An Appraisal of Sarah Glover’s Norwich Sol-fa Method by Celia Waterhouse


Much of this methodology was carried forward through John Curwen’s
Tonic Sol-fa method, to have an influence on Zoltán Kodály

by Celia Waterhouse
Independent Music Teacher based in Cambridgeshire, UK

Presented at the 19th International Kodály Symposium in August 2009, Katowice, Poland

Sarah Glover’s method for music education has a special value in the history of the Kodály movement, as the first example of a systematic programme of practical musicianship training through unaccompanied singing and relative solfa. Much of this methodology was carried forward, through John Curwen’s Tonic Sol-fa method, to have an influence on Zoltán Kodály.

Sarah Anna Glover (1786 -1867) was the daughter of the curate of St Lawrence’s church Norwich. As a young woman she began directing the music in church, and teaching with her sister at local parish schools, charity schools and Sunday schools. At that time Sunday Schools were schools for poor children who had to work on weekdays, when the more fortunate children attended regular school. She was well educated, had a lifelong interest in many subjects and was familiar with contemporary educational philosophy, scientific theory, scholarly treatises and histories of music. An accomplished amateur musician and pianist, Sarah Glover was also a gifted and inventive teacher.

The singing of her young pupils soon gained a reputation, and she began to receive requests to train others to teach music. Studying music at the time consisted of fact learning, with various devices to facilitate stave reading. European methods favoured, numbers to represent degrees of the scale, or were based on fixed-do solfa. In England an old gamut-derived solfa, far removed from Guido’s original concept, and probably more of an obstacle than an aid to learning, was still in use.1 Over the next twenty years Sarah Glover experimented with teaching methods and materials, rejecting traditional methods, and devised her own adaptation of Guido’s solfa, extending it to a full relative solfa system. This was published anonymously in 1835 as Scheme for Rendering Psalmody Congregational.2 Glover used the term Psalmody in her title to refer to the singing of hymns in church worship.

Introduction to her Scheme
Sarah Glover was deeply influenced by the words of Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London, in his Charge to the diocese of London, written in 1790, and reprinted in 1811, when Sarah was twenty-five years old. She was just starting to take responsibility for music in church and in various schools. The Bishop exhorted the clergy to promote singing, and suggested that much could be achieved by training charity children and Sunday School children to sing.

Of all the services of our church, none appear to me to have sunk to so low an ebb, or so evidently to need reform, as our parochial psalmody.3

In her Prefatory Remarks,4 Sarah Glover commented on

the lamentably low state of psalmody in most of the churches belonging to the Establishment. Summarising the general lack of musical skills and singing ability amongst what she referred to as the superior orders of the community, she noted that Psalmody is therefore usually abandoned to the care of the illiterate, some of whom derive aid from a degenerate species of sol-fa-ing. 5

She outlined her vision:

Let singing become a branch of national education, not only in schools for the children of labourers and mechanics, but in academies for young ladies and gentlemen, … A very little practice well directed, would soon produce a sufficient degree of skill, to render this employment highly attractive to the pupils.6

She stated that two things were needed to achieve a better standard: a general acquaintance with notes, and practice in not only melody but harmony, so that all voices could take part. Her New Notation was designed to help beginners to learn, but in addition, she believed that those who could already read music would benefit from:

the practice of sol-fa-ing, so favourable to the production of accuracy in tune and so convenient to the practitioner who desires to avoid attaching sacred words to an air till all mechanical difficulty is surmounted. 7

The Scheme includes a teachers’ manual, as well as two pupils’ books of beginner repertoire in solfa notation. The first of these is a book of “German Canons” 8 providing a set of progressive lessons for teaching intervals, if sung merely in unison; but, when performed in parts, exercise the pupils likewise in harmony. The second is a book of Psalm Tunes in two-part arrangement, for the cultivation of harmony in schools for children. She also mentions an edition in preparation, with solfa in parallel with stave notation, to assist stave readers to study the new notation.

Sarah Glover writes that the Method’s effectiveness is proven:

I think I may assert from experience acquired in a school consisting of more than sixty poor children, that vocal powers are very generally attainable, and the art of singing at sight from the sol-fa-ing notation easy.9

Glover reasons that if musical people learn her method in order to teach others and cultivate their own voices to lead singing in church, psalmody will be much improved. She suggests that parents should engage a nanny who knows solfa in order to give their children the benefit of an early start. She acknowledges the effort and discipline required to achieve good psalmody, but states that this could bring many collateral advantages. She proposes that such learning exerts a good moral tendency, promoting health and recreation, and unites students with their leader, their school, and each other. Music, she says, composes while it raises the spirits, refines the mind, and under judicious regulations, is calculated to favour piety.10

Piety apart perhaps, we in the Kodály movement in the 21st century can still connect with many of Sarah Glover’s aims, beliefs and values:

  • Singing should be for all, as a part of national education. Everyone can sing – it is possible to achieve good results with regular appropriate practice.
  • Musical literacy, like linguistic literacy, should be available to all.
  • Music education should begin at an early age.
  • Music provides positive, uplifting, recreational and unifying values.
  • Music teachers must be well trained.

Her practical solutions to address the task also resonate with those of the Kodály Movement. She proposes:

  • A method to facilitate reading from the stave, develop harmonic hearing, improve tuning and intonation, and enable learning of music to take place before text is added.
  • Learning material organized in a progressive from simple to complex.
  • Materials that include singing in unison, in canon, and in parts
  • A curriculum designed for the needs of children rather than for adults

Arguing the case for Solfa
Sarah Glover summarises the limitations of stave notation:

  • There is no differentiation between tones and semitones.
  • There is a bewildering array of key signatures, though the construction of a scale is always the same
  • A change of clef turns the same symbol into a different note
  • Different symbols denote the same note – she cites all the C’s on the piano-forte. In contrast she asserts that Solfa needs no key signatures, clefs or ledger lines.

In contrast she asserts that Solfa needs no key signatures, clefs or ledger lines. She lists its other advantages:

  • It defines Rhythm more clearly.
  • It characterises each Interval within a key.
  • It marks the Mode.
  • It expresses the relationship existing between keys where Modulation occurs.
  • It renders Transposition easy.
  • It furnishes a set of syllables favourable to good Intonation.

The tendency of these improvements is …. to lead the pupil to sing better in tune, sooner at sight, and to imbibe more correct notions of the theory of music.11

Glover goes on to add one further advantage of solfa over stave notation highly relevant in the 1800s. It could be printed in common type, bringing down production costs and making printed music affordable and accessible to all. She suggests that the principal objection to her method is likely to be that students taught through solfa will be unable to read stave notation. However, she insists that solfa is a good introduction to stave notation, and that it enables students to make more rapid progress than they do if starting with the stave. Later she gives instructions for the transition from solfa to stave reading.12

She asserts that those who need music only for church psalmody will find solfa notation ample enough for all the purposes of social and congregational worship. The implication here is the lower classes, and given the social context, this is not a surprising statement. She was already breaking with convention by offering a practical means for all social classes to learn music, an opportunity previously available only to the wealthier.

We today value the same basic components for teaching music:

  • A teaching system to facilitate sound musical progress.
  • An affordable method readily accessible to all.
  • Simplified notation that allows musical understanding to develop, while paving the way to mastery of the stave.

Sarah Glover’s Solfa Notation
Most of Sarah Glover’s Anglicised spellings of the solfa names are still common in Britain:

Doh Ra Me Fah Sole Lah Te

In notation these were abbreviated to capital initials: D, R, M, F, S, L, T. She invented Te instead of Si for the seventh degree (to avoid confusion with Sole/S), and Bah and Ne for the sharpened sixth and seventh of the minor scale, also distinct from other solfa letters.

Lah Te Doh Ra Me Bah Ne

Curwen’s adaptations of these are summarised in the Appendix.

A chromatic note was indicated by a vowel change, to oy for a flat, and ow for a sharp. Modulations used a series of vowel-changes, the most frequent being u for the dominant and i for the subdominant.

A change of octave was shown by an accent over a note: a grave accent ( ` ) for the lower octave, and an acute ( ´ ) for the octave above. She made Lah the lowest note of the range,13 but later changed this to Sole, giving Doh central position in the scale.14

The tetrachordal view of the scale has led me to alter in some measure the arrangement I made of the accents in the two former editions of this work.

She credits various sources, but insists this change is the result, not of imitation, but of independent thoughts and experiments.15

Rhythm notation
In Sarah Glover’s approach, rhythm notation consisted of the careful spacing of notes, with punctuation marks showing beats.16

  • A vertical line ( | ) is shown for 1st beat, and dots ( . ) for subsequent beats. In quadruple meter, an exclamation mark ( ! ) is used for the 3rd beat.
  • A horizontal line is used to lengthen notes. Shorter notes are set closer together between dots.
  • A plus sign (+) represents a 1-beat rest. Longer rests are counted backwards from the overall number of beats down to 1.
  • The ‘foot’ at the head of the music indicated metre and the basic form of each metric unit (upbeats, slurred beats etc).

This simple system worked well with the rhythmically regular repertoire it was designed for. In addition, pupils always beat time together, tapping beat 1 on a wooden book-rest, and marking subsequent beats lightly on the arm. It may well be this technique which defined rhythm more clearly, as she claimed, rather than the rhythm notation itself.

Inventions and classroom aids
Sarah Glover invented a pitch classification system for the twelve keyboard pitches using letters, distinct from both the note letter-names (A – G), the solfa names, and from the letter I, which could be confused with a Roman numeral. Her solfa music had a code at the top giving the classification name for do and the starting pitch. 5

Note Letter Name   Norwich Solfa Classification
A#                               J
B / Cb                        K
C                                 O
C# / Db                     P
D                                Q
D# / Eb                     U
E                                 V
F                                 W
F#                               X
G                                 Y
G#                              Z

Most churches and schools had no piano or organ, and, in any case, few teachers could play. Glover invented a didactic musical instrument, which she named the Solfa Harmonicon. It was cheap to manufacture, like a small glockenspiel with chime bars of glass. Each semitone step was aligned and equally spaced, with a range of two octaves from G below Middle C,the complete range of children’s singing voices. Each pitch was labelled with letter name and classification name. Its purpose was solely to give keynote and starting pitch. Singing exercises, canons and psalms, even two-part singing, were unaccompanied from the start.

She devised a chart, showing solfa scales set out horizontally in twelve positions, which fitted on a roller inside the harmonicon. This was turned until do was lined up with the correct pitch. She also made a Pianoforte Card to fit behind the piano keys, indicating classification names for each key. Even a non-player could thus find do and the starting pitch, or any note of the scale, on either instrument. These practical solutions made it possible for ordinary teachers in parish schools and churches to use the Scheme.

A large chart, the Table of Tune, showed all the keys in columns in solfa, tones and semitones in proper ratio, following circle of fifths order. As time went by this was simplified into the Compound Ladder or Norwich Solfa Ladder, depicting only three solfa columns, the home key in the middle, the dominant on the right, and subdominant on the left. The Ladder was a crucial visual aid for practising solfa singing and simple modulation. Sarah Glover explains its importance:

Sol-fa-ing may be viewed as the Art of calculating the sound of an unperformed musical interval from one that has just preceded it. This power is obtained mainly through a familiar acquaintance with the perpendicular succession of the sol-fa syllables,… of which the diatonic scale is composed, & also of the horizontal succession of the sol-fa syllables which may be termed synonymous, being notes the same in pitch but differing in name. 17

Beginners sang exercises on the tonic chord of D major.

If the children have been much unaccustomed to singing, they will at first perhaps not be able to reach more than Doh, Me, Sole, if so, the upper Doh must be omitted for a time. 18

Once pupils could sing the tonic chord, simple harmonic exercises were begun, as a preparation for the German Canons. These are similar to the first exercises in Kodály’s Let Us Sing Correctly. Glover suggests hearing each child’s voice individually when the timidity and merriment, usual on these first efforts, have subsided, and putting the most competent children together to gain confidence from each other. These more able singers later became group leaders when dividing into voices – this was a great strength of the method, enabling part-singing to begin at an early stage.

Directions for instructing a school. 19
Sarah Glover sets out many enlightening guidelines showing her practical approach to teaching melody, harmony, rhythm, beating time, tone and expression. These contain much that is familiar to Kodály practitioners, and reveal her inventive and practical approach.

For experiencing metre and feeling the beat, she suggests:

Strike the palms together to express a loud beat, bend the hands into fists and strike them together for a soft beat. She begins with 2-time, the teacher counting and the pupils imitating the actions of her hand. … The Teacher might sing what she intends to teach the children (next), while the beating continues.

For initially teaching a canon:

She will herself dictate alone, half of it, and then require the class to imitate and join her in the repetition of it; the same with the latter half.

For teaching two-part singing:

When the pupils are capable of performing it well alone, the instructress may add a second part softly, with the syllable ah, then louder with the Sol-fa syllables. The same process happens when introducing a third or fourth voice ‘till all the four parts are distributed amongst four companies; one girl in each company should beat time as soon as it is the turn for her company to begin.

For beginning two-part songs:

When they are able to sing (the second part) without the aid of their instructress, she will insinuate the upper part with the syllable ah, increase the sound by degrees, and in due time add the Sol-fa syllables.

For intonation:

Care must be taken to prevent a tune from degenerating. … The principle defect will probably be flatness; and the flatness will chiefly occur at Me and Te; especially in the descending scale. … Practise Me with the Doh below, and with the Sole above; Te with the Sole below; then with the Ra above.

For varying the activity and keeping the energy flowing:

Let the tune be read in turn by the girls who compose each company. … Let small portions of a tune be sung in turn by the companies.… Let one half of the scholars beat time, while the other half sing, and vice-versa.… Let them write the words of a psalm and insert the bars. … Those who are more advanced, might transfer tunes from the old into the new, and from the new into the old notation.

Sarah Glover writes at length about the character of the music and the importance of the text. The principal perfection of music consists in speaking a language more refined than words can convey. 20

She wanted the spirit of the music to be fully accessible, and therefore gave performance directions in English, avoiding use of foreign terms, which might confuse pupils. Some succinct examples are: Soothing, Dignified and Plaintive, Spirited and Triumphant, Spirited and Dignified, Expressive of Holy Awe.21

Sarah Glover did not teach only children from the middle class, but also poor children from charity schools, some of whom had never sung before. Her method used unaccompanied singing, with activities and repertoire appropriate for beginners. The teacher played a crucial role as a model of good singing. She stated, a female’s voice is more easily imitated by children than a man’s.

Her fundamental principle was:

In teaching children music, I think it best to instruct them on the same principle as they are taught speech; that is by deducing theory from practice rather than practice from theory. 22

Sarah Glover’s school was one of the very few to receive positive comments on music teaching when the first national school inspections took place a few years after the Scheme was published. In spite of this endorsement, her method was not chosen for England’s first national school music teaching programme. Instead, a method using fixed-do, with a massive following in France, was adapted for use in England.

John Curwen and the start of the Tonic Sol-fa Method
Because his work so closely followed Sarah Glover’s, a brief summary must be included here of the work of John Curwen (1816 – 1880) and of Tonic Sol-fa.

Curwen took up his first post as a Congregational Minister in 1838. He was a brilliant Sunday school teacher with a reputation as a progressive. He took a keen interest in educational method, and was familiar with Rousseau and Pestalozzi, among others. As a result of his writings and lectures on education he was invited to write some articles outlining his approach to teaching, including the teaching of vocal music, and to become editor of a new nonconformist publication, the Independent Magazine.

With no musical training, he embarked on self-study in order to teach music. He was soon leading singing with large groups of children, and quickly realised the limitations of the fixed do method. In 1841 he was commissioned by a conference of Sunday school teachers to find the best method to teach music. When a friend showed him the recently published Scheme as a possible answer to his quest, he was astounded by its sound methodology. He describes his moment of realisation:

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 pupils 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 ….. I became convinced that it was also the most simple of all – the most easy to teach, and the most easy to learn. 23

He began to appraise the method and experiment with modifications. He compiled a children’s hymn book in solfa notation incorporating these modifications, and prepared a series of articles to present this adapted notation in the Independent Magazine. In October 1841, just before publication, he wrote to compliment Sarah Glover on her method, explained the modifications that he was convinced were improvements, and told her of his forthcoming publications.24 This was the start of the Tonic Sol-fa Method. Curwen chose this name to distinguish his use of relative sol-fa from the prevailing fixed do method.25 He saw no need for either Sarah Glover’s note classification system or for her ingenious harmonicon. He indicated key by giving the fixed pitch letter name as doh at the top 8 of the tonic solfa music.

He adopted the Ladder, and re-named it the Modulator. It became a standard feature of primary classroom walls in schools up and down the country, and remained a key component of the Curwen Method until after 1950. Curwen wrote:

The Modulator is used in teaching tunes. The teacher points to the pattern, both while he gives the pattern and while the pupil imitates it. This measures to the eye the exact intervals which the voice is taking. And the constant use of the solfa syllables in this connection always with the same intervals, helps the mind to recall those intervals with greater ease. 26

It is interesting to note that although Kodály did not adopt the modulator, many Kodály practitioners use classroom exercises and visual aids that perform a similar function.

Tonic Sol-fa became Curwen’s life’s work, spread by means of his publishing firm, by the Movement’s magazine The Tonic Sol-fa Reporter, and by the training of teachers. Sarah Glover’s Scheme had been preoccupied with a very limited style of music, church music, for a particular purpose, congregational singing. However, Curwen saw a much wider purpose, and greatly extended the repertoire. He continued to refine the Method and to incorporate new ideas, such as the French Time Names, 27 which first appeared in a revised version of his Standard Course in 1872. He always meticulously acknowledged his sources.

The hand signs, one of Curwen’s few original features, were not invented until 1870. 28 In spite of their practical application in the classroom, he wrote:

But these signs do not give that picture of interval and the relation of keys which is supplied by the Modulator, and can never take its place. … The Tonic Sol-fa method has three assistants in the teaching of tune – first, the hand signs; second, the memory-helping syllables; and third, the Modulator. 29

Tonic Sol-fa made a huge impact on musical literacy and music teaching throughout Britain and the Empire. By 1891, two and a half million British children were learning through Tonic Sol-fa in elementary schools. Curwen always acknowledged Sarah Glover as the founder of the Movement. A foundation stone in her memory was laid when his Tonic Sol-fa College was founded in 1879. Curwen’s fundamental educational precepts, set out and described in Chapter I of The Teacher’s Manual of the Tonic Sol-fa Method, are:

  • Let the easy come before the difficult.
  • Introduce the real and concrete before the ideal or abstract.
  • Teach the elemental before the compound and do one thing at a time.
  • Introduce, both for explanation and practice, the common before the uncommon.
  • Teach the thing before the sign, and when the thing is apprehended, attach to it a distinct sign.
  • Let each step, as far as possible, rise out of that which goes before, and lead up to that which comes after.
  • Call in the understanding to assist the skill at every stage.

The Method was still prevalent in Britain when Kodály visited fifty years after Curwen’s death. What he saw in English schools deeply influenced his thinking. According to Bernarr Rainbow:

Upon discovering the systematic method of training the inner ear which formed the basis of Curwen’s teaching, Kodály determined to make it the basis of a system designed to meet the special needs of Hungarian schools. 30

For Sarah Glover the religious and moral value of music gave rise to her mission to build a musical church community. Her insights into teaching children inspired her fresh and practical approach. Bernarr Rainbow wrote:

….whatever refinements Curwen added to her original system, the unique character of her basic method and the understanding of a child’s problems which it demonstrates are sufficient to justify for her an honoured place in her own right in the history of musical education. 31

Curwen found Sarah Glover’s method fundamentally at one with his own purpose and enlightened educational values. Through his vision and genius as a teacher, his position in society, and the opportunities he forged to spread his message, he developed the method on a much wider scale than she could have imagined, enriched with inspiration from many other sources.

Kodály acknowledged the inspiration he found in Curwen’s legacy: 32

In the course of a number of visits to England since 1927 I observed the highly developed singing in schools. To this I am indebted for much stimulation, which helped me gradually to complete my work for children. I am now very pleased to return to the English what I learned from them, and was able to adapt to our needs in Hungary.

Something of Sarah Glover’s practical insight into teaching music in the classroom has indeed been passed down, from Sarah Glover, through Curwen, to Kodály. For the benefit of mankind, these universal values of good music teaching continue to inspire us today.

1 Old English solfa, Lancashire Solfa, or ‘Fasola’, in The Land Without Music, by Bernarr Rainbow, (Novello, 1967), pp 14-28
2 Scheme for Rendering Psalmody Congregational, 1835, by Sarah Glover. Republished in the series Classic Texts in Music Eduction ed. Bernarr Rainbow (Boethius Press 1982)
3 The Life of Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London by Robert Hodgson (1813): from the Bishop’s 1790 Charge to the diocese of London, reprinted in 1811.
4 Scheme, pp 5-14 (Boethius Edition: 23-32).
5 Scheme, p 6 (24)
6 Scheme, p 7 (25). The emphasis is Sarah Glover’s.
7 Scheme, p 8 (26)
8 Musikalisches Schulgesangbuch von Carl Gläser, cited as source of her German Canons in an article on Scientific and Unscientific Singing in The Teacher’s Visitor (1848), an educational magazine ed. William Carus Wilson. (Strangers’ Hall Museum, Norwich). Further reading – see article Early 19th century music pedagogy – German and English connections by Jane Southcott (BJME 2007).
9 Scheme p 12 (30)
10 Scheme p 14 (32)
11 Scheme pp 17-18 (35-36)
12 Scheme, Appendix pp 69 (87)
13 Scheme, pp 34-35 (52-53) She was fascinated by Newton’s discovery of the analogy between the proportions of prismatic colours in the light spectrum, and the divisions of a musical 10 string in the ascending minor scale. She cites Newton’s analogy as her reason for choosing la as lowest note for the purpose of accents. For further reading, see Glover’s Intellectual Odessy by Jane Southcott (1995).
14 A Manual of the Norwich Sol-fa System for teaching Singing in Schools and Classes, Glover, 1848, pp 27-31
15 Ibid, p 31.
16 Sarah Glover’s rhythm notation is not unique and bears resemblance to Proposal of a Musical Short Hand or Literal Notation by J. Marsh (1822), which is among the books in the Strangers’ Hall collection. In 1827 Sarah Glover sent an unpublished version of the Scheme to Marsh for his comment. Several of her early manuscripts have pencil annotations and comments made by Marsh.
17 Unpublished hand-written book Rules for Sol-fa-ing, in the Strangers’ Hall collection.
18 Scheme, p 40 (58)
19 Scheme, pp 38-68 (56 – 86)
20 Scheme p 62 (80)
21 Solfa Tune Book, 3rd Edition (1939) pp. 10-23 (108-121). Republished with the Scheme (Boethius Press 1982 op.cit.)
22 Glover, 1848 op.cit. p 66.
23 Reprinted in John Curwen – A Short Critical Biography by Bernarr Rainbow (Novello 1980) pp 17-18
24 The letter is reprinted in The Land Without Music, Rainbow 1967, p 175. Sarah Glover’s reply to Curwen has been lost. He always acknowledged her as founder of the Tonic Sol-fa Movement and Method. They met amicably on several occasions, he visited her school, and they corresponded on cordial terms. Sarah Glover and her sister were invited to the first Tonic Sol-fa Jubilee in London in June 1857. Fuller discussion of the discord between John Curwen and Sarah Glover after he published her modified method – see Rainbow, and articles: Sarah Glover: A Forgotten Pioneer in Music Education by Peggy Bennett (1984), and “Dear Madam” – the letters of Sarah Glover and John Curwen by Jane Southcott (2003).
25 After Curwen began to publish books and articles about the Tonic Sol-fa Method, Sarah Glover published The History of the Norwich Sol-fa (1845) and republished her Scheme in 1848 as A Manual of the Norwich Sol-fa System for teaching Singing in Schools and Classes.
26 The Teacher’s Manual of the Tonic Sol-fa Method by John Curwen, 1875 (4th edition) p 100, § 330
27 La Langue des Durées by Chevé, Galin-Paris
28 Memorials of John Curwen by J. Spencer Curwen (1882), p 58-9.
29 Curwen 1875, op.cit. p 96 § 319.
30 Music in educational thought and practice Bernarr Rainbow with Gordon Cox (Boydell Press 2006), p 309
31 Bernarr Rainbow’s Introduction to the re-published Scheme (Boethius Press1982) op.cit.
32 Foreword for a publicity brochure following publication of the first English version of Kodály’s Choral Method in July 1962, in Rainbow 2006 op.cit. Appendix p 386.