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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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What is Tonic Sol-Fa?

by Mrs J. Spencer Curwen
Volume 2, 1891/92, pgs. 550-557


In my last paper I said that the questions "What is Tonic Sol-fa?" is still asked, though the method is fifty years old. It is in fact asked more often than usual just now. This may be because parents have discovered that there is an educational and an un-educational way of teaching most subjects, and begin to suspect that music too can be made more interesting and more intelligible to the learner. It may be that they have heard that children in the London Board Schools can sing in three parts at sight, and wonder why their own children cannot do likewise. The schoolmaster has been abroad for some time; the parent is just emerging and taking a look round, and one of the things he wants to know about is Tonic Sol-fa.

The Parents's Review proposes to give a series of lessons for little folks in the Tonic Sol-fa method as a help to mothers and governesses who would like to use it in the home schoolroom, but are not within reach of a qualified teacher. These lessons will be graded, and can therefore only give a little bit at a time upon the topics of Tune and Time, ad the educational principles upon which the system is based. It is my purpose in this paper to give those who may wish to use the lessons a bird's-eye view of Sol-fa from the standpoint of the staff-notationist, trying to explain to them what the letter notation is; how we represent the two facts, tune and time; why our manner of representing them is simpler and truer than the usual one of lines and spaces and crotchets and quavers, and how the new notation is a key to the old. I shall try to do this as simply as possible, knowing that the musical knowledge of those for whom I write is a very variable quantity. Some are good pianists, perhaps singers as well, able to take up a song or a piece of pianoforte music and hear it as they look at it. This power has come to them somehow, by a sort of instinct, through constant use of the keyboard, and that these can sing at sight goes without saying. They wonder why their own children or those whom they have to teach do not seem to possess this instinct; they are out of sympathy with the children who are not musically gifted, and teaching is hard work. Others there are to whom musical notation is almost a sealed book. They know enough to enable them to pick out the notes of a song on the piano, and so learn it by ear from the instrument, but they are never quite sure if the time is right. These, if mothers, wish that their children should be better taught than they were; if governesses, they "do not undertake music," forgetting that, though instrumental proficiency may not be possible for them, they might acquire the power of sight-singing, and teach it too.

I notice that there is an idea, even among otherwise sensible people, that the staff notation is "music," while the letter notation is "only Tonic Sol-fa." If my readers should have that idea lurking anywhere will they please put it aside? Music is sound, not ink upon paper. The printed signs, which as you look at them translate themselves in your mind into musical sounds, are the notation of music, just as the alphabet is the notation of speech; and those signs which most easily, rapidly, and surely translate themselves into sound as you look at them are necessarily the best notation. What we have to do then is to ask, first, what musical facts does the singer need to keep constantly in mind? and, secondly, how can we vest picture these facts so as to keep them constantly before him?

The musical facts which a singer has to keep in mind are Key--including Interval--and Time.

For Key we may substitute the word Scale. The scale is the central fact in music, and when we speak of keys we simply mean the pitch of the scale for the time being. Scientific musicians long ago gave prominence to that fact by attaching to the seven sounds of the scale certain names, the syllables do, re, me, fa, sol, la and si. These, remember, were scale-names, not pitch-names; that is to say, they belonged to the scale at whatever pitch it was sung, and were not used to indicate any absolute pitch. Let us illustrate this. Play the scale of C, and then the scale of E ♭ [E-flat], or any other.

do re mi fa sol la si do

They sound the same. They are the same. The pitch is different, but the mental effect of each set of sounds is identical.

Why is this? Because, wherever we begin, the seven sounds always follow each other in the same order, a semitone occurring between the third and fourth degrees, and again between the seventh and eighth all the rest being a full tone apart.

Now place your hand on a slip of paper over the scale on the staff, and striking any sound on the keyboard call that sound do, and sing the scale from the syllables alone. You have now used the syllables themselves as a musical notation. Once more write the initials only of these syllables, substituting ti for si (to avoid two s's) and you have the basis of the Tonic Sol-fa notation.

Let us look at the picture of the scale according to the staff notation (as it is given in our illustration above), and compare it with the Tonic Sol-fa picture which I have at the side.

On the staff all the steps of the scale appear equally distant from each other; there is nothing to indicate the existence of tones and semitones. On the modulator they are clearly shown. It is from the modulator that the Tonic Solf-faist learns the scale and as he reads the straight line of letters, d r m f s l t d', he sees behind it the usical ladder, with its “little steps” between me and fah, te and doh (1).

"But," says somebody, "it is quite as easy to remember the place of the semitones on the staff as in the straight line of letters." Oh, yes, quite; and if we had nothing to sing but scales from doh to doh (1) the staff notation would do nicely. But we want to do more; we want to sing "tunes," melodies--and melodies very often take the sounds of the scale out of their scale order and place them in another order, so that, just as a few colours in a kaleidoscope

form an endless variety of patterns, these few sounds form an endless variety of melodies. This brings us to the subject of interval, and here it is that the staff notation (while admirable for the keyboard) is exceedingly misleading to the singer.

Modulator: f m r doh te lah soh fah me ray doh t l s

It is a very important principle in all teaching that one sign should mean just one thing and never any other thing. Ambiguity is a weakness, and ambiguity is the weakness of the staff notation when we try to teach people to sing from it. To realise this fully one must imagine oneself in the position of a child or a person who does not know the keyboard, for those who read well from the staff do so through their knowledge of the keyboard, which is a kind of modulator to them. Try then to lose sight of the keyboard for a few moments while we examine an interval--this one for example

notes a c

In keys C and G this is a minor third; in D, A and E it is a major third; in B and F♯ [F-sharp] it is again a minor third; in F and B♭ [B-flat] it is a minor third; in E♭ [E-flat], A♭ [A-flat], and D♭ [D-flat] it is a major third; in G♭ [G-flat] it is a minor third. Or this

notes f b

which in all keys except C and C♯ [C-sharp] is a perfect fourth, but in those two is an augmented forth - the tritone--a rather difficult interval to sing. This ambiguity meets us at ever step, as each interval on the staff is liable to modification by the key signature, and therefore it is always possible to sing them half a tone wrong. If we consider the difficulty of teaching a child in the first place to distinguish between major and minor intervals, and then to understand and remember the modifications in the various keys, it is no wonder that we shrink from the task, and let them sing by ear.

How does Tonic Sol-fa deal with this question of interval? Well, we do not teach by interval at all. Our pupils sing intervals, major and minor--ay, and diminished and augmented--with ease and certainty, and as unconsciously as the man who talked prose all his life without knowing it' and I will tell you how they do it. I said a little way back that the mental effect of the scale as a whole is the same at whatever pitch we may sing it. Mr. Curwen discovered something more. He found that each individual sound of the scale had, in relation to the keynote, a mental effect peculiarly its own, a character sufficiently defined to enable us to recognise it when we hear it, or to call it up when we see its name. Our little singers do not know whether the interval from doh to fah or from me to lah is a fourth or a fourteenth; but having got hold of their keynote they sing fah because they know fah personally, lah because its character is distinct from that of the other scale-sounds. They do not count up the degrees from the keynote, or from one note to another; if they did, they would fall into the semitone traps, and come to grief among major and minor intervals. I heard this quaintly put the other day. "You are introduced to a family, and learn to know them by name and general characteristics. Each time you meet them you do not need to place them in a row and say, ‘one, two, three four--that's Tommy' one, two, three, four, five, six, seven--that's the baby." Each member of the scale-family is distinguishable by its own individuality, and this theory of mental effect is the secret of the Tonic Sol-fa method. What these mental effects of the scale-tones are will be explained in the lessons which are to follow.

"What happens when the music changes key?" Change of key--which, as I said before, is only a change in the pitch of the scale--is taught from the modulator. The commonest change of key, as some of my readers will know, is to the key of the dominant, the 5th of the original scale becoming the keynote of the new one. This is pictured thus(see margin).

scale being called the bridge-tone. One new sound has to be introduced to complete the new scale. What takes place on the keyboard when we pass from key C to key G? The note F, the 4th of the old key, is sharpened, and becomes the 7th of the new key. [If those who cannot follow me on paper will go to the piano and play the illustrations they will understand more easily.] This alteration is pictured on the modulator. The 4th of the old scald (fah is sharpened and called fe, and this new sounds becomes the t of the new scale. If the change of key is only for a few bars the chromatic name is used, if it is for a complete phrase we pass over to the side column the bridge-tone being indicated by a small letter printed just above and to the right of the note which starts us in the new key. To illustrate this I will write the same melody, part of a well-known hymn tune, in two different ways:--

Chromatic sounds are expressed by changing the vowel, sharpened sounds taking e, as re, fe, se, and flattened sounds a broad a (pronounced aw, as ma, la.

The notation of time is also pictorial. All music teachers are aware that a pupil may be well up in the arithmetic of music, may know the value of every note and rest, and be able to answer that favourite question of examiners, "How many demi-semi-quavers are there in a double-dotted semibreve?"--a pupil may know all this, and yet be an exceedingly bad timist. The Sol-faist does not learn time arithmetically. His ear is trained to an appreciation of accent and rhythm before he is shown the signs for these things, and every division of a beat is studied separately. When he comes to reading time, he has not to remember for how many beats (or pulses ) he must hold a note of a certain shape, for the time is measured out for him, pulse by pulse, every pulse in a given time being the same size, every bar (or measure as we call it) occupying the same space, and strong and weak accents being clearly marked, the strong accent by an upright line (as on the staff), and each weak accent by two dots, like a colon:--

So much for the notation. The method I cannot enter upon in a short paper, but a few of its principles may be enumberated:--
Time and tune are taught separately; the elemental before the compound.
The thing is always taught before the sign; and when the thing is apprehended, a distinct sign and a distinct name are attached to it.
The common is taught before the uncommon.
Each step rises out of that which comes before, and leads up to that which comes after.
At every step the understanding is called in to assist the skill, for theory helps pracice.
There is a constant appeal to the ear.

One other point remains. Is the letter notation a help to the staff? Yes; because the facts of music remain unchanged, and when these are mastered by means of the simple notation the singer has only to learn a set of new signs for facts which he already knows. People who oppose Tonic Sol-fa (and you will often find that they are people who do not know anything about it) are fond of saying, "What's the use of teaching children Tonic Sol-fa when they will have to begin all over again when they want to learn the staff?" But this is not so. A student of German may choose to begin by using English letters. When he has made some progress with the language, an hour's study of the German alphabet will enable him to read from the Gothic characters. He is not obliged to learn German "all over again," but only to accustom his eye to a set of new signs for the old sounds. A class of children who are well up on Tonic Sol-fa will, after a ten minutes' lesson on the staff, sing an ordinary hymn tune in any key from the staff, and that too without falling into any "semitone traps." To the Tonic Sol-faist the intervals on the staff are no longer misleading, because behind them he sees the modulator, and his time-names fit the staff as well as his own notation. So it comes to pass that hundreds of Tonic Sol-faists are every year absorbed into ordinary choral societies, where they make the most reliable readers, as conductors testify.

A letter which bears upon this point appeared in the "Queen" of the 15th inst., and would, I think, interest mothers. It is too long to quote.


Typed by Dawn Duran, April 2013