Tonic Sol-fa--now referred to as the Curwen method—was developed by the Methodist minister the Reverend John Curwen (1816-1880) from the 1840s using several English and Continental sources including Sarah Glover’s Norwich Sol-fa method. The bases of the method were two nmemonic (memory-aid) methods—one for performing pitch (solmisation or, as it is more commoly 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"—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.
The Curwen Method Today
My initial interest in the Curwen method was as a music education historian. In its heyday during the late nineteenth century, this method was the means through which working class people in Britain and many indigenous people in its colonies and elsewhere were able to become musically literate and participate in choral music. Jorgensen (2001, p.344) suggests that the Tonic Sol-fa is one example of a music teaching method that has had "its own time and place" and is now obsolete. For my own part, I had assumed that the method had simply given way to the Kodály Method and to the New Curwen Method (see below), and was no longer used. However, on a visit to South Africa in 1997, I discovered that the Curwen method and its notation were very much "alive and well" in black community and church choirs. I then discovered the same situation in Fiji and since then, I have found that the Curwen method is used in other countries--chiefly developing nations in Africa and Asia--where it is used to good effect.
The "New Curwen Method", which was developed for use in British primary and secondary schools, is a re-working of Tonic Sol-fa principles but applied to the teaching of staff notation. The "New Curwen Method" was developed under the auspices of Curwen Institute which in turn is maintained by the John Curwen Society. Established in 1974, the Curwen Institute has embarked on a program of curriculum material development and teacher professional development—for example, see Swinburne, W.H., The New Curwen Method, Book One: Tonic Sol-fa in Class (London: The Curwen Institute, 1980). This book and others in the series as well as a new publication which is ideal for lower primary school levels, Simply Sing and Sign Sol-fa (consisting of a song book, audio CD, video tape and flash cards), are available from the Honorary secretary, John Curwen Society, 56 Creffield Road, Colchester, Essex CO3 3HY, UNITED KINGDOM, Fax 024 7641 3564; Email firstname.lastname@example.org
The John Curwen Society website is at http://www.johncurwensociety.org.uk/
Jorgensen, E.R. (2001), "A dialectical view of theory and practice", Journal of Research in Music Education, vol.49 no.4 (Winter 2001).
The Curwen Method website
This web site has been developed to provide a source of information and reference for choir leaders, school music teachers and others who wish make use of the Curwen method and its notation as a means of teaching music literacy to their choral ensembles and/or music classes.
The site currently includes the following pages:
Overview article of the Curwen Method
Click HERE to download a copy of "A system ahead of its time" (by Robin Stevens, 2008) from Music in Action, 5 (5), 8-11.