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Missionaries, music and method - dissemination of tonic sol-fa in Asia-Pacific countries during the nineteenth century

conference contribution
posted on 2005-01-01, 00:00 authored by Robin Stevens
The Tonic Sol-fa method of teaching choral singing and its system of music notation was developed in England by John Curwen and propagated throughout the British Isles as a means of both enhancing Christian worship and achieving social reform. Tonic Sol-fa may be identified as an entirely foreign musical practice introduced to indigenous people in many British colonies and in other overseas countries during the nineteenth century as an instrument of Christian evangelism as well as of European cultural imposition. Nevertheless, indigenous communities were introduced to other aspects of European musical culture including a choral repertoire consisting of four-part hymnody and masterworks by Handel, Bach, Mozart, etc which sometimes resulted in the emergence of a school of indigenous composers writing in Tonic Sol-fa notation and using the tonal harmonic style. The result has been that in several countries-such as South Africa and Fiji for example-Tonic Sol-fa has been so fully assimilated into the ethnic culture that it has been "indigenized" and may now be said to represent a significant exogenous aspect of the musical culture in these countries.

Tonic Sol-fa was most commonly introduced to countries in the Asia-Pacific Region -as in Africa - by Christian missionaries who sought to exploit the attraction of hymns, particularly when sung in four-part harmony, as a means of evangelizing indigenous people who frequently regarded this aspect of missionary activity as a form of "magic". In particular, the Tonic Sol-fa method and notation gained a significant foothold in what were referred to as the South Sea Islands--especially in Fiji where today, the Fijian Hymn Book (1985 edition) is notated exclusively in Tonic Sol-fa. The vast majority of the Fijians are literate in Tonic Sol-fa notation and congregational singing in four parts is the norm in Fijian churches.

This paper will draw on data from nineteenth century journal sources, particularly The Tonic Sol-fa Reporter (1853-1888) and The Musical Herald (1889-1920), and will document the introduction and dissemination of Tonic Sol-fa in several Asia-Pacific countries where, unlike Australia and New Zealand, the indigenous population has maintained its own cultural and demographic predominance. Countries to be considered will include India, China (including Hong Kong), and Pacific Island nations. There will also be a consideration of the contemporary usage and applications of Tonic Sol-fa in the region, with specific reference to Fiji. It will be argued that countries where Tonic Sol-fa notation has become the norm should resist any external pressure to transfer to the standard staff notation merely for the sake of conformity. In the case of Fiji, almost universal music literacy has been achieved through Tonic Sol-fa and this should be recognized as an enviable social and cultural asset.


Title of proceedings

APSMER 2005 : 5th Asia Pacific Symposium on Music Education Research Proceedings


Asia-Pacific Symposium on Music Education Research (5th : 2005 : Seattle, Washington)


1 - 19




Seattle, Washington, USA

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Seattle, Wash.

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E1 Full written paper - refereed


S Morrison

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