Shape Note Singing

(Last Updated On: February 27, 2021)

The use of shape notes started a couple of centuries ago in 1801, and for more than two centuries, it has been utilized, especially, in sacred music, though it has been used in secular music likewise. Its use started in New England and had been widely practiced in the United States’ southern region since its introduction.

How Do Shape Notes System Works?

Those who had music classes would surely admit that vocalizing a written musical piece is not an easy task for those who are not musically gifted. Reading musical notes in solfège syllables is undoubtedly not a walk in a park. Something must be done to facilitate this reading process; hence, shape notes have been introduced. Many skilled singers who have been used to shape note tradition usually manifest awesome triple mental association, meaning, they can link a note within the scale, a syllable, and shape together. This ability to associate these three factors can greatly enable a person to read music. In shape-note learning, for example, singers usually sing the syllables via reading from the shapes. Afterward, they apply these notes to the words associated with the notes.

The shape-note system’s syllables and notes are not absolute. Moreover, they are usually dependent on the key of the musical piece. The major key’s first note, for example, takes a triangular Fa that is followed by Sol, La in ascending order. In minor Key, the first note is always La followed by the notes Mi and Fa, etc.

Shape Note Singing Methods

With regards to the methods of shape note singing, there are two popular methods used today, namely, sacred harp and seven-note system.

1) The Sacred Harp

This shape note method of notation is very popular, especially, online. The reason for this is that it is more novel and some people are desirous of preserving this method. The sacred harp method makes use of a four-shaped system wherein each shape is particularly connected to a specific syllable fa, sol, mi or la. Using these syllables, notes are then sung. However, the sacred harp method is generally used in conventional singing with the view in mind of preserving the use of this method.

There are four parts of voice in Sacred Harp singing, namely treble, alto, tenor, and bass. And each voice part is printed in separate individual line. Each group of voices takes turns to lead the whole team by standing in the middle of the choir facing the tenor group with the open-palm style while singing.

Ordinary hymn tunes: Large majority of songs fall into this category. And these type of songs usually composed in four-bar phrases that sung in multiple verses.

Fuging tunes: It is typically sung by each of the four voice groups in succession through the extended passage of one-third.

Anthems: The anthems are in longer form and always been sung in single verse at once instead of multiple verses.

2) The Seven-note System

The seven-note system was popularized by Jesse Bowman Aikin in the 19th century. Born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, he successfully produced the Christian Minstrel, a songbook that utilized seven-shape note system. The Aikin system doesn’t necessarily include something new as compared to the eight-note method, saved for the seven shapes themselves—one shape for each tone of the given scale. It is a system of notation and does not include special re-arrangements as compared to the sacred harp method. At present, it is generally used by various congregations across the U.S.

Reason to Opt for Shape Notes

Most of us who have studied classical music are surely familiar with the type of music that is largely based on the popular Major Diatonic Scale. This Major Diatonic Scale has significantly been popularized in the work of Rogers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. The Major Diatonic Scale makes use of the syllables “Do-Re-Mi” and so on, and at present, this scale is the basic foundation of learning music.

On the contrary, Shape Notes—which make use of different note head shapes for every tone of the scale—is undoubtedly distinct. In the Major Diatonic Scale, each pitch is a step apart from the next pitch with the exception of the 7th and 8th and the 3rd and 4th pitches. Even if the key tone of the song alters, the actual relationships between the scale and tones do not change.

The problem, however, with this system is that students must learn and at the same time readily recognize 13 different scales to be able to sight sing in the different keys using solely the absolute pitches. With the shape-note system, however, the process of sight singing is greatly simplified.

Steps on How To Learn & Sing Shape Note Music

Although shape note system is easier than the other musical systems, it would be good to follow these three basic steps on learning how to sing using shape note system.

Step 1) Join The Shape Note Singing Choir

First, it is advisable to have a group to sing with, and for this reason, it is highly advisable for someone desirous of learning the shape-note system to join a shape-note singing choir. I am pretty sure that you would be readily welcomed by any of these choirs even if you are bereft of any musical background. Joining any of this kind of shape note singing choir will give you more leverage on learning and establish the fundamental basis on singing shape note more quickly.

Step 2) Learn Sight Reading

Second, you should teach yourself how to sight-read musical notation. At the onset, it would be good to choose a musical piece and figure out the notes and write them down on the staff. You should likewise carefully figure out the correct key signature and take note of the sharps and flats. If you continuously practice writing, you will soon get used to sight reading music.

Sight reading music is similar to reading letters of an article. Your brain learns each letter and gets used to the value of each letter and word. Similarly, if you often practice sight reading musical composition, your brain will become used to it, and it will soon become automatic for you to read those musical notations. Moreover, it is advisable to assess the measure’s downbeats instead of focusing on every note. Likewise, you should see the notations on a grand scale as you see every nuance of notes.

Step 3) Learn The Note Intervals: The steps between notes

Third, you should familiarize yourself with note intervals. These note intervals are the steps between every note. The note intervals will help you figure out the rhythm and beat of the musical composition. The word interval etymologically came from the word “intervallus” a Latin word which means “space between two ramparts.” Similarly, note intervals come to mean the intervals between two succeeding notes.

Additional Tips To Improve Your Musical Sight Reading And Shape Note Singing Skills

The abovementioned tips would surely help you learn and become adept in musical sight reading. However, it is advisable to memorize the key and time signature to get the hang of them. With constant practice on this, you will be able to notice any trouble spot while sight-reading a musical composition.

Visualization is likewise valuable if you want to harness your sight-reading skill. Visualize a musical piece and mentally scan the piece to figure out any arpeggios or fragments within it. You should not be discouraged if in some instances you commit mistake while reading because mistakes will help you learn the right way of sight reading.

Always remember that to learn and master any skill, you need to pour in time and effort into learning that skill until you become adept in that skill. If you become adept in that skill and you still continuously practice, that skill will become second nature to you. Similarly, it usually takes constant practice to make sight-reading part and parcel of your skillset.

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