixed doh" system reigned.

His work did however become widely known. He organized evening classes for adults, and contributed a series of articles to The Popular Educator, a penny philanthropic magazine with an enormous circulation, which carried his exposition of Tonic Sol-fa into thousands of homes from 1852 onward. In the following year he held regular classes at Crosby Hall in central London where many schoolteachers now disenchanted with the "fixed-doh" method attended to learn Tonic Sol- fa instead. By 1853 it was estimated that 20,000 pupils were attending Tonic Sol-fa classes. In September 1857, roughly thirty thousand Londoners attended a concert given by almost three thousand schoolchildren at the Crystal Palace. Even the Times felt obliged to record the event and every other national newspaper carried lengthy notices, one paper remarking that it had been left to an almost unknown organization to draw a larger audience than had ever been assembled in this country to listen to a musical performance. By the end of the decade the movement had 120,000 enrolled members and 600 accredited teachers.

Curwen recognized the importance of the delivery of his method. Curwen's example of a singing lesson, cited earlier, showed qualities of simplicity and an understanding of children's needs. He believed that the teacher should adopt a humane, sympathetic attitude, and should speak to the class at their own level. He requires active teaching by the teacher at every stage and a rapport between the teacher and the class - he was himself celebrated for his ability to encourage in children a desire to learn. The aim of that first singing lesson was to develop a sense of relative pitch and Curwen uses the children's voices and his own to illustrate pitch difference. The children were learning through experience - Pestalozzi's "anschauung"- from the outset. Because Curwen was convinced that the teacher's manner and attitude vitally affected his teaching he set out his lessons verbatim, making clear the simplicity and patience that must govern teaching procedures. Curwen was driven to create teachers of his method from among his own disciples because he was unaccepted by the orthodox world of musical education at that period.

Almost to the end of his life Curwen was still attempting to perfect his method. Following his usual practice of reviewing new teaching devices introduced by other teachers at home and abroad, in 1870 he adopted the 'French Time Names' of Aimé Paris, anglicizing them as taa, ta-tai, etc. and presenting them to his followers in the Tonic Sol-fa Reporter. His final refinement was an idea of his own - the pictorial Hand Signs to denote each degree of the scale, widely used today and first published in the Reporter in 1870. Following his death in 1880 the method which he had devoted 30 years of his life to perfecting was to form the basis of music teaching in elementary schools for half a century.

Whatever it's limitations, Tonic Sol-fa notation provided an easily mastered device enabling ordinary people, whether children or adults, to develop in the mind the association between sound and symbol necessary to sing from the page. In 1899 at a meeting of the [Royal] Musical Association a distinguished paper on 'The Psychology of Sight-singing' presented by W.G.McNaught (1849-1918) reviewed the situation. He concluded, "The syllables used as scale degree mnemonics, with all their faulty results, are apparently still on the whole the only possible method for the great majority." (Rainbow: 247). The majority of beginners found their knowledge sufficient for their needs and the circumstances in which most pupils were taught precluded much more being done. Only the lower certificates of the Tonic Sol-fa College could be obtained without competence in staff notation.

The Curwen movement flourished to an astonishing extent and by the 1860's had spread overseas. In Australia Tonic Sol-fa was adopted by the governments of New South Wales, Southern Australia and Victoria for use in schools, and classes were begun in New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Missionaries had also introduced it in India, Madagascar and the Pacific Islands. There are two societies that have grown out of Curwen's work, the "John Curwen Society" which deals with the historic aspects of his work and which in turn funds the "Curwen Institute" which was formed to carry on with his work as an educational -method. "The New Curwen Method" integrates sol-fa and staff from the earliest stages, starting with a three-line stave.

Although Curwen's first objective was the improvement of singing in the congregational church, he became motivated by the belief that a musical education was the right of all. He came to the conclusion that a development of an acute aural sense was the means to gain a thorough knowledge of music. Musicianship and literacy were fostered through the voice with the "movable doh" system. Curwen's material for teaching mainly consisted of hymns and other music popular at the time translated into his "new notation". Curwen did seem to abandon staff notation because of a motivation to provide cheap music although "The New Curwen Method" has now rectified that.


Alexander, J. (1981) 'A tonic for music that could be the key to success'. Guardian, November 3rd.

Rainbow, B (1989) Music in Educational Thought and Practice

Boethius Press

Simpson, K. (1976) Some Great-Music Educators London:Novello