Phyllis Weliver, “On Tonic Sol-fa, January 1842”


In January 1842, John Curwen launched Tonic Sol-fa – a system for teaching people to sing, which he believed would improve individual and national morality. By the third quarter of the century, Tonic Sol-fa numbered hundreds of thousands of practitioners at home and in the colonies, and had outstripped competing sight-singing methods. This essay argues that Tonic Sol-fa promoted a way of managing behavior that worked alongside rational recreation and newly introduced institutional surveillance strategies.

Disciplining the Masses through Tonic Sol-fa, Or “the science of music”

These mail-coaches, as organised by Mr. Palmer, [. . .] spoke as by some mighty orchestra, where a thousand instruments, all disregarding each other, and so far in danger of discord, yet all obedient as slaves to the supreme baton of some great leader, terminate in a perfection of harmony like that of heart, brain, and lungs, in a healthy animal organisation. But, finally, that particular element in this whole combination which most impressed myself, and through which it is that to this hour Mr. Palmer’s mail-coach system tyrannises over my dreams by terror and terrific beauty, lay in the awful political mission which at that time it fulfilled. (de Quincey 1–2; original emphasis)[1]

In his last major essay, The English Mail-Coach (1849, rev. 1854), Thomas de Quincey makes the orchestra a metaphor for English mail-coaches—a system of public transportation, communication and publication (through decorative bunting after wartime victories) that spanned the nation. Examining how the postal system brought England together through “the conscious presence of a central intellect” that defied “vast distances” (1), de Quincey’s essay addresses national unity. The passage above, placed in a paragraph where the author outlines why he writes about mail-coaches, is highly representative of how music was commonly used in nineteenth-century Britain as a conceptual aid for systems of public organization. Embedded one within the other, the metaphors of music and the body are shared among various discourses, combining together to describe a harmonized national geography and political system. Despite its disparate and far-reaching parts, the national “body” is envisioned as a coordinated whole and a complete biological organism, made up of its separate pieces, rather like the human body—a comparison frequently made at the time to help conceptualize how a group of people could form a homogenous unit that was also made up of the sum of its parts. Of course, the metaphor of the “body politic” extends back to Cicero at least, but nineteenth-century scientific theories gave the metaphor renewed force as well as a fresh orientation by combining it with ideas about how large musical ensembles functioned.

The role of culture and the body in this national grouping process went beyond being simply metaphoric. Increasingly at London and provincial concerts in the second half of the century, the cultured ear was imagined as organizing the gathered masses. As audience members were taught how better to appreciate music and as they grew to believe that a lively attention to music-making and compositional structure was a desirable social trait, they increasingly listened silently to a whole musical program rather than talking and moving about, or arriving late and leaving early.[2] From even earlier, processes of self-improvement were promoted as contributing to public order—a development commencing in the 1830s and continuing through at least the third quarter of the century. Twenty years after de Quincey first published The English Mail-Coach, for example, Matthew Arnold’s concern over the map iconHyde Park riots of 1866 led him to write in Culture and Anarchy about culture as a means of self-development toward a “best self” (99; original emphasis)—a personal state that would influence the nation state because individuals would choose to discipline themselves into an orderly democracy. (See Peter Melville Logan, “On Culture: Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, 1869.″) Laissez-faire policies were the root of the problem to Arnold and he found culture the means not only to individual and racial “perfection,” but also to national “safety”: “Through culture seems to lie our way, not only to perfection, but even to safety” (Culture and Anarchy 180). Music was a vital part of this national project, even if it was not as central as literature was to Arnold’s particular cultural program.[3]

Queen Victoria’s subjects thus readily perceived Britain in musical terms: music was a conceptual ideal and also a concrete, “scientific” method for achieving that imagined state of individual and national harmony. One of the most significant dates within this web of belief and practice was January 1842, the month when Congregational Minister John Curwen first published on Tonic Sol-fa. As we shall see, Curwen’s initial periodical essays were subsequently augmented by numerous other publications that further spread and developed his model of teaching singing and its corresponding value system and behavioral code. Of course, there were many other ways of making music at this time, too, from the rowdy drinking song to the concert soloist—precisely those risky or independent behaviors that champions of mass music like Curwen sought to curb (McGuire, Music and Victorian Philanthropy 78, 173). The present article focuses on the group music-making of the rational recreation movement (especially Tonic Sol-fa) to show how similar and interactive this discourse was with that of other contemporaneous group-management methods. As is commonly known, rational recreation was begun in the tempestuous 1830s by middle- and upper-class philanthropists who sought to help the working poor by providing libraries, lectures, and other educational activities alongside improvements in sanitation, nutrition, and workplace safety. Rational recreation was a term directly applied to Tonic Sol-fa by at least June 1855 when Lord Stanley, son of Prime Minister Derby, spoke of these “Musical Recreations” as “a rational, and an agreeable source of amusement to all” which “supersede musical entertainments of a much lower and questionable character” (46).[4]

We can tease out complex, coexisting thoughts about national coherence and social divide contained within the mass-music movement by focusing on perceptions about music pedagogy and music itself that intersected with beliefs about the body, mind and changing labor conditions. These beliefs about music were pervasive enough to be included in Charles Dickens’s Household Words, for instance, and literary works by Charles Kingsley and George Eliot.[5] Examining such sources helps to highlight interconnecting cultural beliefs more clearly than studying only the texts produced by the proponents of sight-singing systems. My aim is to treat this particular subject (Tonic Sol-fa) in some depth, with awareness that covering decades within a single article means sometimes painting with broad brush strokes over a richly nuanced and complex history of music. It is also vital to remember that Tonic Sol-fa was just one (very successful) branch of a much wider singing movement. For that reason, despite my main focus on Tonic Sol-fa, I have found it useful to make some reference to John Hullah’s system of Sol-fa, too. The two systems have points in common, as recalled in the obituary of Hullah written by John Curwen’s son, J. Spencer Curwen: Hullah “has done much to spread the conviction that everyone may learn to sing, and has often emphasised the fact that all musical education should begin with singing; that if you wish to learn the pianoforte or the violin, you should learn to sing first” (244). There were also crucial differences between Hullah’s Sol-fa and Curwen’s Tonic Sol-fa beyond the major fact that the former system used fixed doh (where doh is always the note “C”) whereas the latter employed moveable doh, where doh designates the first note or tonic of the scale. Based on Joseph Mainzer’s fixed doh, Hullah’s was the earlier method and was more influential politically in the 1840s and 1850s. By the 1860s, Curwen’s system had become the leading model of sight-singing, proving important musically in a way that Hullah’s never did. The leaders of the two systems disagreed with each other and J. Spencer Curwen blatantly called “Hullah’s system” a “failure,” not least because of the confusion evinced by its own practitioners about what it was and how to use fixed doh (“Death of Dr. Hullah”). That said, I do wish to mention Hullah’s system at times, especially given Dickens’s familiarity with it and the considerable public influence of the novelist.

Our discussion begins with an overview of how music formed part of rational recreation, including the perceived scientific grounding of its pedagogic method, its links with other sign systems of the day, and the implications of a movement that was oriented mostly toward workers. It then moves into a fresh description of how music for the masses controlled leisure time similarly to (and in conjunction with) advances in labor management by making use of scientific thought about how human bodies perform, tracing changes in the sound and schedule of work, and drawing upon Michel Foucault’s history of institutional surveillance strategies. The final section considers how practitioners stressed their sense of the transcendent and magical qualities that music brought to their lives quite apart from any social or religious mission.

Managing morals through singing

While developments in music pedagogy and concert etiquette might today be mostly regarded as insular to music history, in reality they interacted with the organizational strategies of other Victorian institutions. Just as surveillance and discipline were used to rehabilitate or reclaim deviants such as criminals or the mentally ill (Foucault), music for the masses was seen as having potentially corrective work to do. In the 1851 issue of Household Words, for instance, an article on “London Musical Clubs” claimed that “manners were all the better for music” and “the advancement, study, and progress of music would go far to lessen brawls of every description—international and intestine quarrels—and to keep the nations of the world in tune with each other, better than Lord Palmerston’s most successful diplomacy” (“London Musical Clubs” 181). Like the quotation that began the present essay, here the well-organized nation is likened to tuneful music and the body (“intestine”); global policies will also benefit more from a musical nation than from the Foreign Secretary’s policies—a large point in favor of music given Palmerston’s then-overwhelming association with war (Steel). Almost fifty years later, the view of music’s contribution to individual and social welfare remained remarkably similar. In looking back over the century, J. Spencer Curwen observed in Music at the Queen’s Accession (1897) of W.E. Hickson’s role in introducing school music:

He looked round the England of 1837, and found a population as rude in manner, mind, and feeling as perhaps could be found in any part of the civilised world. He discovered a larger proportion of juvenile criminals than in any country of Europe. He saw that some amount of pleasurable relaxation from labour was necessary to every condition of animal existence. [. . .] Looking about for the best moral engines by which character can be influenced, he found music, which cheerfulised the heart, and favoured the growth of kindly and generous feelings. Music would not make a bad man a good man, but there is no man, he said, who would not have been better for the influence of music. (16–7)

J. Spencer Curwen was the publisher and editor of The Tonic Sol-fa Reporter and the Musical News and Herald, a popular author, and a capable musician. With its perceived ethical appeal, J. Spencer Curwen recalls that music was used for correctional purposes and was seen to assist other early Victorian movements to quell rebellion and uplift working people. Unsurprisingly, leaders in the “Singing for the Million”[6] movement applied techniques similar to those used by other institutions involved in group management. Considering developments in musical practices as part of wider social procedures thus highlights the importance of music and musical ensembles to Victorian social movements and, reciprocally, the centrality of ideas of collective behavior to performance practices and music education.[7]

A national movement to teach sight-singing was vital to this behavioral shaping and moral improvement. In the early 1840s, bourgeois reformers responded in part to the threat of Chartism by supporting working-class music education and performance (Russell 17, 22–4). Brass bands associated with mines were an invaluable part of this phenomenon and sight-singing was especially far-reaching, being connected to and promoted through other movements such as rational recreation, the Ragged Schools and temperance. (See, for example, Annemarie McAllister, “On the Temperance Movement.”) Even the army instituted singing classes, as the Household Words Narrative of 1850 reported:

The United Service Gazette says—We observe that singing classes have been introduced into the 76th Foot. We learn that the general officer commanding the map iconPortsmouth district intends inviting Mr. Hullah to the garrison for the purpose of inoculating the troops with his admirable system; and we hear from a corps in map iconIreland that not only are the men encouraged to glee and part singing, but are now in the habit of chaunting [sic] the whole of the service in the parish church of the town in which they are quartered. We hope to hear of the extension of the rational and harmonious pastime. Not only should singing classes be instituted, but music might be taught and facilities afforded for its cultivation at a very moderate expense. (256)

The “inoculat[ion]” is presumably against encounters with non-Christian cultures; British troops are given the tools to continue religious observation regardless of their deployment. Vocal music—a “rational and harmonious pastime”—could easily reach into and beyond the garrison because the instrument was free, and teaching and facilities could be had “at a very moderate expense.” It was, moreover, widely believed that if choral music linked upright words with straightforward tunes, and was taught through a new scientific method, it could be a sort of missionary tool by which to advance Anglican or Nonconformist Christianity, or simply to improve individuals’ lives.[8] Although the above citation refers to Sol-fa, The Tonic Sol-fa Reporter also addressed the usefulness of its method for the military, especially the navy (e.g., “Tonic Sol-fa in the Navy”).

The current discussion concentrates on Tonic Sol-fa because it was a homegrown technique (as opposed to the French model underpinning Sol-fa), having its roots in the 1820s as Sarah Glover’s “Sol-fa Scheme” to improve the singing of psalms in church and later presented in her Scheme for Rendering the Psalmody Congregational (1835, 1839, 1845) (S. Taylor 224; Hyde 86–7). When the Congregational Church charged Minister John Curwen with improving music pedagogy for children as a first step to better singing in chapel (McGuire, Music and Victorian Philanthropy 18), he responded by visiting Glover (John Curwen, “A Visit to Miss Glover’s School”). He was so convinced by her method that he began to popularize his own revised version of Glover’s musical system in a new journal under his editorship that focused on Sunday School teaching for children. The initial publication of The Independent Magazine on January 1842 (“Cursory Notices of New Publications” 58) began with articles on the history of Congregationalists and Sunday Schools, followed by the “Look and Say” method of teaching reading, and then “Lessons on Singing.” The last included the rudiments of the Tonic Sol-fa system, some exercises in Tonic Sol-fa, such as,

Ex: 1.—Quickly.—Do is c.

!d  :—;—:   !d1  :—;—:d1   !t   :l   ;s   :f   !m   :r   ;d   :d

!t   :l   ;s   :f   !m :r   ;d   :— !d1  :—;—:   !d   :—;—:—    (25)

and the ultimate goals:

May you have the pleasure of seeing these children, when God shall tune their hearts, not obliged, with one part of the congregation, to pay so much attention to the leader and the tune as to neglect the sense, or inclined, with the other, to pay so little, as to cause grating and drawling when only one voice of united praise should be heard: but enabled, by the simple knowledge you have communicated, now grown intuitive, to sing, with each and sweet propriety, the praises of God, as their hearts shall bid them. (26)

Subsequent issues of The Independent Magazine contained further guidelines for the method as well as hymns and tunes in Tonic Sol-fa notation. Then, in June 1843, the first of many editions of an influential music primer appeared, the self-published Singing for Schools and Congregations (Rainbow, “John Curwen” 105–6). During the following decades, the Curwens began publishing the Tonic Sol-fa Reporter (which contained articles about the Tonic Sol-fa community as well as music in syllable notation), started the Tonic Sol-fa Association, began a Tonic Sol-fa College, and gradually shifted from being oriented toward the teaching of simple tunes to translating more complex music into the notation. By 1870, Tonic Sol-fa had eclipsed competing sight-singing models, in no small part because the Education Act of 1870 allowed local School Boards to make decisions about their own programs, resulting in Tonic Sol-fa being chosen by many schools over Sol-fa as their method for teaching music (Rainbow, “John Curwen” 118; Rainbow, “Music in Education” 42). By the third quarter of the century, Tonic Sol-fa counted hundreds of thousands of practitioners in Britain, Europe, Africa, East Asia, the Far East, Pacific Islands and beyond (J.S. Curwen, Story 5, 8, 10, 22).[9] After John Curwen’s death on 26 May 1880, Tonic Sol-fa continued well into the twentieth century under the leadership of his sons John Spencer Curwen and Spedding Curwen, the respective heads of the philosophical and business arms of the family firm (McGuire, Music and Victorian Philanthropy 20, 24).

Curwen’s motivation for adopting Glover’s method was that he believed it to be difficult to teach half-steps to children and other sight-singing beginners. He countered this problem by first printing on a chalkboard a “Musical Ladder,” or the first letters of the Sol-fa syllables (doh, ray, me, etc.), with shorter distances between the half steps (J. S. Curwen, Story 3). Soon Curwen had adapted Glover’s ladder to what he called the Tonic Sol-fa Modulator (Sawyer 29). (See Fig. 1, Curwen’s Modulator .) In the classroom, the instructor pointed to a letter in the central column on this chart and the students sang the corresponding scale tone, learning in the process not only to understand the relationships between notes in a single key, but also through the side columns how keys related to each other (Unseld 1).

Tonic Sol-fa School Modulator

Figure 1: Tonic Sol-fa School Modulator and Complete Modulator

In revisions to the system in 1870, John Curwen introduced hand signs to correspond to the notes of the scale. These hand signs are largely similar to the Kodály Method, which is still widely used (Rainbow, “John Curwen” 119–20, 130–32). After students became familiar with the visual and syllabic system, they moved to books that used syllables rather than traditional music notation. While working from these manuals, they beat time with wands (J. S. Curwen, Story 4). Finally, an accomplished practitioner would be able to sing from published music (also in syllable notation) that reproduced the greatest works of living and dead composers, with rhythms indicated mostly by the punctuation marks of written language (a system of lines, half-lines, colons, commas and dashes showed strong and weak pulses, the subdivision of beats and tied notes) (McGuire, Music and Victorian Philanthropy 11, 13). From here, there was ostensibly nothing to stop a Tonic Solfaer from moving on to staff notation, but in practice few singers did—a point to which we will return. For now, it is sufficient to note Charles Edward McGuire’s excellent summary: “In the most basic sense, Tonic Sol-fa is simply the conversion of solmization—substituting syllables for note names—from an oral system to a printed system” (Music and Victorian Philanthropy 8). The printed aspect of the technique cannot be emphasized enough, for Tonic Sol-fa’s astonishing success relied in large part upon the Curwen family’s ability to take advantage of the then-contemporary explosion of printed commodities. In addition to the establishment of the national Tonic Sol-fa Association and a teacher’s school, the Curwens founded a publishing house first known as the Tonic Sol-fa Agency, then Curwen & Sons, and finally Curwen Press that produced method books, music and journals (the Reporter, Musical Herald and Musical News and Herald) (McGuire, Music and Victorian Philanthropy 17, 19; McGuire and Plank 100–101). Together, these printed materials provided the tools with which to continue to expand as a community that shared a particular literacy as well as a set of values.[10]

John Curwen called his method “the science of music itself” (Paper 40). It was meant to help people learn first to love Music—a thing “very different from its names and signs”—before trying to understand the system of “antiquated” or “old” musical notation (J. S. Curwen, Story 2).[11] Other proponents of Tonic Sol-fa also voiced the repeated claim that their method was scientific. As such, singing by syllables joined other sign systems of Victorian Britain, such as developments in the phonetic alphabet as a global system of spelling. Alexander J. Ellis even bridged the two techniques. Although probably best known as a reformer in phonetics, Ellis also wrote on music, translated Hermann L. F. Helmholtz’s seminal study of musical acoustics, and supported Tonic Sol-fa, stating in 1882 that Curwen’s is a “method of teaching which has done and is doing so much to diffuse a practical knowledge of the art of singing, and a more than merely elementary scientific knowledge of music among classes who were never reached by any other method.”[12] Ellis was an advocate of scientific methods of teaching sound, but his comment has a pejorative edge, suggesting that this system provides the only tool by which laborers, children and indigenous peoples can learn to sing fairly advanced music.

So did Tonic Sol-fa develop as a specifically working-class mode of rational recreation or did it bridge classes because it was also meant to improve national musical life as a whole—a musical process that de Quincey and others perceived as helping to explain how a geographically dispersed country of individuals could function harmoniously together? Certainly, it makes sense to split Tonic Sol-fa’s history into two, allotting different identifying features depending on which Curwen was at the wheel. According to McGuire, by the end of his life John Curwen had pushed the system to the point where it was self-sufficient, making it possible for his son, educated at the map iconRoyal Academy of Music, to make a project of elevating Tonic Sol-fa’s position within the professional music world of nineteenth-century Britain (Music and Victorian Philanthropy 23). However, in looking at points of connection between the sight-singing movement and other national organizing systems, a certain overarching coherence emerges. The dominant, largely benevolent attempt to improve the conditions of individual, local and national life coexisted with what was widely believed to be unequal training.

Musically speaking, the contentious point of whether Tonic Sol-fa ultimately helped or hindered its practitioners was only exacerbated because the system was perceived by music professionals to create limitations in the musical ability of its adherents. Until the end of the century, Tonic Sol-fa was criticized for the near impossibility of moving its singers on to staff notation.[13] Especially strenuous musical objections were foregrounded in the campaign of 1882 to oust Tonic Sol-fa from the national education system, where it had replaced Sol-fa as the preferred method of musical instruction (J. S. Curwen, Story 21; Cox 8). Along with the anonymous letters and articles appearing in the Daily News, Globe and Morning Post arguing against the system, the Council of Education applied to G. A. Macfarren, Professor of Music at map iconCambridge and Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, for his authorization of the use of Tonic Sol-fa in elementary schools. Not only did Macfarren decline to give his endorsement for the following reasons, but his letter to the Vice-President of the Council, A. J. Mundella, was leaked to all the major newspapers:[14]

I think the system to be bad, because it hinders the acquisition of a sense of pitch, which is a most valuable quality for musicians; because it confounds the characteristics of keys, which have distinctly different harmonic derivation; and because many of its signs are so vague that persons familiar with the system often mistake them. I think it to be inconvenient, because it can only apply to music up to a very definite limit; because persons who have learnt from this system have greater difficulty to acquire the ordinary technicalities of music than those who begin to study the art from the standard notation; and because persons who can read only from this system are unable to participate in musical performances with those who read from the usual alphabet. I think the adoption of the system unjust, since imposing on the poor an expenditure of time and money which they can never turn to any practical account, and placing them at a disadvantage with the rich, who are able to read musical publications of all countries; whereas the use of this exceptional notation is confined to a sect in England and some of its colonies alone.[15]

Understandably, Tonic Solfaers were outraged by Macfarren’s statements and they pointed out the inaccuracies. Not least, by the 1880s choral societies were bi-notational, with choruses successfully singing the same composition from scores in both staff notation and Tonic Sol-fa (“Replies to Prof. Macfarren”). The important point here, however, is that one of the most influential men in music education (and J. Spencer Curwen’s former teacher [McGuire and Plank, 100]) believed it to be difficult to gain an advanced musical ability and literacy by following the moveable doh and syllabic markings of Tonic Sol-fa. Most significantly, he perceived it as a problem of class equality. Ellis’s pejorative point regarding the system is here emphasized: giving the laboring class their own type of text, different from the musical notation being learned by classes higher on the social ladder, essentially subjugated them and introduced a ceiling to their achievements.

Although both Curwen’s and Hullah’s respective systems were especially concerned with educating children and laborers, however, sight-singing movements certainly reached out to as many people as possible: from the propertied classes, to the masses, to those considered in need of social rehabilitation. For example, in 1853 George Hogarth, music critic of the Illustrated London News and Daily News and father-in-law to Charles Dickens, wrote that Tonic Sol-fa helped to improve psalmody and also gave a love of music “in the mansions of the rich and [. . .] in the homes of the poor.”[16] But the mid-century movement was not as far-reaching as Hogarth believed, or at least did not continue to be so. The voice of the movement, the Tonic Sol-fa Reporter, described in 1888 the results of Curwen’s method of teaching singing:

The movement has not hitherto been introduced in earnest in the map iconWest End; it has rather been propagated amongst the masses. But the increasing importance of Tonic Sol-fa now demands enquiry from men and women of position, and it has become necessary to explain to them our aims and our work. The classes begin to see that the masses are possessed of a better educational method, and of a notation which makes singing easy and pleasant.[17]

During the Curwen senior’s and juniors’ leaderships, Tonic Sol-fa was known to the affluent classes, but most practiced by the dutiful masses. The “science of music itself” was put forward as a practical instruction in music and morals, but it simultaneously enforced divisions within society.

Industrious singing

Along with the moral benefits of singing upright words within family settings (McGuire, Music and Victorian Philanthropy 32, 172), social reformers believed that public music-making promoted order and industry. Choral societies and brass bands were the core from which early industrialists organized work forces. Playing in a works band guaranteed continual employment for the player since it was desirable to keep a fully-functional band even in times of economic hardship (Newsome 30–31), but music practice and performance also had a unique benefit in paralleling the type of habitual, measured behavior that industrialists sought to instill in the workplace. Nineteenth-century work schedules and methods differed from those of pre-industrial England. As Dave Russell summarizes in his discussion of music’s relationship to establishing new “work codes and disciplines” in Victorian England, it was essential to replace old patterns of “irregular bursts of relatively intense activity punctuated by spells of inactivity to allow for drinking, sport and holidays” with a means of creating better rapport between capitalists and laborers. Productivity and fiscal gain would be enhanced, and providing schooling, chapels, accommodation and music (Russell 21, 22) also helped to prevent the grass-roots rebellion that affluent bourgeoisie and aristocracy found incomprehensible, dangerous and criminal. In short, instrumental ensembles and singing classes formed manageable units that acted similarly to other nineteenth-century systems of ordering groups.

Victorian mental and evolutionary science gave value to learning music as being an associative and physiological process with a particularly useful moral component. In the middle of the nineteenth century, G. H. Lewes, William B. Carpenter and Herbert Spencer developed ideas begun by eighteenth-century associationist psychologists that repeated thoughts, feelings and actions carved grooves or channels in the mind. With time and continued repetition, a person would develop automatic actions and habitual responses. Understanding these physical functions fueled Victorian worries regarding the respective health risk or benefit when people engaged repeatedly in certain activities, as Alison Winter summarizes:

It was important to choose with care, because each mental act had a permanent effect on the reflex system. The “secondary automatic” actions—those created by habit, which could be controlled if one paid attention to them—evolved over time. They were reinforced by repetition. Whether one tended automatically to act in a virtuous or responsible manner depended on whether one had built a reliable set of reflexes. The reflex system [. . .] was an embodied form of memory. (329)

Music was specifically linked with this memory process, frequently being used to explain how association worked and reflexive actions resulted: continued repetition of the same actions would cause a pianist, for instance, to grow less labored in connecting the notes on the page to the notes on the keyboard, until the association became unconscious. Advanced musicians could play a piece and hold a conversation at the same time, thereby demonstrating how automatic the music-making actions had become (Hamilton 1: 356–8; Spencer 561–2).[18] Moreover, Victorian scientists posited that moral, psychological and physiological inheritances were possibilities; habitual actions might become acquired actions, passed down to descendants. With this belief, concern rose over practicing activities that helped to develop mental discipline, rational thinking and ethics. Of course, music by its very nature straddles the line between disciplined practice and emotional release, and this was noticed and debated at the time. However, most accounts of works bands and choir societies stressed the development of moral responsibility through carefully chosen repertoire that would enforce upright thinking. This emphasis makes music similar to reading, which could have beneficial effects if the content were suitably respectable.[19]

Given how habits were believed to be physically ingrained and considering post-Enlightenment models of group management, musical working-class people did more than learn musical skills; they practiced a form of disciplined action similar to that which was thought to make a productive labor force. Training the body is a crucial component to this idea: the working poor literally functioned as bodies that performed certain tasks in tandem with machinery in the mills, potteries and mines. These tasks were learned, repeated and therefore ingrained as habits. Not only did the same result occur in the process of practicing music, but performing in a musical ensemble also situated the (performing) body within a social structure, or a power dynamic. Like their position during the working day, in their leisure time laborers were placed in a collective body, supervised (by the conductor or teacher), and trained to perform repetitive tasks that resulted in a “production” (performance). They produced leisure just as they manufactured goods and their position in this musical process was similar to their conditions of paid labor; they were useful because they were bodies that were productive in large part because they were subjected to an overseer, rules and a system of knowledge and skills. In short, they might be called the willing “slaves to the supreme baton of some great leader,” recognized by de Quincey (2).

Crucially for our topic, managing labor and leisure included issues of communication. During the first half of the nineteenth century there was a transformation from earlier methods of working at the handloom where weavers were famous for their singing. While crooning ballad snatches, humming, and talking had been normal accompaniments to the sound of the shuttle in weaving shops, mid-century mills forbade such expressions, posting rules such as “[a]ny person leaving their work and found Talking with any other workpeople shall be fined 2d for each offence”[20] and the more exorbitant sixpence for “talking to another, whistling, or singing” (Leach 13; original emphasis). Presumably, the factory was so noisy that in order for a weaver to be heard, he or she would have had to leave the loom (and the work) in order to stand close enough to be heard. If laborers could not talk or sing while working, and were organized into musical activities during off hours, then singing classes and brass bands not only provided an alternative to the pub, but were also outlets for a means of expression newly denied. This formalizing process occurred by providing choristers with pious lyrics, too, which replaced songs composed by the people, such as that sung by map iconGorton weaver John Grimshaw, best known by the moniker “Common”:

The weavers’ turn will come on, for they must not escape,
To enlarge the master’s fortunes, they are fined in every shape.
[. . .]
So, come all you cotton-weavers, you must rise up very soon,
For you must work in factories from morning until noon:
You mustn’t walk in your gardens for two or three hours a-day,
For you must stand at their command, and keep your shuttles in play.
(Grimshaw ll 17–18, 25–8, pp 252, 253)

In contrast to the incendiary nature of Grimshaw’s lyrics, singing classes stemmed rebellion while also providing moral education through their texts. Rather than the free-flowing, random expression of the weaving shop, the mid-century worker labored silently during the day and was then given regulated words, a singing system, a group with which to perform and an overseeing instructor during leisure time. At least, this was the employer’s ideal of regulated labor, although probably not the reality given the need to set fines and post rules.

Finally, workers were judged by their ability to perform within a specific system, both during and after the working day. Foucault’s evaluation of this type of subjugation is as a “strategy” of power by the “dominant class” (26–7); it is a means of containing forces which might otherwise lead to political agitation, whether peaceful or not. One method of subjugating a mass of people is to objectify them: groups are turned into objects of knowledge when it is assumed that they are knowable and able to be manipulated, that they will learn what they are meant to, behave as they are supposed to, and generally function as classifiable objects. Because the strategies in play in terms of the current subject include music, religion and education, however, it can be argued that a strictly materialist interpretation is too narrow. Yet even humanist practices can contain the people, organizing them into systems of belief and behavior already espoused by the more elite classes. Therefore, while Russell demonstrates that one goal of music for the masses was to ease the sharp divide in class boundaries by such methods as bringing people of different classes together in a single audience (28), the very objectification of the people continued to act as a social divide, as did the perceived patronizing attitude toward this mode of cultural dissemination.[21]

The subjectivity of music

The situation is complex, however, because music for the masses did not only control the masses. People were schooled to find value in music, yes, but the fact is that music-making helped to improve quality of life and participants felt proud of their achievements. Workers desired education in music and other fields precisely because it humanized and gave life “its savour,” in the words of Ada Nield Chew, a tailoress who became one of the leading campaigners for women’s suffrage and labor representation in Britain. In her letters to the Crewe Chronicle in 1894, Chew’s comments about working conditions in the map iconCrewe clothing factories and the almost impossible dream of self-education illuminate what music could also provide:

To take what may be considered a good week’s wage the work has to be so close and unremitting that we cannot be said to “live”—we merely exist. We eat, we sleep, we work, endlessly, ceaselessly work, from Monday morning till Saturday night, without remission. Cultivation of the mind? How is it possible? Reading? Those of us who are determined to live like human beings and require food for mind as well as body are obliged to take time which is necessary for sleep to gratify this desire. As for recreation and enjoying the beauties of nature, the seasons come and go, and we have barely time to notice whether it is spring or summer. (75–6)

For those who had little life outside of work, music similarly provided a way for the impoverished to do more than “merely exist”; it helped them to “live like human beings.” Tonic Sol-fa leaders also verbalized this wish. As J. Spencer Curwen documented in his discussion of Music at the Queen’s Accession, “Knight’s Penny Magazine (1834) urged that music should be made accessible to all, and that, as a mode of enlarging the cheap enjoyments of a poor man’s life, every village school in the kingdom should possess the means of teaching musical notation” (16). Likewise, writing of the effect of Tonic Sol-fa among map iconGlasgow’s most destitute population, Colin Brown summarized in 1862: “Music is given us as a means for the refinement and instruction and moral elevation of the million, and that man is a true patriot and benefactor of his race who opens up the treasures of this divine art, and brings its genial influences to bear directly on the hearts of his fellow men, for their moral and spiritual good” (337).

Indeed, beyond Tonic Sol-fa alone, music was generally perceived to have transcendent and transformative elements that worked alongside religion for the improvement of the masses. Reverend H.R. Haweis makes the point clear in his 1884 memoir, My Musical Life:

I am convinced that the influence of music over the poor is quite angelic. Music is the hand-maid of religion and the mother of sympathy. The hymns and hymn tunes taken home by the children from church and chapel are blessed outlets of feeling, and full of religious instruction—they humanize households all through the land. The Moody and Sankey tunes have exercised a cheering and even hallowing influence far and wide, in remote Welsh hamlets, from map iconNorthumberland to map iconDevonshire, in the crowded dens of our manufacturing centres, and in lonely seaside villages.

Teach the people to sing, and you will make them happy; teach them to listen to sweet sounds, and you will go far to render them harmless to themselves, if not a blessing to their fellows. (118)

Similarly, the narrator of Charles Kingsley’s Chartist novel, Alton Locke (1850), enthuses of the Sol-fa system:

as yet, Mr. Hullah had not risen into a power more enviable than that of kings, and given to every workman a free entrance into the magic world of harmony and melody, where he may prove his brotherhood with Mozart and Weber, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. Great unconscious demagogue!—leader of the people, and laborer in the cause of divine equality!—thy reward is with the Father of the people! (153)

Rather than finding music to be only a philanthropic handout, Alton Locke identifies the mass music movement as instilling “magic” into lives for an ultimately democratic cause (“divine equality”). Despite the fact that music-making was part of larger middle- and upper-class efforts to save and soothe agitated workers, it is crucial to realize that Chartist sympathizers perceived the humanizing effect of “harmony and melody,” too.

Of course, such an embrace begs the question: Were these laboring men and women simply digesting what they were taught? Not necessarily, as can be illuminated by Jenny Bourne Taylor’s shrewd description of mid-century systems of social control as containing a “trace of resistance” (31) within or alongside the prevailing definition. Taylor’s topic of “moral management” (a system of treating mental illness established in the 1840s) leads her to probe the term “moral” as

primarily a prescriptive term, concerned with reinforcing a benchmark of values, codes of conduct, and proper living which had roots both in evangelicalism and utilitarianism. But its formation in eighteenth-century associationist psychology and philosophy in conjunction with the notion of sympathy gave it a more flexible range of possible meanings in the very way that it was defined as subjectivity, as sentiment and emotional response. It was thus a slippery term, one meaning of which seemed perfectly clear, while another resisted stable definition, just as it stressed the malleability of identity itself. (31)22]

“Moral,” obviously, was a value held in common by moral management and the music for the people campaign. While the Curwens based their sense of “moral” on evangelicalism, we have seen that in practice it also shared much with then-current utilitarian systems of institutional management. Moreover, the “sentiment and emotional response” that Taylor identifies in “moral” is augmented when discussing musical (moral) management, for music encouraged passionate emotional release. Because of the powerful feelings that music inspired, dissenters and industrialists turned to it as a fairly exact tool; harnessing musical notes to moral words would be an effective (and affective) means of molding performers to act in accord with the ethical message.

In reality, the practice contained flaws and resistances that leaders of the mass-music movement understandably did not emphasize. For example, the musical training that mostly resulted in managed groups could be used by a protesting body, as occurs in the novel Felix Holt, the Radical, published in 1866. In George Eliot’s narration of the complexities of the 1832 Reform Bill, an Independent choir incurs displeasure by flouting the expectation for dutiful music-making. The Dissenting Minister Rufus Lyon must listen to a deacon who

was complaining to him about the obstinate demeanour of the singers, who had declined to change the tunes in accordance with a change in the selection of hymns, and had stretched short metre into long out of pure wilfulness and defiance, irreverently adapting the most sacred monosyllables to a multitude of wandering quavers, arranged, it was to be feared, by some musician who was inspired by conceit rather than by the true spirit of psalmody. (141)

The choir thus struggles for “self-definition and autonomy in the face of established power” through musical methods; they use their trained voices and gathered mass for a hinted, but not definite, purpose. Ironically, this group has a voice, but their exact message remains hidden since the narration never reveals the choir’s position in their own words. Rather, the deacon’s belief that the composition sung by the choir was “inspired by conceit” because of its ornamentation (“wandering quavers”) shows the leadership’s power to comment and the novel’s power to ironize. We cannot fully judge the situation since the singers are represented not as individuals but rather as “a body set apart” (141), as Mr. Lyon puts it in the next paragraph. Finally, we only really know the perceived obstinacy of the singers who exert their will en masse rather than obediently singing the assigned tunes, although we may surmise that the group glories in and asserts its love of music itself over “monosyllables.” As represented in realist fiction, choirs did not always prove serviceable tools for leading community devotions.

The novel as a whole, however, emphasizes forward social progress, and a few pages later Mr. Lyon uses the discourse of music to communicate how individuals should ideally work together for a greater collective good. He says to Felix Holt, the moral center of the novel:

I apprehend that there is a law in music, disobedience whereunto would bring us in our singing to the level of shrieking maniacs or howling beasts: so that herein we are well instructed how true liberty can be nought but the transfer of obedience from the will of one or of a few men to that will which is the norm or rule of all men. And [. . .] even as in music, where all obey and concur to one end, so that each has the joy of contributing to a whole whereby he is ravished and lifted up into the courts of heaven, so will it be in that crowning time of millennial reign, when our daily prayer will be fulfilled, and one law shall be written on all hearts, and be the very structure of all thought, and be the principle of all action. (143)

The passage shows the interrelation of community and music in specifically nineteenth-century terms, and its succinctness makes it stand out (Lyon’s more usual expansiveness often costs him his listeners). Music-making helps people to enact “true liberty”: they enjoy the beauty arising from following the leader, and avoid “shrieking” insanity and “howling” bestiality. State unity is here replaced by God’s “one law” which will be shared by “all hearts” and motivate “all thought” and “action.” Placing this clear statement in the mouth of an individual with whom we sympathize causes Eliot’s narration to reflect the same sort of discourse that motivated the Curwen enterprise.[23] The Congregationalist Minister John Curwen and his sons shared the fictional Mr. Lyon’s implied assertion that the ultimate goal should be the improvement of individual and community morals. Music-making would, moreover, assist people to practice the behavior that would lead to apotheosis (“ravished and lifted up”).

Just as the fictional choir rebelled despite their minister’s ideals, in real life the mass-music ideology sometimes missed its mark, too. The “scientific kind of instruction”[24] of Hullah’s and Curwen’s methods did not necessarily make “singing easy and pleasant” to all (“Tonic Sol-fa in West London” 366). For example, Dickens witnessed the difficulties after enthusiastically employing a Sol-fa teacher of Hullah’s recommendation for his map iconUrania Cottage scheme, a school for reclaiming prostitutes and “training them for colonization”[25] that was run by the novelist and Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts. In 1847, Dickens wrote to Hullah, “I am very anxious for the instruction beginning without delay, as I attach immense importance to its refining influence.”[26] Dickens believed in part-singing as a helpmate to reformation, and he may have chosen Hullah’s method in particular because of their friendship and work together nine years earlier on an operetta, The Village Coquettes.[27] Responding to Dickens’s request, Hullah dispatched composer and music theorist Henry Charles Banister to instruct the young women for two hours every week (Cox 11). As Dickens reported to Hullah nine months later, the system did not meet the needs of the students:

Miss Coutts thinks that our young ladies have made sufficient advancement in that scientific kind of instruction which Mr. Bannister communicate—which is better adapted, she holds, to the wants of a superior class of pupils [. . .]—and therefore she would desire to terminate that engagement at the expiration of the current quarter, [. . .] and to substitute some female teacher of lower qualifications who could come on Saturday evenings, and sing hymns and so forth, with them. Her wish is, that they should now use what they have learnt in this wise, socially, and turn it to account in their devotion and relaxation, rather than they should learn more, as an abstract study or accomplishment.

I state her views, of course, without any admixture of my own.[28]

Even though the sight-singing movement grew out of psalmody and was always associated with moral reform, in this instance the scientific process used to achieve this goal was perceived as askew, if not contradictory, to its purpose. In practice, Sol-fa was not necessarily easy and, despite the fact that greater musical proficiency should have worked in tandem with religious devotion and social correctives, it was here considered estranged from its social purpose (being deemed “an abstract study or accomplishment”). Of course, Curwen might have said that the problem was Hullah’s specific method (which used staff notation alongside the syllables of French sol-fa) rather than “scientific” music instruction in general (Rainbow, “John Curwen” 118; “Music, and the Committee of Council for Education”).

Despite the resistances seen in the examples of Felix Holt and Urania Cottage, however, both novel and anecdote evince the overall belief that music was a legitimate social helpmate; singing moral repertoire was popularly believed to promote individual character reform and national unity. If an individual self-regulated according to the dictates of the philanthropists, preachers and factory owners, then he or she may reap the promised rewards. Many individuals did just that. But performing upright music did not in and of itself guarantee ethical reformation, nor did it always accurately signpost the respective angelic or reprobate qualities of the musician. Popular sensation novels of the day played upon that very fear. We see, for instance, the siren Lady Audley and the angelic Clara Talboys sharing the same repertoire in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862).[29] In practice, music was not as stabilizing as hoped. If it had been, Arnold would not—a quarter of a century after rational recreation began—still be advocating for culture as panacea: “Through culture seems to lie our way, not only to perfection, but even to safety” (Culture and Anarchy 180). Of course, controlling laborers or musicians was a complicated issue because of the competing tensions between the desire of reformers to alleviate the distressing conditions of the poorer classes and their investment in social control. The situation is further complicated because it is not necessarily the case that mob action or revolution benefits an individual or a group. Activities like making music do raise the quality of life, and reforming initiatives that seek to benefit and regulate workers are not necessarily conspiracies of social dominance.

Regardless of whether riots ceased, however, the vital point is that music’s cultural role was not perceived solely metaphorically in nineteenth-century Britain. Yes, the musical ensemble was a conceptual aid for understanding how a national unity and a managed mass might be formed out of many individuals, but this imaginative device went hand-in-hand with how music was being portrayed and used as a practical reforming tool. Thus Mainzer prophesized in an article on “Congregational Singing” in 1842: “the time is hastening when the soldier and the sailor, the plodding labourer and the dusky artisan, will forsake the pot-house and the gin-palace for the singing-school, and so become raised in the scale of civilisation—raised in the scale of humanity” (18). Singing would, in short, discipline the masses and raise the dispossessed “in the scale of civilisation.” These ideas were shared by all the leaders of the mass-music movement, but were ultimately most widely spread through the music model developed by John Curwen and which he first presented to the world in the inaugural issue of The Independent Magazine in January 1842.

published August 2013

Phyllis Weliver’s publications include Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900: Representations of Music, Science and Gender in the Leisured Home (2000), The Musical Crowd in English Fiction, 18401910: Class, Culture and Nation (2006), an edited collection The Figure of Music in Nineteenth-Century British Poetry (2005) and, co-edited with Katharine Ellis, Words and Notes in the Long Nineteenth Century (2013). Her current large project studies spoken word and musical performance in a network of Victorian salons radiating out from that of Mary Gladstone, the Prime Minister’s daughter. Phyllis Weliver is Associate Professor of English at Saint Louis University and a Fellow of Gladstone’s Library in map iconWales.


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[1] The author wishes to thank Joseph Bristow for commenting on the earliest formulations of this essay, Charles Edward McGuire for both his early reading and later contributions, and the external reviewers for their very helpful suggestions.

[2] See Bashford, “John Ella and the Making of the Musical Union”; Bashford, “Learning to Listen”; Bashford, “Not Just ‘G.’”; Bashford, The Pursuit of High Culture; Weliver, The Musical Crowd in English Fiction 13–7, 97–8. The last also looks at when the desired order of the audience broke down, as did sometimes happen.

[3] Arnold’s awareness of music does briefly appear when he compares the emotionalism of Celtic music to systematic German musical development. Matthew Arnold, On the Study of Celtic Literature 3: 344–5.

[4] The earliest and primary concern of Tonic Sol-fa was to improve congregational psalmody, but beginning in the 1850s philanthropic concerns received considerably more coverage in the pages of The Tonic Sol-fa Reporter than previously.

[5] For more on the pervasive ideas about music that can be found in Victorian literary writing, see Ruth A. Solie’s beautiful treatment of the topic in her book, Music in Other Words.

[6] Joseph Mainzer’s popular 1841 textbook was called Singing for the Million.

[7] I have developed these ideas of the reciprocity in greater detail in The Musical Crowd in English Fiction. This earlier work pays some attention to Tonic Sol-fa as well as to the utopian alliances among industry, music education, moral improvement and nation as found in fiction of the second quarter of the nineteenth century. It also examines the missionary implications of music in Samuel Butler’s 1872 novel Erewhon (18–21, 56–77). McGuire has since explored notions of group control, progress and music in Music and Victorian Philanthropy and “Christianity, Civilisation, and Music,” focusing specifically on Tonic Sol-fa and drawing out its greater implications in terms of missionary work in map iconMadagascar.

[8] McGuire’s Music and Victorian Philanthropy nicely elucidates the continuing morality of the Curwens’ project. The foci of our arguments differ in that McGuire understands Tonic Sol-fa in relation to a Victorian “paternal philanthropy” used by then-contemporary histories of charity, while the present study is more oriented to a nineteenth-century scientific understanding of group management.

[9] For scholarship on this missionary aspect, see note 7 above.

[10] Other publishers of Tonic Sol-fa music included Novello, W. G. McNaught, the Church of England Temperance Publication Depot, and many other missionary societies in Britain and abroad. John Curwen gave his blessing to this wide-spread use of his system: “Mr. Curwen will give them free permission to use the Tonic Sol-fa notation, for that belongs to ‘mankind,’ and not to ‘a party’” (John Curwen, “An Eclectic Movement” 80). My thanks to Charles McGuire for this information.

[11] For the repeated designation of the system as scientific, see many issues of the Tonic Sol-fa Reporter.

[12] A. J. Ellis, letter to J. S. Curwen (11 April 1882), Replies to Recent Attacks on The Tonic Sol-fa System, ed. J.S. Curwen, 1. My thanks to Bennett Zon for suggesting Ellis’ importance to considerations of sign systems.

[13] See, for example, W. H. Cummings’ comments on W. G. McNaught (McNaught 52).

[14] J. S. Curwen, from The Tonic Sol-fa Reporter, in J. S. Curwen, Replies 28. For attacks launched in newspapers, see J. Stainer (Organist of map iconSt Paul’s Cathedral), “Speech at Exeter Hall” (15 May 1882) in J. S. Curwen, Replies 10; W. G. M’Naught (Associate of the Royal Academy of Music, Professor of Music at map iconHomerton Training College), letter to the editor, Musical Times (25 March 1882), in J. S. Curwen, Replies 14.

[15] G. A. Macfarren, letter to A. J. Mundella (March 1882), in J. S. Curwen, Replies, preface [n.p.].

[16] George Hogarth, “Musical History” (n.p., 26 November 1853). Cited in J. S. Curwen, Story 6; Sedley Taylor (Fellow of map iconTrinity College Cambridge), letter to the editor of the Globe, in J. S. Curwen, Replies 8.

[17] Unsigned, “Tonic Sol-fa in West London,” Tonic Sol-fa Reporter (April 1888): 366. I am indebted to Charles McGuire for this citation.

[18] A more extensive discussion of these ideas can be found in my Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction.

[19] For the perceived physiological effects of reading, see Winter 329.

[20] This poster is dated September 1851 and comes from the map iconWater-foot Mill near map iconHaslingden (Aspin 37).

[21] For working-class rejection of patronizing attitudes, see John Taylor; Bailey 116–32; Russell 268.

[22] Taylor’s sources for the connections between “moral” and late eighteenth-century thought are Elie Halévy, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, trans. Mary Morris (London: Faber & Gwyer, 1928); Leslie Stephen, English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 2 vols (London: Smith, Elder, 1876).

[23] The novel is set during the period when Glover was teaching, prior to Mainzer’s arrival in England in 1839 and subsequent pedagogic developments by John Hullah and John Curwen in the 1840s, but it was published in 1866 when Eliot knew the by-then firmly rooted music for the people movement (da Sousa Correa 26).

[24] Letter from Charles Dickens to John Hullah (19 September 1848) in Dickens, Dickens’s Correspondence 19.

[25] Dickens to Hullah (12 December 1847), Dickens’s Correspondence 18.

[26] Dickens to Hullah (12 December 1847), Dickens’s Correspondence 19.

[27] See Dickens to Hullah (17 September 1836), Dickens’s Correspondence 12.

[28] Dickens to Hullah (19 September 1848), Dickens’s Correspondence 19.

[29] For a more detailed argument of this point, see Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction 98–115.