Department of Music

Historical Music Pedagogy

Leo Primi elementi

The Solfeggio Tradition

The first music lesson for almost every eighteenth-century musician: singing plainchant with Guidonian scales (from Leonardo Leo's Primi elementi, c.1740).

Ever wondered how...

... baroque and classical musicians  really understood melody, keys, and modulation? Sung lessons in the rudiments, or 'solfeggi', provide the answer.   

A solfeggio is...

... an instructional melody sung to syllables. Mastering a series of solfa exercises was an essential prerequisite for any eighteenth-century musician wishing to learn thoroughbass or keyboard playing.

The Western music tradition...

... was, in this sense, and in some places still is, a solfeggio tradition.

Solfeggi: Forgotten Secrets of Italian Music-Making

From 1680 to 1830, the period from Scarlatti to Bellini, professional music-making in Europe was dominated by Italians. Their traditions of composition, performance, and pedagogy were everywhere in vogue. By the middle of the nineteenth century, these traditions had been overshadowed by a new 'classical' music culture, to the extent that they were eventually forgotten in English and German-speaking regions. They survived elsewhere in Europe, however, well into the twentieth century (most notably at the Paris Conservatoire). The theory textbook still in regular use at the Athens Conservatoire in the 1990s consisted of eighteenth-century Neapolitan partimenti.

Carlo Cotumacci, Solfa exercise with mutations (1755)

Until recently, almost nothing was known about the historical traditions of compositional practice which underpinned the work of, among others, Haydn and Mozart. Professor Thomas Christensen, one of the world's leading scholars of eighteenth-century music theory, tells a story of long sessions at the Prussian State Library in Berlin, where, in the hunt for rare treatises, he had to leaf through hundreds of manuscripts containing what appeared to be useless exercises in thoroughbass and counterpoint. These exercises - called partimenti, solfeggi, or disposizioni - turned out to be the core documents in a mostly non-verbal tradition of apprenticeship.

Carlo Cotumacci, Solfa exercise in different keys (1755)

The past decade has witnessed rapid advances in our knowledge of these Italian traditions and their significance. Yet vast collections of archive material remain unexplored and many questions unanswered. This is why the project seeks to uncover the sophisticated techniques of learning to sing and compose in Italian conservatories, with the help of solfeggi. The integral use of sol-fa syllables, derived from Guidonian hexachords, may provide a key to unlock many secrets of eighteenth-century tonality.

Nick Baragwanath is currently finishing his monograph on the history and theory of solfeggi, The Solfeggio Tradition: A Forgotten Art of Melody in the Long Eighteenth Century.


The Historical Music Pedagogy Network

The network Historical Music Pedagogy is open to all relevant topics, from Baroque performance practice through Neapolitan partimenti, to modern Suzuki and Kodály methods. Its core aim is to contribute to a fundamental reappraisal and rebalancing of music history which is currently underway. Increased awareness of the importance of hitherto marginalised (mainly Italian) traditions serve as a counterweight against the universal claims of a romantic heritage. 

We welcome and encourage contacts with researchers, teachers, and performers interested in music pedagogy from the seventeenth century to today.

Join our mailing list on to receive the latest news from the network and to share your own events.


Past events

Cheltenham Music Festival: 
Craft Secrets of the 18th-Century Musician

Nicholas Baragwanath explored the 18th-century musical techniques that would have been taught to the likes of Haydn, Bellini and Farinelli. In the interactive workshop participants had the opportunity to learn some tricks of the trade, secrets of the schoolroom, and some surprising hidden meanings to famous melodies.

This event was held on Saturday 11 July 2015, 3:30pm-5:00pm, Cheltenham Town Hall, Pillar Room, 5GBP

Cheltenham Music Festival:
Maestro'sMusicSchool  (for children 7+)

School on a Saturday? No way! But did you know that being a student in an 18th-century singing school involved everything from angel wings and donkey skins to stocks and fishing rods? Audiences were welcomed into Maestro Nick's classroom for an afternoon of learning to sing like an 18th century superstar!

This session was held on Saturday 11 July 2015, 2:00pm-3:00pm, Cheltenham Town Hall, Pillar Room, 5GBP


Teaching materials (alternative website

Workshops, book, and app for an innovative approach to keyboard playing



Databases and online collections
Monuments of Solfeggi (Robert O. Gjerdingen's edited and transcribed collection of 18th-century instructional music, hosted by Northwestern University)

Monuments of Partimenti (Robert O. Gjerdingen's edited and transcribed collection of 18th-century instructional music, hosted by Northwestern University)

Solfeggio (A comprehensive database of solfeggio sources compiled by Peter van Tour, hosted by Uppsala University. Forthcoming in Spring 2015)

Saggi musicali italiani (Andreas Giger's database of historical texts on music theory and aesthetics, hosted by Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University) (A searchable catalogue of Italian research libraries, including many digitalised sources)

Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica di Bologna (A searchable catalogue with digitalised sources, including material from Padre Martini's library)  

Conservatorio di Milano (Digitalised collections of pedagogical material)

IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library (International Music Score Library Project, digitalised sheet music)

Virtuelle Fachbibliothek Musikwissenschaft (A searchable catalogue of music libraries in Germany and Austria)

Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (Digitalised collections of German libraries)  

Related groups and network initiatives
The Art of Partimento (Facebook group dedicated to exploring historical Italian music pedagogy)

Pedagogy Study Group of the American Musicological Society  

Solfeggio group on

Partimento group on

Historical music pedagogy in the media
Educating Isaac (Nick Baragwanath's BBC Radio 3 Sunday Feature on the history of music pedagogy in the Neapolitan conservatories)

Find out how an eight-year old girl, Alma Deutscher, learned to play and compose the old Neapolitan way, in The Sunday Times, 28 July 2013, p. 13.  


AHRC logo

Project Team Solfeggi 

Principal Investigator
Nicholas Baragwanath
(The University of Nottingham)

Research Fellow
Annika Forkert
(The University of Nottingham)

Historical Music Pedagogy Network 

Advisory Committee
Rosa Cafiero
(Università cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan)
Thomas Christensen
(The University of Chicago)
Robert O. Gjerdingen
(Northwestern University)
Giorgio Sanguinetti
(Università di Roma, Tor Vergata)

Associate Members
Nicoleta Paraschivescu
(Musikakademie Basel)
Marco Pollaci
(The University of Nottingham)
Peter van Tour
(Uppsala Universitet) 

Latest News

Solfeggi at Cheltenham: The Cheltenham Music Festival features two workshops on historical music pedagogy, on 11 July 2015. See Events tab for more info and booking.

The JISC mailing list has launched! Subscribe and join us for information, calls for papers, and discussions about all aspects of Historical Music Pedagogy from Solfeggi to Orff.


Nick Baragwanath will participate in the first stage of the Society for Music Analysis Video Project by recording a video about his research in spring 2015.

'Educating Isaac' will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 27 December 12.15-13.00. Listen in to get a vivid impression of the eighteenth-century Naples music traditions!

Nick Baragwanath gave a paper at Amsterdam Conservatorium, entitled 'Rags to Riches: Craft Training, Music, and Social Mobility in 18th-century Music' on Friday, 5 December 2014.

The BBC Radio 3 documentary 'Educating Isaac', with Nick Baragwanath, Robert Gjerdingen, Giorgio Sanguinetti, and Rosa Cafiero is now available on iTunes. Also featuring Dustin Hoffman!

Nick Baragwanath's 'The Early Sonatas with Keyboard', in M. Harlow (ed.), Mozart's Chamber Music (CUP 2012) was awarded the Mozart Society of America's Marjorie Weston Emerson Prize 2014 for the best publication on Mozart.




Department of Music

The University of Nottingham
Lakeside Arts Centre
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

Admission enquiries
All other enquiries
Telephone: +44 (0)115 951 5841