Shape note

Shape note
"Star in the East" from the 1854 edition of Southern Harmony

Shape notes are a music notation designed to facilitate congregational and community singing. The notation, introduced in 1801, became a popular teaching device in American singing schools. Shapes were added to the note heads in written music to help singers find pitches within major and minor scales without the use of more complex information found in key signatures on the staff.

Shape notes of various kinds have been used for over two centuries in a variety of music traditions, mostly sacred but also secular, originating in New England, practiced primarily in the Southern region of the United States for many years, and now experiencing a renaissance in other locations as well.


Shape notes

The idea behind shape notes is that the parts of a vocal work can be learned more quickly and easily if the music is printed in shapes that match up with the solfege syllables with which the notes of the musical scale are sung. For instance, in the four-shape tradition used in the Sacred Harp and elsewhere, the notes of a C major scale are notated and sung as follows:

The C major scale in shape notes

A skilled singer experienced in a shape note tradition has developed a fluent triple mental association, which links a note of the scale, a shape, and a syllable. This association can be used to help in reading the music. When a song is first sung by a shape note group, they normally sing the syllables (reading them from the shapes) to solidify their command over the notes. Next, they sing the same notes to the words of the music.

The syllables and notes of a shape note system are relative rather than absolute; they depend on the key of the piece. The first note of a major key always has the triangular Fa note, followed (ascending) by Sol, La, etc. The first note of a minor key is always La, followed by Mi, Fa, etc.

The first three notes of (any) major scale - fa, sol, la - are each a tone apart. The fourth to sixth notes are also a tone apart and are also fa, sol, la. The seventh and eighth notes, being separated by a semitone, are indicated mi-fa. This means that just four shapenotes can adequately reflect the "feel" of the whole scale.

Some[who?] refer to this as a moveable "do" system.

Four-shape vs. seven-shape systems

The 7-note system as used in a modern Independent Fundamental Baptist church hymnal from the South.
The 7-note system as used in a traditional tunebook (the Christian Harmony).

The system illustrated above is a four-shape system; six of the notes of the scale are grouped in pairs assigned to one syllable/shape combination. The syllables of this system date back to Elizabethan times in England,[1] although the shapes are younger (see below). The other important systems are seven-shape systems, which give a different shape and syllable to every note of the scale. Such systems use as their syllables the note names "do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do" familiar to most people. A few books (e.g. "The Good Old Songs" by C. H. Cayce) present the older seven-note syllabization of "do, re, mi, fa, so, la, si, do". In the seven-shape system invented by Jesse B. Aikin, the notes of a C major scale would be notated and sung as follows:


For other seven-shape systems, see

The effectiveness of shape notes

Whether or not shape notes actually facilitate learning music is disputed. Most modern participants in shape note traditions would probably argue that they do. On the other hand, newcomers to shape note singing who can already read music may feel that the shapes do not help, though the task of learning to use them might perhaps be enjoyed as a novel musical challenge.

A controlled study on the usefulness of shape notes was carried out in the 1950s by George H. Kyme with an experimental population consisting of fourth and fifth graders living in California. Kyme took care to match his experimental and control groups as closely as possible for ability, quality of teacher, and various other factors. He found that the students taught with shape notes learned to sight read significantly better than those taught without them. Kyme additionally found that the students taught with shape notes were also far more likely to pursue musical activities later on in their education.[2]

Shape notes and modulation

Many forms of music employ modulation, that is, a change of key in mid-piece. Modulation is problematic for shape note systems, since the shapes employed for the original key of the piece no longer match the scale degrees of the new key. At least some forms of shape note music, for instance Sacred Harp music, generally avoid modulation.[3]

Origin and early history

See also: List of shape-note tunebooks

As noted above, the syllables of shape note systems greatly antedate the shapes. The practice of singing music to syllables designating pitch goes back to about AD 1000 with the work of Guido of Arezzo; other early work in this area includes the cipher notation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (18th century), and the tonic sol-fa of John Curwen (19th century).

American forerunners to shape notes include the 9th edition of the Bay Psalm Book (Boston), and An Introduction to the Singing of Psalm Tunes in a Plaine & Easy Method by Reverend John Tufts. The 9th edition of the Bay Psalm Book was printed with the initials of four-note syllables (fa, sol, la, me) underneath the staff. In his book, Tufts substituted the initials of the four-note syllables on the staff in place of note heads, and indicated rhythm by punctuation marks to the right of the letters.

Shape notes themselves probably date from late 18th century America. They appeared publicly at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when two publications came out using shaped note heads - The Easy Instructor by William Little and William Smith in 1801, and The Musical Primer by Andrew Law in 1803, intended for use in singing schools. Little and Smith used the four-shape system shown above. Law's system had slightly different shapes: a square indicated fa and a triangle la, while sol and mi were the same as in Little and Smith. Law's invention was more radical than Little and Smith's in that he dispensed with the use of the staff altogether, letting the shapes be the sole means of expressing pitch. Little and Smith followed traditional music notation in placing the note heads on the staff, in place of the ordinary oval note heads. In the end, it was the Little/Smith system that won out, and there is no hymnbook used today that employs the Law system.

Andrew Law asserted that he was the inventor of shape notes. Little and Smith did not themselves claim credit for the invention,[4] but said instead that the notes were invented around 1790 by John Connelly[5] of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They claimed that Connelly signed over the rights of his invention to them in 1798.

Shape notes proved popular in America, and quickly a wide variety of hymnbooks were prepared making use of them. The shapes were eventually extirpated in the northeastern U.S. by a so-called "better music" movement, headed by Lowell Mason.[6] But in the South, the shapes became well entrenched, and multiplied into a variety of traditions. Ananias Davisson's Kentucky Harmony is generally considered the first Southern shape-note tunebook.

The rise of seven-shape systems

By the middle of the 19th century, the "fa so la" system of four syllables had acquired a major rival, namely the seven-syllable "do re mi" system. Thus, music compilers began to add three more shapes to their books to match the extra syllables. Numerous seven-shape notations were devised. Jesse B. Aikin was the first to produce a book with a seven-shape note system, and he vigorously defended his "invention" and his patent. The system used in Aikin's 1846 Christian Minstrel eventually became the standard. This owes much to the influential Ruebush & Kieffer Publishing Company adopting Aikin's system around 1876. Two books that have remained in continuous (though limited) use, William Walker's Christian Harmony and M. L. Swan's New Harp of Columbia, are still available. These books use seven-shape systems devised by Walker and Swan, respectively.

Currently active shape note traditions

Although seven-shape books may not be as popular as in the past, there are still a great number of churches in the South, in particular Primitive Baptist, Independent Fundamental Baptist, and Churches of Christ, as well as Conservative Mennonites throughout North America, that regularly use seven-shape songbooks in Sunday worship. These songbooks may contain a variety of songs from 18th century classics to 20th-century gospel music. Thus today denominational songbooks printed in seven shapes probably constitute the largest branch of the shape note tradition.

In addition, nondenominational community singings are also intermittently held which feature early- to mid-20th century seven-shape gospel music such as Stamps-Baxter hymnals or Heavenly Highway. In these traditions, the custom of "singing the notes" (syllables) is generally only preserved during the learning process at singing schools and singing may be to an instrumental accompaniment, typically a piano.

The seven-shape system is also still used at regular public singings of 19th century songbooks of a similar type to the Sacred Harp, such as the Christian Harmony and the New Harp of Columbia. Such singings are common in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, and generally preserve the singing school custom of "singing the notes."

The four-shape tradition that currently has the greatest number of participants is Sacred Harp singing. But there are many other traditions that are still active or even enjoying a resurgence of interest. Among the four-shape systems, the Southern Harmony has remained in continuous use at one singing in Benton, Kentucky, and is now experiencing a small amount of regrowth. The current reawakening of interest in shape note singing has also created new singings using other recently moribund 19th-century four-shape songbooks, such as the Missouri Harmony, as well as new books by modern composers, such as the Northern Harmony. Thomas B. Malone has specialized in the revival of works by Jeremiah Ingalls, and has published a four-shape edition of Ingalls' 1805 "Christian Harmony". Malone organizes an annual mid-July singing in Newbury, Vermont, where Ingalls was a tavern-keeper and musician between 1789 and 1810.

The seven-shape (Aikin) system is commonly used by the Mennonites and Brethren. Numerous songbooks are printed in shaped notes for this market. They include the Christian Hymnal, the Christian Hymnary, Zion's Praises, Pilgrim's Praises, the Church Hymnal, and Silver Gems in Song.


Shape notes have also been called character notes and patent notes, respectfully, and buckwheat notes and dunce notes, pejoratively.

See also


  1. ^ Marini (2003) attributes them to Thomas Morley, who described a four-syllable system in his Plain and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597).
  2. ^ Kyme, "An experiment in teaching children to read with shape notes," Journal of Research in Music Education VIII, 1 (Spring 1960), pp. 3-8.
  3. ^ See Horn (1970, 7-8
  4. ^ Dick Hulan writes:

    "My copy of William Smith's Easy Instructor, Part II (1803) attributes the invention [of shape notes] to 'J. Conly of Philadelphia'."

    And according to David Warren Steel, in John Wyeth and the Development of Southern Folk Hymnody:

    "This notation was invented by Philadelphia merchant John Connelly, who on 10 March 1798 signed over his rights to the system to Little and Smith."

  5. ^ This spelling is also given in sources as Conly, Connolly, and Coloney.
  6. ^ In a history of Little and Smith's work, Irving Lowens and Allen P. Britton wrote (see references):

    "Had this pedagogical tool been accepted by 'the father of singing among the children', Lowell Mason, and others who shaped the patterns of American music education, we might have been more successful in developing skilled music readers and enthusiastic amateur choral singers in the public schools."



  • Chase, Gilbert (n.d.) America's Music: From the Pilgrims to the Present.
  • Cobb, Buell E. Jr. (2001) The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music, University of Georgia Press.
  • Drummond, R. Paul (n.d.) A Portion for the Singers: A History of Music Among Primitive Baptists Since 1800.
  • Eastburn, Kathryn (n.d.) A Sacred Feast: Reflections on Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground.
  • Eskew, Harry and Hugh T. McElrath (n.d.) Sing with Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Hymnology.
  • Horn, Dorothy (1970) Sing to Me of Heaven: A Study of Folk and Early American Materials in Three Old Harp Books. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.
  • Jackson, George Pullen (n.d.) White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands
  • Marini, Stephen A. (2003) Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music, and Public Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  • Stanislaw, Richard J. (n.d.) A Checklist of Four-Shape Shape-Note Tunebooks
  • The Missouri Harmony, or a Choice Collection of Psalm Tunes, Hymns, and Anthems. Wings of Song edition. [St. Louis:] Missouri Historical Society, 2005. Unpaginated [xxxvii, 346 pp.] ISBN 1-883982-54-5 Designed by Steve Hartman of Creativille, Inc. [1]

Journal articles

  • The quotation in footnote 3 is from Irving Lowens and Allen P. Britton, "The Easy Instructor (1798-1831): A history and bibliography of the first shape note tune book," Journal of Research in Music Education, I (Spring 1953), 32.
  • An article by Gavin James Campbell investigates the internal debate among shape note singers at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the twentieth. See Old Can Be Used Instead of New: Shape-Note Singing and the Crisis of Modernity in the New South, 1880-1910 in the Journal of American Folklore, Volume 110, Number 436 (Spring 1997), pages 169-188.

External links

Public-domain shape-note tunebooks

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • shape-note — Estilo de canto a capella estadounidense que incorpora varios himnos folclóricos y usa una notación musical especial. La escala de siete notas usada por algunos cantantes se canta sin usar las sílabas do re mi fa sol la si, sino un sistema de… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • shape-note hymnal — ▪ music also called  patent note hymnal,  or  buckwheat note hymnal,         American hymnal incorporating many folk hymns and utilizing a special musical notation. The seven note scale was sung not to the syllables do–re–mi–fa–sol–la–ti but to a …   Universalium

  • shape-note singing — U.S. a cappella singing style incorporating many folk hymns and utilizing a special musical notation. The seven note scale used by some singers is sung not to the syllables do re mi fa sol la ti but to a four syllable system brought to America by …   Universalium

  • shape note — noun : one of a system of seven notes showing the musical scale degree by the shape of the note head called also buckwheat note, character note, patent note * * * a musical note in which the degree of the scale is indicated by the shape of the… …   Useful english dictionary

  • shape note — a musical note in which the degree of the scale is indicated by the shape of the note s head. Also called buckwheat note. [1930 35, Amer.] * * * …   Universalium

  • shape note — noun Date: 1932 one of a system of seven notes showing the musical scale degree by the shape of the note head …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • List of shape-note tunebooks — Shape notes are a system of music notation designed to facilitate choral singing. Shape notes of various kinds have been used for over two centuries in a variety of sacred choral music traditions practiced primarily in the Southern region of the… …   Wikipedia

  • shape note — noun a system of music notation designed to facilitate choral singing …   Wiktionary

  • Shape-Note Singing —    See Sacred Harp …   Historical dictionary of sacred music

  • shape-notesinging — shape note singing (shāpʹnōt ) n. A traditional style of unaccompanied group singing using a sol fa notation in which the shape of the note indicates its pitch. Also called shape singing. * * * …   Universalium

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