Newham’s Rich Musical History – John Curwen

Born in 1816 in Heckmondwike, Yorkshire, John Curwen was a non-conformist minister from 1838 until 1864, when he gave up full-time ministry to devote himself to new ways to teach and write music. His system, called the Tonic Sol-Fa system,  was designed to aid in sight reading music on a standard stave.

He drew on the work of others, including the method of Sarah Ann Glover (1785–1867) but he made the system simpler.

In the Tonic Sol-fa the seven letters refer to key relationship (relative pitch) and not to absolute pitch “so do, re, me, fa, sol, la, ti” rather than”A, B., C etc.”.  (Any of the music teachers would be delighted to explain the difference!)

He also developed a system of hand signals to represent the notes…


So why are we claiming a Yorkshireman as Newham’s own? Well in May, 1879, John Curwen acquired land in Earlham Grove, E7,  for his own music college – the Tonic Sol-Fa College, and laid a stone in May,1879 in memory of miss Glover the originator of the Tonic Sol-fa system, and the first wing of the college was opened by the 8th Earl of Kintore on the 7th July.

Here’s the building…

So next time you hear anyone refer to do-re-mi, you can tell the story of John Curwen, a son of Newham!

Oh – and now you know who Curwen School is named in honour of.

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