by Patricia Wisse1, The Netherlands

Much of the essential features of Kodály-inspired music education today can be traced back to Great Britain in the 19th century, where Sarah Glover2 developed her Norwich Sol-fa method and notation system3, using the seven unique initial letters of the tones of the diatonic scale (the name “ti” for the seventh tone of the scale built on “do” we owe to her!). John Curwen’s discovery of Sarah Glover’s work in Norwich and of her publication Scheme for Rendering Psalmody Congregational4 (1835)5 were instrumental in his development of the Tonic Sol-fa system. Here is Curwen’s own account of finding Glover’s method:

“I soon found that the old methods of teaching [music] had deceived me with the shell of knowledge instead of giving me its kernel. The thing music, I perceived to be very different from its names and signs. I found it much more simple and easy in itself, and incomparably more beautiful than the explanation of the signs in the old notation, with which elementary books are commonly filled. I had easily mastered them all, and had also studied a ‘first book’ on harmony, but I seemed to know nothing of music till then. I now saw that Miss Glover’s plan was to teach, first, the simple and beautiful thing, music, and to delay the introduction to the ordinary antiquated mode of writing it, until the pupil had obtained a mastery of the thing itself. Her method was, beyond all controversy, more deeply established on the principles of the science than any other, and, by giving it a fair trial on myself, and on a little child who lived in the same house, I became convinced that it was also the most simple of all - the most easy to teach, and the most easy to learn. The methods of teaching which are truest to the nature of the thing taught, and the least artificial, are always the most successful. In the course of a fortnight, I found myself, mirabile dictu, actually at the height of my previous ambition, being able to ‘make out’ a psalm-tune from the notes, and to pitch it myself! It was the untying of the tongue - the opening of a new world of pleasure...”6

John Curwen took Sarah Glover’s method, adapted some of its features, and under the name Tonic Sol-fa was able to create a system of teaching music that in the second half of the nineteenth century was widespread in Great Britain and beyond, in several of its (former) colonies.
Here is a list of several of John Curwen’s works available in the public domain in reverse chronological order with a link to each book under the title. The publishing dates have been taken from Bernarr Rainbow’s John Curwen, a Short Critical Biography7. There are several editions of Curwen’s books available online, I have chosen to link to the ones that I think have the best quality. In general, it should be said that all these books are highly worth reading and exploring! Curwen is a true master teacher and writes so lively that you can almost hear him speak the words.

Works by John Curwen

Musical Theory (1879)8

The five parts of Curwen’s Musical Theory are:

Book I Common Scale and Time
Book II Minor Mode and Transition
Book III Musical Form
Book IV Expression
Book V Harmony and Construction

All written in his particular, clear, and very accessible style, this book is a wonderful description of the elements of music through the lens of John Curwen’s Tonic Sol-fa. Many examples and exercises are given throughout, in Tonic Sol-fa as well as in staff notation. Taking a look at the Contents of book I and II9 and at the Index10 may give an impression of the scope of topics discussed in this work.

Tonic Sol-fa Primer (1878)11

The preface to this compact work very well explains its purpose: “This work is not intended to teach those ignorant of music how to sing, but to explain the Tonic Sol-fa Notation and method of teaching to those who are already familiar with the established mode of writing music by means of the Staff. A knowledge of that notation is taken for granted, and it will be mainly by comparing the two notations that the various points of the new notation will be made clear.”

The Teacher’s Manual (1875)12

The subtitle of The Teacher’s Manual of the Tonic Sol-Fa Method tells us the work is “Dealing with the Art of Teaching and the Teaching of Music.” In this elaborate and enlightening work, Curwen not only draws from his own experience as a learner and a teacher, but he also cites many impressive contemporary sources on teaching in general and on the teaching of music.

The book is filled with useful advice and common sense, and Curwen’s teaching principles are constantly present:

  1. Let the easy come before the difficult.
  2. In training the mind: introduce the real and concrete before the ideal or
  3. In developing physical skill: teach the elemental before the compound, and do
    one thing at a time.
  4. Introduce, both for explanation and practice, the common before the
  5. Teach the thing before the sign (or name) and when the thing is
    apprehended, attach to it a distinct sign.
  6. Let each step, as far as possible, rise out of that which goes before, and lead
    up to that which comes after.
  7. Call in the Understanding to assist the Skill at every step.

The pdf’s on the website of the University of Rochester are well worth downloading. Boethius Press published a reprint13 in the series Classic Texts in Music Education, but unfortunately it is currently out of stock.

The New Standard Course (1872)14

This Standard Course of Lessons and Exercises in the Tonic Sol-fa Method of Teaching Music, published in 1872, is the rewritten text with added exercises of the first Standard Course, published in 1861. The course is carefully arranged in 6 steps covering voice production, tune, and time. Exercises and songs are in two parts throughout, with four-part exercises and pieces under the additional exercises. To illustrate what the course aims to achieve, here are the contents of the first and sixth steps:

FIRST STEP. To produce a good tone. To train the muscles which rule the lungs. Given a key tone, to recognize and produce its fifth and third. To recognize and produce its upper octave and the lower octave of its fifth. To recognize and produce the simplest divisions of time.

SIXTH STEP. Continuation of Chest, Klang, and Tuning Exercises. To perceive the Physical Facts and Mental Effects of Two Removes in Transition, and to sing such a Transition. To perceive the Physical Facts and Mental Effects of Three Removes and to sing such a Transition. To understand Principles on which various degrees of Force and Speed are applied to Words, and to make use of them. To practise the Phrasing of Words. To exercise the Organs in sustaining vowel sounds clearly and correctly. To understand the Principal Forms of Vocal Music. To understand the Resonances and their use. To exercise the Voice for Strength and Agility.

Please note the very useful booksmarks (in white) on! Or see the table of contents here15, where the links open to the pages in the same book on

How to Observe Harmony (1861, revised 1872)16

How to Observe Harmony is Curwen’s course of harmony, arranged in 13 steps. Curwen closes his introduction to the work with the following: “I trust that this new work will help yet further to popularise the delightful study of Harmony.” As in the other works, Curwen’s writing style is very down-to-earth, real, and easy to follow. Taking a look at the index17 will give a good impression of the topics in the course. Examples are given throughout in Tonic Sol-fa as well as in staff notation. The appendix holds “passages from leading composers analysed and explained,” in Tonic Sol-fa notation, as well as a very nice and usable set of progressively arranged “chord-naming examples.”18

Other works

Listed below are a few works not (entirely) written by John Curwen, but worth mentioning:

How to Read Music and Understand it (1881)19

This little book was published after John Curwen’s death (1880), and was written “by the late John Curwen. Completed and edited by J. Spencer Curwen”, his son. I would not consider it an important work, but I do think it is very practical and compact, and in this sense, suitable for people who want to familiarize themselves with Tonic Sol-fa in a little amount of time. Most examples are given in Tonic Sol-fa as well as in staff notation, and quite a portion of the book is dedicated to dealing with staff notation. Of course there are not as many examples and pieces in this book as there are in the Standard Course. For two-part material the latter is also the better source.
Rewritten Standard Course (1901)20

This edition of the Standard Course is from 1901 and, as John Spencer Curwen writes in the preface, was rewritten and updated by several writers, almost all connected to the Tonic Sol- fa College. While in Curwen’s own Standard Course, each step contained all different relevant topics, one after the other, here they have been separated into the parts Time & Tune21, Voice Training22, Musical Form23, Expression24, Harmony25, the Staff Notation26, and Pronunciation27. The examples under Time & Tune are mostly just in one part. Although the information in the book is very precise and valuable, as a whole, this publication comes across as a bit more academic (and less accessible) than John Curwen’s own writings.

The Teacher’s Handbook of the Tonic Sol-fa System - Alexander T. Cringan (1889)28

This “guide to the teaching of singing in schools by the Tonic Sol-fa System” was written by Alexander T. Cringan29, a Canadian alumnus of the Tonic Sol-fa College. It is written in a similar style to Curwen’s, and is besides very methodical, quite inspiring.


  1. and
  2. Glover's Music Education Scheme.pdf (dec 2018)
  3. Waterhouse, C. (2010) An appraisal of the Norwich sol-fa method and materials for choir training and music teaching, devised by Sarah Anna Glover in 19th century norwich. (In ‘Bulletin of the International Kodály Society’, vol. 35, no. 1; p. 11-21); IKS, Budapest. ('s%20Music%20Education%20Scheme.pdf - dec 2018)
  4. (dec 2018)
  5. Glover, S. (1835) Scheme for rendering Psalmody congregational; comprising a key to the sol-fa notation of music, and directions for instructing a school. Norwich: Jarrold & Sons
  6. Curwen, J. (1848) Singing for Schools and Congregations. Cambridge: University Press (2013), p. xii
  7. Rainbow, B. (2011) John Curwen: a short critical biography in Bernarr Rainbow on Music:Selected Writings and a Memoir (ed. Cox, G.) Woodbridge: Boydell Press: (dec 2018)
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  29. 1931%22&and%5B%5D=creator%3A%22cringan%2C+alexander+t.+%28alexander+thom%29%2C+1860-1931%22 (dec 2018)