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The Curwen hand signs are a method of solfeggio invented by John Curwen in the 19th century. The son of a non-conformist minister, Curwen had reached the conviction that the music of the church should be accessible to everyone. However, music education was not popular at the time so Curwen developed his now eponymous hand sign method and spread it through Sunday School teachers.

This new system, which evolved from Sarah Ann Glover's Norwich Sol-fa method, added the concept of moveable tonics: the unison octave's hand signal represents the first note in whichever key is being sung. This development eliminated the need to be able to read music and analyze the chordant structure of printed music. Curwen accordingly named his new system Tonic Sol-fa.

Years later, Hungarian musicologist Zoltán Kodály would adopt the Curwen system for use in his music education method, which stressed ethnically significant music for young children and emphasized singing and playing rhythm instruments. This development still manifests itself in music education today, namely in the Suzuki Violin Method, the Kodály Society's system, Solresol (the synthesized music language developed in France), and even makes an appearance in Close Encounters of the Third Kind as an a priori language for communicating with the aliens.

The Curwen hand signs are traditionally performed with the left hand. This is so that a teacher leading a class may play the piano with their right hand over the keys needed to play a major scale at the Middle C octave.


The Curwen hand signs

  • DO (Unison, Octave) : Fist at forehead.
    
    
                    ;;ttiittLLii                                                                  
                  ;;WWLL  ..ffKK;;                                                                
                  ttWWff      ;;iitttttt,,                                                        
                  ffKKii;;GG,,      ,,ttGGLLLLLLttttii..                                          
                ..ttii,,GGii                    ,,ttiiLLLL;;  ..ii,,  ;;;;                        
                ffttiiiiLL                          ..iittGGKKDDKKtt                              
                GGffiiiiff                                ..ii,,                                  
              ttLLii  iiii    ;;,,;;                                                              
              GGLLii;;tt;;    ttKKLLtt                                                            
            ;;GGGGii;;GG,,  ;;GGtt  DDff..                                                        
            LLGGKKff..LL..;;GGtt    iiiiiiiitttt..  ;;..                                          
            LLDDKKffiiGGGG,,      ..        ..GGfftttt                                            
            iiLLffGGDDLL##WWDDLLGGtt            ;;;;          ,,iiii                              
                    GG;;ttKKKKKKff            ;;GG            ttKKDD                              
                    GGLL  ,,ffttttii,,      ;;LLGGiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiittiiii..                  
                    ..ffLLKKLL..ttLLLLLLLLGGKK..                        ttLLLL,,                  
                      ..      
    
  • TI (Major Seventh): Hand at eye level, index finger pointing upwards
    
                    ,,tt,,                                                                        
                    ffffLL,,                                                                      
                    tt,,ffGG,,                                                                    
                    tttt,,;;tt,,                                                                  
                      ii;;  ;;tt                                                                  
                        tttt..ttii                                                                
                        ..tt..  ,,tt                                                              
                          iitt    ..GG,,                                                          
                          ..ff;;    iitt..                                                        
                              iiii    ttLL;;                                                      
                                tt;;      iitt                                                    
                                ..ff        ttGGtt,,                                              
                                  ;;;;  ;;iittttttLL..                                            
                                  ..GGttffii    ,,tttt                                            
                              ,,ffff,,..    ;;LLttttLL..                                          
                            ..GGtt..      ttttii,,,,iitt                                          
                            iitt    ;;tttttt..    ..,,ttii                                        
                            ii  ,,tttt..        ;;ttLLDDLL                                        
                          ..LLttff;;    ..ttttiitt,,  ..GGtt                                      
                          ..ffLL..  ..iiii,,            ..tt                                      
                              ii  ,,tt..  ....    ....    tt,,                                    
                            ..tt  tt      tttt  ..,,..    ,,tt                                    
                          iiGGLLiiii      ffDDiitttt..      ii,,                                  
                        ,,DDii..,,tt  ;;ttKKDDttLL;;        ..ii                                  
                          iitt    ;;ttiitttt..  iiii          ttii                                
                            ffttii..ttGGtt,,..tttt            ..tt                                
                                ..;;LLtt..ttiiffttii            tt,,                              
                                      tttt..  ,,,,ff,,          ;;ii                              
                                        ,,tttt,,  ;;tt..          ii                              
                                            ,,ttttiifftt,,      ;;tt                              
                                              ..ffffii,,LLttii;;tttt                              
                                                ..ttff  ,,ttttii,,,,;;                            
                                                    ff..            tt;;                          
                                                    ttii            ..ff,,                        
                                                    ..tt              ..tt                        
                                                      ..                ..          
    
    • TA, TE (Minor Seventh) : Hand at eye level, index finger down
      
                                                                                                 
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                                                              ,,iittiittttii        ;;,,  ..tttt....
                                                          ....,,iiiiiiii..          ffii      ..ii,,
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                                              ..ffttiitt      ..            ,,LLGGtt..              
                                            ttttff..  tt;;    ,,..    ,,    GGKKii;;                
                                        ;;tttt..tt    ;;tt    ..ttttffKKfftttt;;,,ii                
                                        tt;;    ii,,  ..ff      iiff..ffLL;;  ,,ttii                
                                      iiiiff,,  ..tt..  LL....;;ttff    iiGG,,tttt..                
                                    ;;;;  ,,tt    LLii  tt;;;;GGDDLL..  ;;ttiiLLtt                  
                                  ,,tt      tt,,  ..tt  ,,GG,,......ii  ttLLLLttGG;;                
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                        ,,tttt..    ,,GGtt..  tt..    ;;      ,,LLttff;;ff              iiff        
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                    iitt    ..ttfftt..        ..fftt....iiiittKKGG;;  ttff                    ..    
                ..tttt..  ..ttff,,                ,,;;;;;;ttffLLii    tt;;                          
                iittii    ttii                        ..iitt..;;ff..iitt                            
              tttt;;  ..;;,,                                  ..iitttt..                            
              ,,tttt;;,,                                                                            
                ....                                                     
      
  • LA (Major Sixth) : Relaxed hand, hanging down from chin level
    
                                   iiiiii,,      iiiiiiii,,                                      
                                  ttii,,iiiiiiiiii..      ttiiiittfftttt                          
                                ttLL                      ,,ttttLLtt..ttGGGGii                    
                            ..ttiitt                          ....    ..tt;;tt..                  
                            tt;;  ttii                                      ffii                  
                            ii..    GGff                    ..      ii,,    iiii                  
                            iiii    ,,GG        ii,,        tt;;    LLGG    ,,ff..                
                            iiii    ..GG..      tttt,,      ,,tt    ;;LLtt    ,,LL..              
                            ;;,,    ;;DDtt      ttffff      ,,GG..    ,,GG,,    tttt              
                          ,,;;      iitttt        iiff,,    iiWWtt    ;;DDff      tt,,            
                        ,,,,        tt,,tt        iiiiLL    ;;GGff;;  ..;;tt;;    iiii            
                        ii..        ii  tt        tt  tt      ff..tt    iittii    iiii            
                        ii        ,,;;  tt,,      tt  ff;;    ff;;tt    ..iiLL,,  iiii            
                        ii      ..ff    iitt      ii;;DDtt    LLii;;tt    iittGGGGGGii            
                        ii    ..iittffttttLL..    ttttKKGG    ttttGGGGii  ,,;;KKGGDDii            
                        ttiiiiii..  ttttLLGGii..  ff..,,ff    LLLLiittGG    iiKKGGffii            
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                                      iiiitttt,,ii,,  ,,ii    ff    LLDD    iiii,,;;              
                                        ,,ttttttGG..  ff;;  ;;LL    GGff    tt,,                  
                                          ;;ttfftt    iittiitttt    tttt;;  ffii                  
                                            ttGG;;  ;;;;iiiiGGii    ttiiffffii;;ii                
                                              ..ii;;ff..ttGGtt      ttffttLL    ,,ii,,            
                                                  iiiiiiii,,        ..ffLLtt      ..,,            
                                                    ,,                                            
                                                                                                  
                                                                                     
    
    • SI (Augmented Fifth) : Open hand slanted up, palm to chest
      
                                                                                                    
                          ..ttii                                                                    
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                              ;;iiii..  ;;iiii                ii  GG..                              
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              iiGGffLLttii;;        ..tt,,      ;;;;          tt,,,,tt                              
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  • SO, SOL (Perfect Fifth) : Palm towards chest
    
                                                                                                  
                                  ttDDGGGGtt..                                                    
                                  ..tt  ;;ttttttttttttfftt..;;iiii..                              
                                    tt,,                ;;iiffLLLLii                              
                                    ..ttttiiii..                  ii;;                            
                                            ..ttiiii..              ttiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii,,          
                ;;iiiittiiiiiiiiffttiiiiffLLffii;;ttff;;                  ..iiiiiiiiiiiiii..      
              ttLLttttttttii;;  ;;;;iittLLffttLLtttttttt                                          
              tttt  ,,LLtt                                                                        
              ..LLKKGGKKGG;;,,;;  ;;iiiiiiii                                                      
              LLGGGGffiiii;;,,;;  ;;iiiiiitt                                                      
            ..GGtt;;tt,,                                                                          
              ffGGGGGGttiiiittttiiiittiiii,,                                                      
              LLLLGGff....  ttff;;                                                                
              iitt..tt;;;;  ,,ffffii..    ..                                                      
                ..ttffLLffLLiittLLGGttttLLGG,,                                                    
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                        ;;iiiiiittiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii;;      ,,iiiiiiiiiiiiiiii..    ,,ii,,        
                                      ,,iiiiiiiiiiiittiiiiiittLLttiiii..                          
                                                                                                
    
    • FI (Augmented Fourth) : Thumb upwards, abdomen height
      
                                   LLLL;;                                                          
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                                  ii    LL;;                                                        
                                  ;;;;    tttt                                                      
                                    tt      LLfftt,,                                                
                                    ;;;;    ..;;fffftt,,                                            
                                      ;;ii          ,,ttff..                                        
                            ,,iiiiiiii;;ii              ,,ff;;                ,,                    
                          iiLLttfftt,,LLtt                ,,tt        ;;ttiiii;;                    
                          tt    ..  ,,tt..                  iiiiiiiiiiii,,                          
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                          ..tt,,                            ,,iiiiiiLLLLLL;;                        
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                            tttttt;;..                ;;tttt,,                                      
                            ..iittiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiitt,,                                          
                                                                       
      
  • FA (Perfect Fourth) : Thumb downwards, abdomen height
    
                       ,,;;  ,,;;;;..;;;;ii..                                                    
                      iitt..    ,,;;ii;;  ;;ii,,iiiiiiii,,                                        
                      ii..    ,,;;                    ..ffii  ,,..                                
                    ..tt;;      iittii                ..ffLLiitt,,iiiiii,,                        
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                  ,,;;    ..,,;;ttfffftt                                  ,,iiii..                
                    ttii          ..ttff;;                                                        
                    ..ttttiiii..  ;;ffff;;      ,,,,,,,,                                          
                    ,,  ..iittttttGGGG,,    ,,LLGGttiitttt                                        
                    ;;;;        iiGGGGii    ,,;;        iitt                                      
                    ..ttttttiittttLLGGii                  tt                                      
                    ......iiii;;,,ttttii                ..tt                                      
                    ;;tt        ,,ttffLL                iiGGiiii;;  ..;;;;                        
                      iiii,,tt,,  ii,,..                ..LLLLLLffii..                            
                        ..iitttt;;iittii                ..tt      ;;iittiiii..                    
                                      ii                fftt          ..iiii;;                    
                                    ,,tt            iiff;;                                        
                                  ..ii..    ..iitttttt,,                                          
                                  tt..    ttLLGGtt..                                              
                                ,,ii    ;;LL..                                                    
                                ii..  ttff..                                                      
                              ..tt  ..tt                                                          
                              ;;ff,,tttt                                                          
                                ..GGGG;;                                                          
                                  ,,;;                                                            
                                                                                                  
    
  • MI (Major Third) : Flat hand horizontal, just above navel
    
                                                                                                  
                ,,;;                                                                              
              ;;;;fftttttt;;                                              ..;;,,                  
              iitttt..,,iitt;;tt;;;;ttiiiittttttiiiiiiiiffiiiitttttttt..;;,,,,iitttttt..          
                ttLLGGttii    ii;;..                          ..,,iitt..        ..;;tt,,          
                  ..GGLLffii,,iittii;;..tt;;;;,,                                                  
                    ..ii,,,,,,;;ttffffffGGLLtt;;ii,,                                              
                            ;;tt;;;;iiiitttttt,,ii;;,,ii..      ,,;;,,                            
                                              ;;ttii,,ttttLLtt,,;;iiiiiiiittii,,                  
                                                ,,iiii;;iiii            ..,,;;;;iittfftt..        
                                                                                    ,,ii,,        
                                                                                                  
                                                                                                  
                                                                                                  
    
    • MA (Minor Third) : Index finger downward from palm, just above navel
      
                                                                                                    
                                            tttt;;iiiittttiiiiiiii;;                                
                                            LLiittKKGGLLtt;;....,,ttiiiiiiiiiiiiii;;                
                                        ,,ffDDDDGGii      ;;ii                  ..iiiiffii          
                ;;;;    ;;ttiiiiiiiiii;;ffLLttfftt,,      ....ii..                      ,,  ;;,,    
        ..GGLLttttffiiiiiiiiiiiiiittttiittffLLtt,,  ..,,;;  ,,ttiitt                                
          ttffii;;;;iittttffiiiiiiii,,iiiittiiiiiiiitttt,,        tt                                
              iiffttGGDDLL;;ffttiiLLttiiii;;                                                        
                    ..ttffttttDDLLtt  ..  ,,    ..ii                                                
                          ;;iiiittiiiittttLLiiiiffGGLLtttt..    ..                                  
                                    ..ff;;,,,,;;tttt;;ttLL..                        ,,LLtt;;        
                                  ..tt;;;;iitt;;;;      ttttiiiiiittiiiittiiiiiiiittGGDDii;;;;;;    
                                ,,ffii,,,,tt,,          ....      ..    ;;ttttiiiiiiii,,    ....    
                            ..ttttii;;;;tt;;                                                        
                        ..tttt,,,,,,;;tt,,                                                          
                        ..ttfffftttt;;                                                              
                                                                   
      
    • RI (Augmented Second) : Flat hand, palm down, slanting upward, index finger elevated, at navel height
      
                          ....                                                                      
                          ttLL,,                                                                    
                          tttttt                                                                    
                        ,,tt,,tt;;                                                                  
                        ..ii;;iitt,,                                                                
                            tt,,..ii                                                                
              ..            ;;,,,,ii,,                                                              
              tttttt        ,,ii,,..;;                                                              
              ,,ttGGffii      ii,,,,tt                                                              
                ttttLLLLttii  ;;tt,,;;ii,,                                                          
                  ;;GGGGttiitttttt;;,,,,ii;;                                                        
                  ..LLGGGGttttiiLLtt,,,,,,ii;;                                                      
                    ,,ff,,;;;;ttLLGGff;;,,,,..tttt..                                                
                      ;;ttLLiiii;;ttGGffttttiiLLtttt..                                              
                          ttttffLLtt;;ttLLttttffGGKKLL..                                            
                          ,,ttii  ;;GG..iiDDffffLLttDDff                                            
                            ..ttff,,,,iitttt;;iitt;;..GGii                                          
                                ;;ttii  ,,iitt,,  ..  ,,,,                                          
                                  ..ff;;    ttfftt,,  ii  ..                                        
                                    ..LL;;      ..    ..;;  ;;,,                                    
                                      ..ffii            ,,....,,,,                                  
                                        ..iiLL,,                ,,..                                
                                            LLtt          ii;;      ,,                              
                                            ;;..          ,,,,        ....                          
                                            ,,tt                          ,,..                      
                                            ,,ff,,                        ..ii,,                    
                                              ,,ttff,,                      ..,,                    
                                                  ;;ttii                      ..;;                  
                                                      ;;tt,,                    ;;ii                
                                                          tt;;                  ..,,                
                                                          ,,tttt..                                  
                                                              ttff  ..;;..                          
                                                                ii;;;;GGtt                          
                                                                  ;;;;,,tttt..                      
                                                                    ;;iittGGii                      
                                                                          ....         
      
  • RE (Major Second) : Flat hand, palm down, slanting upwards, navel height
    
                                                                                                  
                      ..;;ii,,                                                                    
                      ;;iiiiGG;;                                                                  
                        ttffiiLLtt                                                                
                        ..LL,,..tttt                                                              
                          ttGGtt  ,,ii                                                            
                          ;;ttLLff..tttt;;                                                        
                            ..tttttttt..;;tttt;;                                                  
                              ..ttiitttttt....iitt..                                              
                                ..iittffff;;ii  ,,tttt,,                                          
                                    ..ttLLttffii,,  ,,ttii,,                                      
                                        ,,ttDDGGtt..    ..tttt,,                                  
                                            ;;LLtt;;        ;;tttt..                              
                                              ,,;;ttii          iiLL                              
                                                ii..,,;;          ,,ttii                          
                                                ;;tt;;tt;;          ..ff..;;;;;;..                
                                                  ..;;ttffii                  ;;tt                
                                                      ..ttttii,,;;              ;;tt              
                                                                ;;ii..            ;;tt..          
                                                                  ..tt..            ;;;;          
                                                                    ..ttii                        
                                                                        ii;;                      
                                                                          ..ttii                  
                                                                              iiii                
                                                                                ii;;              
                                                                                  ..              
                                                                                              
    
    • DI (Augmented Unison) : Lift wrist, making a fist at belt height.
      
                                                                                                    
                                              ....                                                  
                                            ;;KKGG;;                                                
                                        ..ffGGttiittff                                              
                                      ;;LLGGttttiittGGff..                                          
                                    ..fftt  ttiiLLffttffLL,,                                        
                                    LLtt..ffffDDttttGGttttii                                        
                                ..ttLL..fftttt,,    ..DDLLii;;..                                    
                              ..ff..;;tt..,,,,          ..ii;;tt..                                  
                              iitt  LL  tt;;                  ,,tt                                  
                              iitt;;tt;;tt    tttt  ;;ii        ,,,,ii                              
                              ,,GGWWiiff  ,,iittKKLLLL..            ;;;;ii                          
                                ttKKttff;;KK##KKKKGGGG,,                ff;;                        
                                tt..tt;;ffttii..    tttt                  ,,                        
                                tt  ..ii;;tt,,    ;;LLGG                                            
                                tt;;  ;;ffiiLLfftt;;,,ttff                    ,,                    
                                ..ttttttffKKGGtt,,  ,,iiDDtt                  ttiiii;;              
                                    ..iiLLtttt..    ,,..ttLL                  iiLLLL;;              
                                            tt;;....,,....LLtt                                      
                                            ;;tt;;,,,,,,  ;;tt                                      
                                              ..ii,,,,..  ;;..                                      
                                                ttii;;ttttGGLLtt;;                                  
                                                    ..iiiiiiiiGGGG,,                                
                                                                ;;LLttii..                          
                                                                        ..;;                        
                                                                                        
      
  • DO (Lower Octaval Unison) : Fist at belt height.
    
                    ;;ttiittLLii                                                                  
                  ;;WWLL  ..ffKK;;                                                                
                  ttWWff      ;;iitttttt,,                                                        
                  ffKKii;;GG,,      ,,ttGGLLLLLLttttii..                                          
                ..ttii,,GGii                    ,,ttiiLLLL;;  ..ii,,  ;;;;                        
                ffttiiiiLL                          ..iittGGKKDDKKtt                              
                GGffiiiiff                                ..ii,,                                  
              ttLLii  iiii    ;;,,;;                                                              
              GGLLii;;tt;;    ttKKLLtt                                                            
            ;;GGGGii;;GG,,  ;;GGtt  DDff..                                                        
            LLGGKKff..LL..;;GGtt    iiiiiiiitttt..  ;;..                                          
            LLDDKKffiiGGGG,,      ..        ..GGfftttt                                            
            iiLLffGGDDLL##WWDDLLGGtt            ;;;;          ,,iiii                              
                    GG;;ttKKKKKKff            ;;GG            ttKKDD                              
                    GGLL  ,,ffttttii,,      ;;LLGGiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiittiiii..                  
                    ..ffLLKKLL..ttLLLLLLLLGGKK..                        ttLLLL,,                  
                      ..                                                           
    

Pictures ASCII'ed from http://www.kodalysocietyofcanada.ca/curwin.html using IMG2TXT at http://www.degraeve.com/gif2txt.php.

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