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John Curwen manuscripts collection

 Collection 0019-SCPA

John Curwen (1816-1880) was an English congregational minister who, later in life, devoted himself to developing and promulgating the Tonic Sol-fa pedagogical method. This method is based on the relationships between pitch-classes in a diatonic key, and replaces traditional notation with solfege syllables; the syllable "do" is assigned to a piece's tonic, thus the term "moveable do." The John Curwen Manuscripts, part of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) Historical Center (previously the Music Educators National Convention (MENC) Historical Center), contains six volumes written by Curwen that date from 1863 to 1868. These manuscripts frequently include pasted-in materials and feature Curwen's preparatory work for future harmony textbooks and exercises completed by students. Supporting materials are also part of the collection, giving biographical information, examples of tonic sol-fa, and a brief history of how the materials were acquired.


  • 1860-2005
  • Majority of material found within 1863-1868

Use and Access to Collection

There are no restricted files in this collection.

Duplication and Copyright Information

Materials from this collection must be used in the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library's Irving and Margery Morgan Lowens Special Collections Room, 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday. Contact the curator for an appointment:


1.75 Linear Feet

Scope and Content of Collection

The John Curwen manuscripts collection covers the period from 1860-2005, with the bulk of the material coming from 1863-1868. The collection contains six volumes. Two volumes are handwritten by Curwen and autographed, containing notes and paste-ins from his published books and articles, and annotated with corrections, additions, and Tonic Sol-fa notation transcriptions. The other four books represent "Constructive Exercises in Composition" completed by students of Curwen's method. These exercises, which include lessons in transposition and two- and three-part harmony, were sent or handed to him separately and later bound together.


John Curwen (1816-1880) was an English congregational minister who made an impact on music education through his Tonic Sol-fa pedagogical method. Curwen learned to read music by using a book authored by Sarah Glover that presented her Norwich Sol-fa method for reading notated music. Curwen adapted Glover's method to create his own system, which he referred to as "Tonic Sol-fa." This method replaces traditional musical notation with solfege syllables (do-re-mi-fa...) using "moveable do" (where "do" is always the tonic). In Curwen's notation, the first letter of the proper syllable/pitch to be sung appears and rhythm is indicated through the use of bar lines, half bar lines, and semicolons prefixing strong beats, medium beats, and weak beats respectively in each measure. Subdivisions of beats are marked using a full stop for half divisions and a comma for quarter divisions; continuation of a tone from one beat to the next is shown by a dash.

Curwen's main purpose in creating this system was to facilitate music literacy in a three step process: firstly reading from his sol-fa notation, secondly reading from staff notation in conjunction with sol-fa notation, and finally reading from traditional staff notation alone. Motivated by his belief that music should be the inheritance of all classes and ages, Curwen went to great personal expense to publish his own writings which included a textbook, The Standard Course of Lessons on the Tonic Sol-fa Method of Teaching to Sing, (1858) and a journal, Tonic Sol-fa Reporter and Magazine of Vocal Music for the People. After 1864, Curwen resigned from his position as a minister to devote more time to music education, eventually starting a publishing firm with his son, J. Curwen andamp; Sons, that later added "Tonic Sol-Fa Agency" to its name. In 1869 John Curwen established the Tonic Sol-Fa College which, just over 100 years later, founded the Curwen Institute in London.


This collection is organized into two series.

  1. Books
  2. Supporting Material

Custodial History and Acquisition Information

Purchased in 1994 with funds from the Rose Marie Grentzer Fund.

Related Material

  1. Tonic Sol-Fa Music Questions, by W.R. Phillips (1899); in Lowens Special Collections Room, Rare Stacks MT30.P45 1893.
  2. Musical Theory: Common Scale and Time Book 1 of 5, by John Curwen (1879); in Lowens Special Collections Room, Rare Stacks MT30.C861 1879.
  3. The Standard Course of Lessons and Exercises in the Tonic Sol-fa Method of Teaching Music, by John Curwen (re-written, 1901), in Lowens Special Collections Room, Rare Stacks MT30.C95 S7.
  4. The Pianoforte Edition of Songs and Tunes for Education: Having a Bass Which May Be Sung by Male Teachers, edited by John Curwen (1861) in Lowens Special Collections Room, Rare Stacks MSCPA 72-36.1.2-9-4.
  5. This collection is part of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) Historical Center (previously the Music Educators National Conference (MENC) Historical Center).
John Curwen manuscripts collection
Michael Boyd; revised by Joshua Barnett.
April 2007; revised June 2011
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English
Processing supported by the Rose Marie Grentzer Fund.

Library Details

Part of the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library

University of Maryland Libraries
8270 Alumni Drive
College Park MD 20742 United States