puzzle piece

Click to solve our online jigsaw puzzles!

puzzle piece

How to Read & Sing Shape Note Music

Reading shape notes is a simplified way for a singer to read music. Used in the early part of American history when many singers were musically untrained, simplified notation was a way for people to sing printed music in church choirs. Since shape notes only influence the way music is printed, the way the music sounds when sung is the same as if rounded notes are used. Note that since the Aiken eight-note method is currently still being published and used more widely, discussion will center mostly on that notation.

Things You'll Need:

  • Sheet Music Using The Aiken Eight-Note Notation
  • Sheet Music With Shape Notes Using The Sacred Harp Notation

Understanding Shape Notes

Learn a little about the history of shape notes. According to vocalist.org, credit for the early development of shape notes is given to the Benedictine monk Guido d' Arezzo, born in the 10th century, who used a combination of shape notes and hand signals to help his monks learn melodies and chants for church services. The commonly known "do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do" comes from him. This method of learning notes was later adopted by early Americans in the late 1700s, as it aided sight reading and allowed for learning a singing part without knowing how to formally read music.

Understand that there are two types of shape note notation. One is called the Sacred Harp method, and the other, the Aiken eight-note method. Both are associated with Christian hymnal music. The Sacred Harp method was developed in the 1700s in New England as a way for singers who did not read music to learn to read their choir parts by using four shape notes. They are still used by various groups, including the Boston group Norumbega Harmony, although the technique has since spread from New England to all regions of the United States, as stated by Michael Beadle of Mountain Grown Music.

Realize that the four shape notes used were fa, so, la and mi. Fa is a right triangle, so is an oval, la is a square and mi is a diamond. Any key could be used with this system, as only these four shapes needed to be memorized by singers.

Know that the more commonly used shape note notation was developed in 1847 by J. B. Aiken. This system used a unique shape for each note of the scale. Do, for instance, is shaped like a triangle with a line through it. Mi is shaped like a diamond. Each note is placed on the staff lines the way they would be if they were the more traditional, rounded notes.

Realize that shape notes can be used for learning the different types of scales from C major to A major. The tonal relationships, such as whole steps and half steps, do not change.

Reading Shape Notes

Read Aiken shape notes by learning what sound is identified with what shape: Do is a triangle shape with a line through it, re is a half-moon shape, mi is a diamond, fa is a right triangle, so is an oval, la is a square, ti is an upside-down triangle and do is another triangle with a line through it.

Understand that shape notes may be used regardless of the key a piece of music is in. Shape notes are easy to read, since no attention needs to be given to where the music is on the staff line. It doesn't matter if re is on the bottom or top staff line, it still has the same sound.

Realize that tonal songs in major and minor keys and harmonies can be written in shape notes. They cannot be used for atonal music.

Singing Shape Notes

Warm up your vocal chords by singing a scale and performing other vocal exercises. If you are singing using Sacred Harp notation, it is often customary to begin a performance by singing fa-so-la-mi and then begin with the songs, according to Norumbega Harmony singer F. Stefanov-Wagner.

Realize that there is no difference between singing shape notes and singing regular notes, although music written in the Sacred Harp and Aiken notation sound different from each other. Sacred Harp music tends to have a sad, simplified, loud congregational sound to it, as it is often sung by a large group of people, while music using Aiken notation has a greater tonal range, since it includes an octave rather than just four notes.

Sing the notes as they are written on the sheet music or hymnal book. As always, listen to the other performers and watch the choir director so that you come in when needed and stay in tune with your other section members.

Our Passtimes