Singing shape notes

I have occasionally seen songbooks containing shape notes, and wondered what was the purpose of the oddly shaped notes. They’re positioned on the lines and spaces of a staff the same as the musical notation most of us are familiar with, and they have the same characteristics in terms of what distinguishes whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and so on. That much tells me the pitch and length of a note. So what could the shape represent?

I got to find out today at a shape note singing event held at a nearby church. The program was led by a group called Prairie Harmony, who meet weekly to sing this kind of music. After a brief introduction, we started singing, and spend most of the next three hours singing, one hymn after another. No accompaniment, just our voices singing four-part harmony.

There are only four different shapes, known as sol, la, mi, and fa. Since I’m know the do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do system, as well as the letter notation I’m more used to using, I was initially puzzled about how to make do without the do, re, and ti. I quickly realized that there are more than one of each of these in an octave (except mi, which I didn’t actually figure out until reading about it later), and I wondered how that really makes it easier to learn.

Because that’s what the shapes are for, helping someone learn how to read music. The intervals between the different shapes, or between the same shape at different positions on the staff, are always predictable. These shapes, and having only four of them (some shape note systems have more), are supposed to make it easier than just learning position on the staff.

I don’t even remember learning to read music, any more than I remember learning to read. By the time we had formal lessons in reading music in around third grade, I already knew it well enough that I found the lessons pretty boring. So I really have no idea what it would be like learning with shape notes. For me, the shape is redundant since I know intervals by the notes’ position on the staff.

But I certainly enjoyed learning the hymns. For each hymn, we started by having each section (treble, alto, tenor, and bass, with the melody in the tenor) sing its part, saying the name of each shape rather than using the words of the hymn. Then all four sections sang it through once together, still saying only the names of the shapes. (That was the hard part, remembering the names of the shapes to sing them, especially on the eighth notes where there was no time to think.)

By the time we moved on the singing the words of the hymn, I had the alto part down. That was a good thing, because not only could I enjoy the singing more, but I could manage to sing words that weren’t right under the notes the way I’m used to. In the hymnals I’ve always used, all the notes are on one staff, and the corresponding words of all the verses are below. (Occasionally a longer hymn has some verses printed separately, and those often give me trouble when I’m singing a part other than the melody.)

With this hymnal (The Sacred Harp), the words of the first verse are printed underneath the treble line, the words of the second verse under the alto line, and the words of the third verse under the tenor line. Occasionally I lapsed and found myself singing the second verse by mistake during the first verse, but mostly I managed to keep track of both words and music pretty easily.

Sometimes one of the leaders “lined out” words to a tune we had just learned. He chanted the words of each line (a sort of singing I’ve heard used in some churches but never learned myself), then we sang our parts using those words. This is how hymns were very commonly sung back when the people knew the music but many could not read, or only the leader had the hymnal (which had words, not music).

My biggest problem was that with so much singing, my throat was getting dry long before we took a break for refreshments. (I made sure I had a cup of water with me after the break.) But I look forward to another opportunity to do this sort of singing – they collected names and email addresses so they can organize more singing events.

Tomorrow in church we will have a “hymn sing” – instead of having a sermon, most of the service will be singing hymns, a variety of favorites chosen ahead of time. (In some churches people would have the chance to call out favorites, but that requires an accompanist who can play just about anything without having practiced.) Of course, we’ll be accompanied by the organ, and I’ll sing alto on hymns where I know the alto part.

But much as I love some of the hymns (I have to admit, some people’s favorites are not mine), and I’ve always liked the organ in church, it won’t be the same as today’s singing was. For me, that was a real “hymn sing.”

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