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John Curwen Manuscripts


John Curwen Manuscripts
Curwen, John
Collection number:
1.75 Linear Feet
Bulk dates:
Inclusive dates:
Collection Area:
Special Collections in Performing Arts
Special Collections in Performing Arts, Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742. Contact the curator:

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.

Important Information for Users of the Collection


There are no restricted files in this collection.

Preferred citation:

John Curwen Manuscripts, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

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Publication rights:

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:


This collection is PROCESSED.

Historical Note

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 & 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.

Scope and Contents of the 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.

Custodial History and Acquisition Information

Purchased in 1994 by Special Collections in Performing Arts with funds from the Rose Marie Grentzer Fund.

Processing Information

Processed by:

Michael Boyd, April 2007; updated by Joshua Barnett, June 2011.

Encoded by:

EAD markup created using EAD database in Microsoft Access. Markup completed by Colleen McKnight, April 2007; updated and revised by Cassandra N. Berman, October 2011.

Arrangement of Collection

This collection is organized into two series.

Detailed Description of the Collection

Series 1: Books, 1863-1868 and undated (1.50 Linear Feet)

This series contains books written by Curwen in his own hand and compilations of exercises written out by students of Curwen's method. Materials are arranged chronologically.

DescriptionSeriesBox / ReelFolder / Frame
Harmony by John Curwen, undated -- This item is a manuscript containing examples, exercises, and a key to Curwen's How to Observe Harmony. -- There is also a course on approaching harmony and a pasted-in insert with Curwen's name written on the front entitled Constructive Exercises in Elementary Composition. series 1box 1folder 1
"Key to the Elementary Composition Exercises in Reporter, vol. IX - vol. II" by John Curwen, January 1868 -- This item is a manuscript containing pasted-in exercises accompanied by handwritten answers to the exercises. -- The volume appears to be arranged by increasing difficulty of the exercises. series 1box 1folder 2
Constructive Exercises 1, July 9, 1863 -- This book contains a large collection of handwritten exercises in harmonic construction with names and notes written in with pencil. -- The volume appears to be arranged by student. series 1box 1folder 3
Constructive Exercises 2, August 1863 -- This book contains a large collection of handwritten exercises in harmonic construction with names and notes separating sections of exercises. -- The volume appears to be arranged by student. series 1box 1folder 4
Constructive Exercises 3, October 1863 -- This book contains a large collection of handwritten exercises in harmonic construction with names and notes separating sections of exercises. -- The volume appears to be arranged by student. series 1box 1folder 5
Constructive Exercises 4, November 1863 -- This book contains a large collection of handwritten exercises in harmonic construction with names and notes separating sections of exercises. -- The volume appears to be arranged by student. series 1box 1folder 6

Series 2: Supporting Material, 1860-2005 and undated (0.25 Linear Feet)

This series contains material related to Tonic Sol-fa and John Curwen including examples of the method and biographical information. The materials are arranged by type.

DescriptionSeriesBox / ReelFolder / Frame
Letter by John Curwen to Rev. John B. Johnston in Glasgow, Scotland., August 17, 1860 series 2box 2folder 1
50 Beauties of Erin, undated -- This folder contains a book of printed music which serves as an example of a songbook which uses the Tonic Sol-fa notation., 1928 series 2box 2folder 2
"Transcription of page in 'Harmony,'" August 2005 -- This folder contains letters between Dr. Benjamin Steege and Bonnie Jo Dopp, then-Curator for SCPA, along with a transcription of notes taken concerning the biographical sketches of Joseph and Anthon Gersbach. Arranged chronologically., August 2005 series 2box 2folder 3
Compiled biographical sources on John Curwen -- This folder contains biographical information on John Curwen collected from Music Dictionaries and a brief summary of Curwen's bio and the collection materials. The material is arranged chronologically., 1874-1998 and undated series 2box 2folder 4
"Solfege Tones - Hand Signals and Meanings" -- This folder contains a small poster created for music education explaining the hand signals and meanings of the seven diatonic solfege syllables., 1997 series 2box 2folder 5

Related Material

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