Shape note

From Academic Kids

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 United States.


Shape notes

The idea behind shape notes is that the parts of a choral 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:

Missing image
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 off of 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 not tied to particular pitches (e.g. fa to C); rather, they depend on the key of the piece, so that the tonic note of the key always has the same syllable (here, fa), and similarly for the other notes of the scale. Some refer to this as a moveable "do" system.

Four-shape vs. seven-shape systems

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, 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. Aiken, the notes of a C major scale would be notated and sung as follows:

Missing image

For other seven-shape systems, see

Users eternally debate the relative merits of four- and seven- shape systems. To an outsider, the seven-shape system seems more logical: since every syllable and shape corresponds to just one note of the scale, there is less ambiguity. Yet the four-shape system may be said to have its own virtues. Because there are fewer shapes, they are easier for most people to read from the page. Moreover, the assignment of multiple notes to three of the shape/syllable combinations is less pernicious than one might at first think, since the two pitches assigned to each ambiguous syllable/shape are set apart by a fairly wide interval (a perfect fourth), and are moreover harmonically related. In any event, even the seven-shape system is slightly ambiguous, since it does not specify the octave in which a note is set.

The effectiveness of shape notes

Do shape notes "work", in the sense of actually facilitating the learning of music? 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 probably feel that the shapes are of no help at all, though the task of learning to use them might perhaps be enjoyed as a novel musical challenge.

A fair comparison would take the form of a controlled study, using experimental subjects who are young enough not to be set in their ways. Just such a study was carried out in the 1950s by George H. Kyme (see reference below), 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 quite a bit better than those taught without them. The results were statistically highly significant. Remarkably, Kyme found that the students taught with shape notes were also far more likely to pursue musical activities later on in their education.

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 1000 A.D. with the work of Guido of Arezzo; other early work in this area includes the cipher notation of Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the tonic sol-fa of John Curwen.

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. 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.

It was asserted by Andrew Law he was the inventor of shape notes. Little and Smith did not themselves claim credit for the invention1, but said instead that the notes were invented around 1790 by John Connelly2 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 Mason3. 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. Aiken 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 Aiken's 1846 Christian Minstrel eventually became the standard. This owes much to the influential Ruebush & Kieffer Publishing Company adopting Aiken'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

The shape note tradition that currently has the greatest number of participants is Sacred Harp music. But there are many other traditions that are still active. 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 growth. The present-day shape note revival has also brought about the institution of new singings from defunct books, such as the Missouri Harmony, as well as new books by modern composers, such as the Northern Harmony.

The "seven-note" system has a cappella singings of a similar type to the Sacred Harp, such as the Christian Harmony and the New Harp of Columbia, but is also used in numerous "gospel" or "Southern gospel" singings where musical instruments are used (most often a piano). The participants in these gatherings sing old gospel songs like "Sweet By & By" and "Shall We Gather at the River". Although "seven-shape" books may not be as popular as in the past, there are still a great number of churches in the South that use hymnals that are printed in the "seven-note" system, both in church services and at singings. Singers at Christian Harmony and New Harp of Columbia singings usually "sing the notes", as is done at Sacred Harp singings. In gospel seven-shape note music, the notes (syllables) are normally only sung during the learning process at singing schools.


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


  • Note 1: 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."
  • Note 2: This spelling is also given in sources as Conly, Connolly, and Coloney.
  • Note 3: 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."



  • A Checklist of Four-Shape Shape-Note Tunebooks, by Richard J. Stanislaw
  • America's Music: From the Pilgrims to the Present, by Gilbert Chase
  • Sing to Me of Heaven: A Study of Folk and Early American Materials in Three Old Harp Books, by Dorothy D. Horn
  • Sing with Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Hymnology, by Harry Eskew and Hugh T. McElrath
  • The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music, by Buell E. Cobb, Jr. 2001, University of Georgia Press.
  • White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands, by George Pullen Jackson

Journal articles

  • The learning study by George H. Kyme described above was published as "An experiment in teaching children to read with shape notes," Journal of Research in Music Education VIII, 1 (Spring 1960), pp. 3-8.
  • 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.

See also

External links


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