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June 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

For the Joy of It: Teaching English With Shape Notes

Tim Cook is Specially Appointed Professor of English at Iryo Sosei University, Japan. He holds an MAT in Teaching ESL/EFL from the School for International Training and a PhD in Communication Studies from the University of Alabama. Among his acknowledgments are an Emmy award for teaching Japanese on Georgia Public Broadcasting and designation as a Master Folk Artist by the Alabama State Council on the Arts for teaching shape-note singing. Email:



Many foreign language teachers have had success with getting students to sing in the target language. Others less so. Outside of certain singing cultures, such as might be found in a British pub, a South African church, or the nation of Estonia, breaking out into song is marked behavior. While there are many reasons teachers might want to engage students in song, and many reasons why students would resist it, one obvious obstacle holding back students and teachers is that learning songs is hard. Few people can read music well enough to sing it from notation, so the ordinary way to teach a song is to have someone sing it or play a recording of other people singing it. However, when listening to someone else sing, those who are not accustomed to thinking of themselves as singers will judge their ability poorly against the example. Why not just play the song and leave it at that? If one has never experienced the boundless joy of communal singing, one may not be aware of having missed anything in life.

Although few people would have ever learned this in their history, English, or even music classes in school, there is an early American form of musical notation, called “shape notes,” that is much easier to learn than ordinary musical notation. For reasons I will elaborate, the field of music education marginalized shape notes early in the field’s history. Instead, music education relies on the conventional notation of round notes that few people can read well enough to sing off the page without musical accompaniment. Shape notes are a democratizing technology that bring the ability to sight-sing to the masses so that large numbers of people with little training meet regularly to sing four-part a cappella harmony with unrestrained passion and relative ease.

This article is an attempted end run around the music education field by introducing shape notes directly to English teachers. As an active participant in a worldwide shape-note singing renaissance, I advocate for this musical tool, not only to help more people find their voice, but to make a contribution to the teaching of English as well. Shape notes are a musical pedagogy, but their customs, history, and poetry are also a cultural and historical phenomenon that presents an example of English-speaking culture not coopted by the global juggernaut of consumer culture which the world is so familiar and to which mass-marketed English language texts typically allude. Shape-note singing is an authentic culture that can be observed and studied, but it invites participation as well. Indeed, it is a tradition that one cannot fully understand without participating in it.


Excavating a cultural asset

Since the first half of the 19th century, shape-note singing has been a musical tradition existing mostly in Protestant churches in remote pockets of the rural American South, an area long suffering the stereotype of cultural backwardness. The pedagogical advance of representing musical pitch through various shapes has allowed ordinary people with no academic musical training to sing together in unaccompanied four-part harmony. This shared experience has led to tight communal bonds tended by an unbroken line of singers to the present day.

The shape-note tunebook with the largest community of singers is The Sacred Harp. At one time in the 1920s, the singing conventions of the United Sacred Harp Musical Association drew around a thousand singers each year (Cobb, 1989, p. 138). However, with the advent of modern consumer entertainments, a long, slow decline in shape-note singing followed. Aside from the occasional curiosity seeker or anthropologist, the singing had traditionally been limited to those communities that had always practiced it, and in those communities where young people moved away or shunned Old South pursuits, the tradition eventually died out. Then, beginning with the folk music movement of the 1960s, singings started to attract people entirely external to the singing’s specific cultural and religious context. While the words to songs revealed what to many outside ears were a foreign-sounding blend of severe and delightful 18th- and 19th-century Protestant theology, people of all backgrounds and of all religions and no religion started becoming avid shape-note singers. What may at first glance appear an act of cultural appropriation by outsiders has in fact been a conscious attempt on the part of traditional Southern singers to reach out and instruct new singers in new places (see a detailed account of this in Bealle, 1997, pp. 188–244). People who would otherwise have no reason to encounter each other, or may indeed actively avoid each other, feel a sense of home and family at these singings. In any typical singing, one may find a retired English teacher, a civil rights lawyer, a computer scientist, a heavy metal drummer, a Primitive Baptist preacher, a Catholic nun, a Japanese Buddhist, a Reform Jew, a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a blue-haired New Age vegetarian, and an anarchist with no drivers license, all singing with each other in uninhibited four-part harmony, each equally respected and appreciated without questioning what the singing means to the other (each type well-known personally to this author).

A perusal through the Sacred Harp website,, shows singings numbering in the hundreds of singers now occurring worldwide. The online magazine of Southern storytelling, The Bitter Southerner, described the website’s global reach.

On it, you can find regular Sacred Harp singings in nearly every U.S. state and in towns across Australia, Germany, Ireland, Japan and the United Kingdom. Want to sing Sacred Harp in New York City? First Saturday of every month on the Lower East Side. Want to sing it in Seattle? Second Sunday of every month. In Tokyo? The third Thursday of every month. (Reese, 2016)

Once on the verge of extinction, shape-note singing seems to have landed on a secure footing, even in its native South.


The logic of shape notes

While shape-note singing offers rich material for ESL/EFL teachers, the pedagogy of shape notes also presents an opportunity to teach a skill that eludes most people and even many professional musicians, that is, picking up a sheet of music and singing it from sight alone. This is the very reason shape notes were invented. Conventional notation, while suitable for playing musical instruments, was ill-adapted to singing for reasons that require a bit of music theory and history.

In the western musical tradition, assigning syllables to notes is credited to the 11th-century Italian monk, Guido d’Arezzo, whose six syllables—ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la—represented the six notes of the hexachord commonly associated with Gregorian chant. Each syllable was the first syllable of the first six lines of the first verse of the Latin hymn, “Hymnus in Ioannem,” or Hymn to Saint John. The Latin, with first syllables bolded, and the English translation are as follows:

Ut queant laxīs

resonāre fibrīs

ra gestōrum.

famulī tuōrum

Solve pollūtī

labiī reātum,

Sāncte Iōhannēs.

That thy servants may freely sing forth the wonders of thy deeds, remove all stain of guilt from their unclean lips, O Saint John. (Burkholder, Grout, & Palisca, 2014, p. 43)

The resulting notes were ut, re, mi, fa, sol, and la. Aside from the first note, ut, and the shortening of sol to “so,” the other syllables are the familiar ones in today’s seven-note diatonic scale: do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti. While the idea of the diatonic scale (i.e., comprising intervals of five whole steps and two half steps) appears as early as the Babylonians (Burkholder et al., 2014, p. 8), and is thoroughly commonsense nowadays, the seventh note, along with the idea of a seven-note scale, was “half-forgotten” (Werner, 1948, p. 8) as was much of ancient culture in general in medieval Europe. This partly accounts for the otherworldly sound of Gregorian chant, as in the Hymn to Saint John. (Listen at

The re-remembering of the diatonic scale in Europe was a slow process beginning around Guido’s time at the beginning of the second millennium. Different strategies were employed to name all seven notes, but today’s do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do, or solfège, seems to have arisen in the 16th century in Flanders (Anderson, 1979, p. 42). The seventh note was called “si,” which was apparently taken from the abbreviation of “Sāncte Iōhannēs,” or Saint John, the last line in the above hymn. In the 17th century, the first note, “ut,” was changed to the more resonant “do” with its open vowel, although “ut” is still used in France as the first note. In the 19th century, si was changed to “ti” in England to avoid two notes, so and si, beginning with the same consonant (McNaught, 1892, p. 43). The rest of the English-speaking world mostly followed suit, although many older American shape-note singers still call the seventh note “si” as they were taught in singing schools.

A separate strategy of arriving at seven notes from six began with recognition of note intervals which the Guidonian syllables facilitated (Taddie, 1996, p. 43). By overlapping hexachords beginning on ut on low G (referred to as “gamma,” or “Γ” in Greek, rendering “gamma-ut,” the contraction of which is the word “gamut,” meaning the whole range starting with gamma-ut), then C (uppercase), then the next G up (lowercase “g”), one could expand music far beyond just six notes. In 15th-century Elizabethan England, this realization was formalized into a system starting with fa, sol, and la plucked out of the gamma hexachord, then fa, sol, and la from the C, and mi from the g, rendering the seven notes of the diatonic scale, fa-sol-la-fa-sol-la-mi. As contorted as this may seem to modern sensibilities, by its own internal logic, this four-note scale is a simplification to just three notes—fa, sol, and la—sung twice, with the seventh note, mi in this case, making but an infrequent appearance, particularly in music of the time. For each set of fa’s, sol’s, and la’s, the intervals are all whole steps, creating a coherent set by which to understand nearly all the notes of any music. Although the system worked, and still works remarkably well for those who use it today, it had succumbed to the seven-note scale from the Continent such that by 1800, four-note solfège, or fasola, had died out in Great Britain. However, before its demise in the British Isles, the four-note system migrated with the British colonists to the American colonies, particularly New England, where much of the shape-note repertoire was composed. In the American colonies, and later the American nation, the system never did die out before experiencing a late 20th-century renaissance in Sacred Harp.

Shape notes themselves were not a part of this evolution of four notes in Britain or seven in Europe. They are a wholly American invention, emerging first at the turn of the 19th century in American Protestant tunebooks. The first shape-note book to appear in print was The Easy Instructor; or A New Method of Teaching Sacred Harmony, published in four shapes by William Little and William Smith in 1802 (Lowens & Britton, 1953, p. 36). Different 19th-century shape-note publishers used various shapes to represent the notes, but they all followed the same premise, that representing pitch through shape would help people learn music faster and sing it better. For most people in this period, music meant church music and in an age before pianos, organs, or any other instruments in the churches, singing was the only music there was.

The Sacred Harp, first published in 1844, is the most commonly used four-shape book to survive to the present, and its seven-shape cousin, The Christian Harmony, first published in 1866, attracts the most seven-shape singers, most of whom sing out of both books. A common feature of both, and of other tunebooks of the period, is their oblong shape and their separation of each singing part with its own staff so that a four-part song has four staves, laid out lengthwise. These and other books that follow this practice are commonly referred to as “old books.” A later shape-note tradition, also practiced mainly in rural Southern Protestant churches, applied seven shapes to the songs of both the White and Black gospel singing style. This is the “new book” tradition, with literally new books, typically small paperbacks, appearing on a regular basis. While all of these singings are born out of a Protestant tradition, and typically, though by no means exclusively, take place in houses of worship, they are outside of regular worship services. Few churches have ever actually used these books as their hymnals in their Sunday services, although certain Protestant denominations (e.g., Churches of Christ, Primitive Baptists) have historically printed their denominational hymnals in seven shapes. While crossover of old-book singers has been common between the four-shape Sacred Harp and seven-shape Christian Harmony singings, there is far less exchange between old- and new-book traditions, even though most of the seven-note singers in both share the same shapes.


A look at the shapes

Shape notes are placed on a conventional musical staff, using the same rules as conventional musical notation with its system of note stems, flags, and solid and hollow note heads to represent note duration, and a note’s position on the staff, along with sharp and flat symbols, to represent pitch. The only difference with conventional notation is the shape of the note head. What this ingenious advance provided was a way to know what to sing without having to hear it first. Below are the most commonly understood and widely used shapes in shape-note singings. Figure 1 shows the four shapes of the fasola system arranged in a complete scale.

Figure 1. Shape notes in the four-shape tradition, first published by William Little and William Smith in 1802

The seven-shape system uses the same four fasola shapes, plus three extras, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Shape notes in the seven-shape tradition, first published by Jesse B. Aikin in 1846 (Chase, 1992, p. 182)

Representing musical pitch on paper has been a challenging task from the beginning (see Gaare, 1997 for a summary of this history). The conventional system used today has a staff of five lines and four spaces with the addition of sharp and flat symbols at the beginning of the staff to represent half-step variations. Each position on a line or space represents a particular pitch that remains constant no matter what instrument plays it or whose voice sings it. While the position on the staff of a note, whether shaped or conventional, would tell an instrumentalist, or a vocalist with perfect pitch, the absolute pitch of the note, few people outside of those with a certain gift, whether trained or natural, could read a note, middle-C for example, and on that basis alone, sing middle-C. Shape-note singers, however, need not bother searching for the absolute pitch of notes. Even though the key is properly represented on the staff with sharp and flat symbols, unaccompanied shape-note singers customarily ignore that bit of information. What matters is that everyone sing the notes in the same key relative to each other, even though most singers have no sense of what key they are actually in, or what a key even is. In whatever key a song is sung, everyone recognizes it as exactly the same song, just pitched higher or lower. Singers call it “the key of convenience”; in music theory, it is referred to variously as relative solmization, tonic sol-fa, or movable-do solfège (Demorest, 2001, pp. 38–39). The tonic note is the first note of the scale—do, in the case of seven-note solfège, fa in the case of four-note—wherever in the staff the scale starts. As the tonic note moves with key changes, all the rest of the notes move likewise, but in movable-do, the sol-fa syllables remain constant. Because shape notes are a graphic representation of those syllables, the shapes remain constant as well.

This contrasts with fixed-do, in which do is always set to the fixed pitch of C. Fixed-do is in effect another way to identify the letter names of notes: Do is C, re is D, mi is E, and so on. Although movable-do is prevalent in the English-speaking world, fixed-do advocates reign in some schools and the better their students are at mastering it, the more that the movable-do of shape-note singing turns a pedagogical aid into a handicap.

As an example of shape notes and movable-do, the well-known song “Happy Birthday To You” is transposed below in seven notes. (The longstanding copyright claims to the song by Warner/Chappell Music were summarily dismissed in court in 2016 and the song was declared in the public domain [CBS Interactive, 2016].) The first version is in the key of C (Fig. 3) and the second in the key of G (Fig. 4). In both, even though the position of the notes change, the shapes do not.

Figure 3. “Happy Birthday To You” in the key of C. Public domain.


Figure 4. “Happy Birthday To You” in the key of G. Public domain.



Shape-Note Tradition

“Happy Birthday To You” is not a traditional shape-note song. It is shown here simply to illustrate how shape notes work. While nothing inherent about shape notes dictates anything other than the relative pitch of musical notes, shape-note singing comes out of a certain time and place with customs and sensibilities that old-book singings in particular defend. The music was composed by mostly self-taught tunesmiths who, as Seeger (1940, pp. 484–485) found, violated established rules of musical composition, such as prohibition against parallel fifths, unresolved dissonances, and crossing of voices. In appreciation, Seeger continues,

[H]ere is true style! There is a rigorous, spare, disciplined beauty in the choral writing that is all the more to be prized for having been conceived in the “backwoods” for which many professional musicians have such scorn, and in the face of the determined opposition of sophisticated zealots in no small number... (1940, p. 488)

Aside from a few exceptions, the music was written by and for the people who sang it. Their purpose for singing was not to impress an audience, but to reach a state of union with their fellow singers, by which they felt they were communing with God. For that reason, shape-note singers have no tradition of performing as a choir separate from the congregation. Whether in church or anywhere else, singings are explicitly not performances, they are all-day participatory events following the spirit of America’s founding. As Cobb remarks on the early Sacred Harp singing conventions,

[T]he convention was planned and regulated as democratically as possible. These rural songsters were only a generation removed, in spirit if not in actuality, from the liberating Declaration and the founding of the American way of life, with emphasis on the principle of democracy. (1989, p. 131)

Singers, whether at a local singing or regional singing convention, elect officers and record minutes of who led which song. Recorded minutes reach back to the 1800s. The four singing parts are arranged with chairs or pews facing each other and a hollow square in the middle. Each singer is entitled, but not required, to enter the square, choose a song, and lead all the other singers in singing it. The leader chooses which verses of the song, if not all of it, he or she would like sung. Before the singers sing the words of a song, the leader leads the singing of the notes all the way through, no matter how well singers may already know the tune. (The opposite is true for new-book singers, who, with piano accompaniment, almost always dispense with singing the notes first.) Everyone in attendance, of whatever background, whether old-time and accomplished singer or untrained and inexperienced newcomer, is treated equally. One with truly no ability to lead can just stand in the square and imitate the hand motions of the many singers who inevitably beat time. If even that it too challenging, the novice can simply stand in the hollow square with the book open to the song he or she requested.

Singings usually begin with the chairman (women chairs are usually called “chairman” as well) offering a welcome and brief comments, then leading the first song. Singers are seated while singing, but they are usually asked to stand on the last verse of the first song, which is immediately followed by a public prayer. After an hour or so of singing, the chairman calls a 10-minute break, which inevitably runs to 15 minutes or more as singers socialize with each other. That is followed by more singing until the lunch hour, known as “dinner on the grounds,” “potluck” in conventional parlance, where singers feast on the all the food that they prepared to share with each other. Before or after lunch, many singings, particularly large ones, hold a “memorial lesson” in which particular songs are dedicated to singers who passed away in the preceding year or who are sick and shut in. The person or pair designated to conduct the memorial lesson will read the lists of the deceased and the sick and shut-ins, give brief, but often moving comments in remembrance and appreciation of the familiar faces no longer present, then lead a song or two songs, one for each list. Before the end of the singing, or sometimes at the beginning, a short business session is held to elect officers. Large singings hear reports from the various committees: typically the finance committee; the resolutions committee; the arranging committee, which announces how many singers led; and, for movable singings, the locating committee for the following year’s location. Announcements are made by singers inviting people to other singings. This is followed by a closing song and closing prayer. Aside from the business session, memorial lesson, and announcements, there is no other program than singing, eating, and socializing.

Singers sometimes organize singing lessons, called singing schools, which in past decades lasted up to three weeks for eight hours a day and were taught by itinerant singing masters or “singing professors” (Cobb, 1989, pp. 13–14). As in the past, these lessons mainly teach the shapes, scales, modes of time, and how to lead songs, but do not focus on any kind of voice training. Singers have always brought their own unselfconscious resolute voices historically associated with shape-note singings and markedly different from performance-oriented singing. This continues to be the case for singers not raised in the milieu of Southern singings. An example can be heard in the following video of “Fish Pond,” a Christian Harmony song sung at what only in recent years has become an annual event, the Sacred Harp singing in Cork, Ireland, March 2 to 4, 2019. (See video at The song appears in The Christian Harmony as in Figure 5.

Figure 5. “Fish Pond,” The Christian Harmony (2010 Edition), Song No. 432 (Walker, 2010). Used with permission from the Christian Harmony Music Co.

One of the peculiar characteristics of old-book shape-note music is the prevalence of titles that are unrelated to the content of the song. The song “Fish Pond,” for example, has nothing to do with fish or ponds. The writers of tunes, whose names appear on the right side, often chose titles that meant something personal to them but to no one else. “Fish Pond” is named after an Alabama church where the tune writer, Albert G. Holloway, organized an annual singing for many years in the 1800s (Brewer, 1942, p. 160). The origin of many other tune names are entirely lost to history.

The writer of the text is often different than that of the tune. That person’s name appears on the left side of the song. The words to “Fish Pond” are by Isaac Watts, the 17th- and 18th-century English Nonconformist minister, hymn writer, and theologian who is often referred to as “the father of English hymnody” (Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018). The texts of Isaac Watts outnumber those of any other writer in shape-note tunebooks (Bealle, 1997, p. 230). While the stark Calvinist theology of Watts is hard even for modern Calvinists, it provides a poetic expression for the vicissitudes of life, which even in our scientifically controlled state of modernity, are seemingly random. In part for that reason, people from theological backgrounds altogether foreign to Watts and other writers of his time and in his vein still find deep meaning in their words.

The musical arrangement of songs is usually such that all four parts are equally important and melodically interesting, although some songs, such as “Fish Pond,” break that pattern with alto lines consisting of relatively fewer notes. The melody, such that it is, is placed in the tenor line, which both men and women sing, so as not to stand out above the other parts. This custom dates back to 12th-century polyphony, in which tenors held the melody, the term “tenor” coming from the Latin “tenere,” meaning “to hold” (Burkholder et al., 2014, p. 89). The higher voices, also consisting of men and women singing an octave apart, are referred to as “treble” instead of “soprano,” the latter term from the Latin “super,” meaning “above” or “over.” In this music, no one is above.


Shape notes for the rest of us

Shape notes come out a culturally specific origin that manifests in practice up to the present. It has a compelling history, sociology, literature, and musicality worthy of study and teaching from an outside objective perspective, but the ingenious pedagogy is readily available to anyone. Any tonal music that can be written in notes can be written in shape notes. This fact has been mostly ignored or explicitly rejected from the beginnings of the music education field in the early 1800s. A key person here was Lowell Mason, author of hundreds of church hymns and widely regarded as “the Father of Public School Music” in the United States for his role in establishing music in the curriculum of Boston city schools in 1838 (Volk, 1993, p. 31). Among other things, Mason was influential in the fight against the four-note fasola system, arguing that with just four notes, “singers are almost always superficial” (Jackson, 1933, pp. 17–18). He was part of a “better music” movement that elevated refined European musical sensibilities over a rough untrained American vernacular. In referring to this movement and to Mason in particular, James Keene writes,

As so often happens in America, the so-called arbiters of good taste looked across the Atlantic for their models and scorned that which was home-grown. And such was their influence, then as now, that an uncertain population, striving for cultural respectability, embraced the common practice of European art music. (2009, pp. 62–63)

Mason advocated for the seven-note do-re-mi solfège, which is still taught in American public schools today. That shapes could just represent his “better music” just as easily as the music he scorned did not overcome his prejudice of the culture from whence shape notes arose. Indulging in what could have been, Lowens and Britton write

No one who has witnessed the astonishing sight-singing virtuosity exhibited by the shape note singers of the rural South today…can possibly doubt the effectiveness of the device. 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. (1953, p. 32)

Through Mason’s influence, any consideration of shape notes as a musical pedagogy in public schools was stamped out and has not been reconsidered ever since.

The anecdotal testimony by Lowens and Britton as to the effectiveness of shape notes can be affirmed by any shape-note singer schooled in the device, but is a cry far from empirical testing. Because the academy has generally relegated shape notes to a charming folkloric oddity rather than a bona fide musical pedagogy, few scientific experiments on the actual effectiveness of shape notes have reached the academic literature. In 1960, George Kyme, referring to Lowens and Britton’s wistful hypothetical above, reported the first such experiment in the Journal of Research in Music Education. Although Lowens and Britton were referring to four-shape Sacred Harp singers, Kyme in his experiment used the seven shapes representing the do-re-mi system with which students were already familiar from regular music lessons. In 15 sessions of 30 minutes each over a three-week period, Kyme and his associates taught the seven-shape system to fourth- and fifth-grade students with no previous exposure to shape notes. His hypothesis was that “singing with shape notes will increase the accuracy of pitch and syllable naming and therefore will be reflected in the superiority of students using this method of learning to read music over those who learn by the use of the usual methods” (1960, p. 3). His conclusion was that the results of his experimental groups were superior to his controls. In short, shape notes work.

Although some, such as O’Brien (1969, p. 36) criticized the soundness of some of Kyme’s experimental techniques, no one seems to have asked if the test that he used to measure the effectiveness of shape notes was itself written in shape notes. Kyme states, “The scores used as a measure of music reading ability were the number of notes correctly sung of a song found on page three of the sixth-grade book of the New Music Horizons series” (1960, p. 5). This was a conventional music reader written in conventional notation, and despite including a graphic of a song in shape notes, Kyme gave no indication that it was a shape-note transposition of the song from page 3 used as the test.

In 1969, O’Brien himself conducted an experiment for his PhD dissertation, “An Experimental Study of the Use of Shape Notes in Developing Sight Singing.” In it, he also measured the effectiveness of teaching shape notes to elementary school children, this time with a test he referred to as “the Hammer Test” (O’Brien, 1969, p. 7). The test came from Hammer’s own dissertation on the use of the tachistoscope in teaching melodic sight-singing (cited in O’Brien, 1969, p. 1). One can assume that the Hammer Test too was in written in conventional notation; O’Brien’s assumption was that shape notes and other pedagogical devices such as numbers and the sol-fa syllables themselves “are acceptable to facilitate the development of reading, but there is strong agreement that any device is only a means to sight-singing. As such, all devices should be dispensed with when no longer needed” (1969, p. 56). To O’Brien then, the only sight-singing skill that mattered was singing from round notes.

This view of shape notes is prevalent among music educators who have cared to consider the notation. Music educator Steven Demorest, in his book on teaching sight-singing to choruses, describes shape notes favorably, but then concludes

The primary criticism of shape note reading is simply its lack of transference to reading standard notation. Since it is unlikely that all published music will be changed to shape note form, proponents of shape note reading need to demonstrate that sight-singing skills developed through shape notes can transfer to reading standard notation. (2001, p. 43)

Here we arrive at a concise statement of the predicament of shape notes. Music teachers will not teach shape notes because of the lack of music written in the notation. There is a lack of music written in shape notes because music teachers will not teach them. No matter how effective shape notes may be, no matter the potential of affording the masses the ability to sight-sing music, the field of music education at its inception consciously chose to eschew shape notes as a valid pedagogy for teaching students to sing. However, English teachers are not bound by that choice.

Although English has become the prime international language of the world, no language stands independent of the culture from whence it came. The custom of shape-note singing as nurtured in the American South, its antecedents in New England and in Old England, the invention of the shapes themselves, all come out of English-speaking culture. Anything that an English teacher considers of value in that culture can make the culture and its language more real for students.


Getting started with shape notes

To get teachers started, I refer to the shape notes placed on a scale as in Figures 1 and 2. Both the four-shape and seven-shape systems have their own advantages, and fierce advocates. Both have helped people to sight-sing when conventional notation had always been an insurmountable hurdle. Among shape-note singers, the four-shape system is prevalent because of the popularity of the four-shape Sacred Harp. If one’s interest is in participating in shape-note culture as it is, the four-shape Sacred Harp has by far the most singings and singers. Educational materials include the Smithsonian Institution’s “Smithsonian in Your Classroom” series title, A Shape-Note Singing Lesson, Grades 3-8, which teaches the four-shape system (Smithsonian Institution, 2000). One avid singer, Lisa Grayson, published her own A Beginner’s Guide to Shape-Note Singing (Grayson, 2012), which has proven useful to many a new singer. However, the seven-shape system in Figure 2 expands on the do-re-mi solfège that most children, and teachers, already know, or know of, either from school or from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ubiquitous “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music, or both. The do-re-mi system therefore may meet with more acceptance in academic settings.

From the earliest singing schools, instructors taught through a deductive pedagogy that generally followed the rudiments of music, an explanation of music that was found at the beginning of most 19th-century tunebooks. The early music education field shunned shape notes in part because of this deductive pedagogy of the singing schools where shapes were taught. Professional music educators’ new methods were more in line with what are widely regarded today as more effective inductive pedagogy, where teachers build on the students’ own knowledge and experiences (Demorest, 2001, p. 52; Kushner, 1983, p. 446). Shape notes themselves are amenable to whatever pedagogical commitments a teacher may have to teach them.

As noted above, the do-re-mi scale is already a part of students’ knowledge, so a logical place to start is with that scale as represented in Figure 2. This is in fact a standard place for shape-note singing schools to start. At the front of the room, the teacher typically has the scale in a format large enough for all the students to see (e.g., drawn on a blackboard or on large paper). The teacher sings the sol-fa syllables in ascending order while pointing to their shapes on the scale and having the students sing along. Then the teacher does the same thing in descending order. After doing that a few times, the teacher points to common intervals, such as do-mi-so-do ascending and do-so-mi-do descending.

Among music teachers today, a common technique to teach sight-singing is “sound before symbol,” as advocated by the influential mid-20th-century music educator, Zoltán Kodály (Demorest, 2001, pp. 52–53). This technique involves the teacher having students sing a song they all already know. A modification of the technique for shape notes requires two charts, one of the scale and another of a familiar song transposed in shape notes (such as “Happy Birthday To You” in Figure 3 or 4). The teacher, while showing students the song written in shape notes, sings the sol-fa syllables of the song while pointing to their shapes and having the students sing along. Next, the teacher sings the notes of the scale in ascending order while pointing to them on the scale and having the students sing along, as above. The teacher then points to the notes of the song on the scale, instead of on the song itself, and has students sing the syllables.

Techniques like these take some time to get students where they can look at an entirely unknown song and sing it on first sight. However, a mountain of anecdotal evidence, plus a small amount of empirical evidence presented earlier, show that the results are quicker and easier to obtain than with round notes. And with quicker results, students are more quickly able to tackle harmonizing songs. Even a simple song like “Happy Birthday To You” is more interesting and satisfying to sing in vocal parts.

Figure 6 presents “Happy Birthday To You” in the four-part tradition of old-book shape-note singing, arranged with the familiar melody in the third or tenor staff, taking advantage of the harmonic effect. As with “Happy Birthday To You,” the song in Figure 7, “Central Will Shine,” is not from the shape-note tradition, however it is one of the few songs outside of that tradition in which the melody is not in the top, or soprano voice. As the song appears in The Golden Book of Favorite Songs, the melody is placed in the alto line. As transposed by this author, the melody is moved to the tenor staff and the original tenor moved to alto. The resulting alto sometimes is higher than the melody, which breaks another rule that shape-note music commonly does, of not letting parts cross each other. This song is more of a challenge than “Happy Birthday” because the tune, while not complicated, is generally unfamiliar. This makes it more of a test of the ability to read shape notes. Another slight challenge is the accidental (i.e., sharp and flat) notes in the top or treble staff. On the words “All down the line,” the first three treble notes are marked with a natural sign (♮). In the key that the song is written, fa falls on D-flat. Raising D-flat to D-natural, as the ♮ symbol instructs, raises fa a half step to fa-sharp, which in solfège syllables is called “fi.” In the next measure, the same note has a flat sign (♭) next to it, which returns the fa back to fa-natural, or just fa. If one’s school lacks a school song, or the school song is unfamiliar to students, this song can serve the purpose just by changing “Central” to one’s own school name.

Figure 6. “Happy Birthday To You” in seven shapes and four parts (key of B-flat). Public Domain.


Figure 7. “Central Will Shine” in seven shapes and four parts (key of A-flat). Public Domain.


The largest collection of seven-shape songs is The Christian Harmony (2010 Edition) with a total of 672 songs. A group of shape-note singers in Germany has put the entire book online with audio clips of each part of each song, as well as parts combined, so that one may simultaneously read the musical notation and listen to a synthesized version of it (see As the website says, the synthesized audio clips do not replace singing with real people, but are offered to give an approximation of the real thing. However, this music and nearly all the rest of existing shape-note music is put to religious texts. Secular settings such as public school often use religious songs that have historical or cultural significance, which The Christian Harmony does. However, teachers in such settings must be judicious in their use of religious songs so as to not inadvertently promote a religion or religious orientation. That leaves few other shape-note sources with which to work.

To circumvent the bind of no sheet music, no instruction, and vice versa, teachers can make their own sheet music by transposing any music into shape notes. Nowadays, popular music notation software such as Sibelius and Finale allow for shape-note input and transitioning from conventional to shape-note notation and back. Except for the facsimile of the Christian Harmony song “Fish Pond” in Figure 5, the rest of the musical notation in this article was created in MuseScore, which is free and open-source software (available at While MuseScore lacks a native shape-note input feature, a free third-party plug-in offers the function.



Shape-note singing is a project that teachers can undertake to bring their lessons to life, be they lessons in history, English, or music. As the singing is a participatory activity, teaching it offers students an example of participatory learning, a move away from teaching English as a thing in itself to using English for an authentic purpose. It reintroduces into society the whole notion of music as participation. Writing in the 1930s about Sacred Harp singing, which George Pullen Jackson had termed “white spirituals,” the American poet Donald Davidson mused:

Perhaps it is not too ambitious to see in the white spirituals a possibility of breaking down the “cult of listening silence” which is an obstacle to musical development in America, and of restoring the old English genius for part-song that three centuries ago in the time of Byrd, Gibbons, Dowland, Campion, and Morley made England “a nest of singing birds.” (1935, p. 462)

People who have never sung together may not understand the gift they are missing. Shape notes can help spread that gift to everyone.



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