Shape Notes

I grew up seeing shape notes frequently. The Christian Hymnal at Upper Skippack Mennonite Church, also known as the black hymnal due to its dark cover, contained shapely notes. Yet I never learned to read shape notes. The music theory I learned involved key signatures and round notes organized on a staff.


The language of shape notes.

Recently I recalled shape notes and it bothered me that I did not know how to read them. So I did some research.

It seems shape notes are the mercenaries of musical notation. On the staff the shapes change location in relation to the key. Each shape represents movement around the tonic note. The system I saw every Sunday in the Christian Hymnal was a seven shape system. The shapes could be called: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti. So once you determine the key the tonic note becomes do.

For the song above, which is in the key of A, the shapes are translated like this:


That’s one less mystery in life.



Filed under Music

12 responses to “Shape Notes

  1. Chris

    Good research. I am all for solfeggio. It seems, though, that the placement of shape notes on a staff is redundant. I could see the utility of staffless shape notes (more efficient use of space on the page), and if you have notes on a staff with a given key signature, the solfege relationships are automatically established. Hmmm…

    I also enjoy the retro bass clef.

    With the transition to exclusively tilted-oval shapes, is modern music consequently only “so-so”?

  2. Chris

    Quick follow-up thought: I guess staffed shape notes benefit from logical accidentals and deterministic voice leading (features that would be missed in staffless shape notes)

    • As I browsed through the old family copy of the Christian Hymnal that I have, I noticed many of the songs have a small notation near the title in pencil that reads, “Key of X.” Many times this key does not line up with the key signature. I suspect these notes were made by members of my family who could not read music and needed a reminder of what note to play on the pitch pipe. . .

  3. Robert Smith

    I don’t get it. They are the same notes regardless of shape.

    What has the “do re mi ” thing got to do with it? I’ve played piano since age 10 … I’m 53. I’ve sang baritone in a chorus, quartet, and church choir.

    I still don’t get that shaped notes make a difference.

    • The shape is relative to the key, not the note. So yes, you do not need the shape if you can read traditional music. The key signature and placement on the staff will let you know what note you are dealing with. If you are not familiar with key signatures and musical theory, however, the shapes allow you to determine the pitch with just a one note reference. Here is a link to a Wikipedia article that explains the idea further:

  4. Anonymous

    For people who can sight-read music shape notes really have no purpose. The purpose of shape-notes is to make things simple for people who are not musically inclined.

  5. Allen

    Most people, even with vast instrumental experience with ’round notes,’ even if they can sight-read reasonably well on their instrument, cannot sight-sing well enough to teach themselves a new hymn. Those who can sight-sing round notes (merely by the position of the notes on the staff) cannot easily teach others to sight-sing similarly. Solfege utilizing shaped notes allows the average person who can hear and sing a scale to learn to sight-sing. As to why the shaped-notes are written on staves… I suppose it’s so instrumentalists unfamiliar with solfege can still use their instrument to learn the tune to a new song :).

  6. emily

    I love to play the old hymns on the piano, though I am not a pianist. Shaped notes on a staff helps me read the four part harmony much quicker than if I had to read the round notes, and they help with knowing which note is a black key, etc. I suppose it is easier for me as I grew up singing in a four part harmony church that used shaped notes on staves. I still prefer them.

  7. Wade

    Shape notes were designed around teaching sight reading in a compressed learning environment. They came about in the mid 1800’s at a time when book publishers were holding singing schools or “normals” mainly in the southern part of the country. They would conduct these schools both the further the field, but also to sell songbooks. they would generally hold these schools at community churches and then come together at the end of the singing school season with all of the churches participating in a “convention.” These conventions are still alive and well in the American South and Mid-West with multiple singing schools being taught all over. There are still several publishers who put out a new convention book each year with mostly new songs. The much beloved 1951 Tennessee Music and Printing Company “Church Hymnal” is a compilation of years and years of favorites that were mostly originally published in a convention book. The purpose of having the shaped notes on the staff is to accomodate both the shape note reader as well as someone who reads lines and spaces. I read both but shape notes are much simpler. and sometimes just for fun we sing the syllables instead of the words. Also transposition is much simpler with the shape notes, assuming you can read them.

  8. Anonymous

    No matter what the reasoning for shape note if you have never heard Sacred Harp singing (or four note singing) you do not know what you are missing. The Sacred Harp singers in the Applacian Mountains sing some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard. Once you hear the singing you will understand.

  9. Al Lyons

    I learned shape notes in mid-grade school, and sang in the school choir. I also took piano lessons for about six years. I never connected the two until i was about 40 years old.
    The beauty of shaped notes, to a not so good piano player, is that if you like to play in a particular key, you can transpose any song written in, no matter which key, to the key you like to play in.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s