Singing By Ear And By Note

Many choirmasters maintain that, considering the short musical life of

the choir-boy, it is not worth while to teach him to sing by note. The

quickness of boys' ears for music, they say, is astonishing, while their

memories are equally good. Between the two faculties--ear and memory--we

are told that all things necessary are supplied. The boys, it is said,

don't like theory, and it saves time and patience not to have to teach

it to them.

I am altogether at issue with this view. I believe theory can be made

interesting to boys, especially if the Tonic Sol-fa system is used, and

that if they are taught sight-singing the choirmaster saves himself a

vast amount of trouble. The after musical doings of the boys should also

be considered, and whether they become tenors and basses, or take to an

instrument, the power to read music will be a happiness through their

whole lives.

The leading anthems, services, and psalters are now published in the

Tonic Sol-fa notation, so that boys who have learnt to sing from the

letters at school may quickly be put to sing their parts in the church

choir. The late Alfred Stone, of Bristol, who used the Tonic Sol-fa

notation for his choir boys, found it a great time-saver. So quickly was

the service music got through at the weekly practice that there was

nearly an hour to spare for singing glees and getting up cantatas. Mr.

Stone arranged his boys in two grades. The upper grade all held a Tonic

Sol-fa certificate, and they received higher pay than the lower grade.

The result of this arrangement was that the lower boys got the upper

ones to teach them Tonic Sol-fa in their playtime, and thus saved the

choirmaster a great deal of trouble.

A serious disadvantage of the ordinary way of learning to sing from the

staff notation is that practice usually begins in, and is for several

months confined to key C. For boys' voices this is the most trying of

all the keys--the one most likely to lead to bad habits in the use of

the registers. The keys for boys to begin in are G and F, where you can

get a cadence upon the tonic in the thin register. A German choirmaster,

whose choir is greatly celebrated, has sent me a little book of

exercises which he uses, and I find that, as in most English

publications of a similar kind, there are pages of exercises in key C,

before any other key is attempted. In Tonic Sol-fa all keys are equally

available from the first.

I have had a wide experience of boys taught on all systems, both in this

country and abroad. I have been present, by the courtesy of

choirmasters, at rehearsals in all parts of the country. And I have

noticed that boys taught by ear, or taught the staff notation by the

fixed do, make mistakes which boys trained by Tonic Sol-fa and singing

from it, or applying their knowledge of it to the staff notation, could

not make. The class of mistake I refer to is that which confuses the

place of the semitones in the scale. A sight-singing manual which I

picked up the other day says that the whole matter of singing at sight

lies in knowing where the semitones come. And from one point of view

this is true, but to the Tonic Sol-faist the semitones always come in

the same places, i.e., between me and fah, and between te and

doh. He has only one scale to learn, and as to modulation, that is

accomplished for him by his notation, while the time marks, separating

and defining the beats or pulses of the music, make rhythm vividly


If choirmasters wish to save themselves trouble, and get confident

attack and good intonation from their boys, they should teach them the

Tonic Sol-fa notation, and let them sing from it always. The staff

notation they can easily learn later on.