Shaped Notes: Interesting Facts on Music Notation

Shape-note singing, a musical practice and tradition of social singing from music books printed in shape notes. Shape notes are a variant system of Western musical notation whereby the note heads are printed in distinct shapes to indicate their scale degree and solmization syllable (fa, sol, la, etc.). Since 1801 shape notes have been associated with American sacred music, specifically with singing schools, with musical conventions, and with all-day gatherings known as “singings.” Denounced by critics as uncouth, the simplified notation has persisted in the rural South, where it continues to form the basis of strong traditions of church and community singing.

The solmization system used in shape-note singing can be traced to Guido d’Arezzo, an 11th-century Italian monk who assigned the syllables ut, re, mi, fa, sol, and la to the six-note series—or hexachord—that corresponds to what are now recognized as the first six degrees of the major scale. Use of these syllables helped singers keep track of their place within a melody, especially when sight-reading. In 16th-century England, singers discovered they could operate effectively with only four syllables (mi, fa, sol, and la). English colonists carried the four-syllable system to North America. Meanwhile, on the European continent, the hexachord was expanded to seven syllables, one for each note in the major scale (in Italy, do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and si). The seven-syllable system ultimately prevailed during the 19th century in England and America. Shape notation has been adapted to both the four-note fasola and the seven-note doremi system.

shaped notes pic 1
Shape notes, also called character notes or patent notes, are one of many notational innovations that, like solmization syllables, attempted to make sight reading easier. (Others included the tonic sol-fa system of Sarah Anna Glover and John Curwen, popular primarily in Britain.) The four shaped notes—a right triangle for fa, an oval for sol, a rectangle for la, and a diamond for mi—were invented by Philadelphia shopkeeper John Connelly about 1790 and made their first appearance in The Easy Instructor (1801), by William Little and William Smith. Over 200 different shape-note tunebooks were printed in the United States between 1801 and 1861, most of them eclectic collections including strophic hymn tunes, odes, and anthems from a variety of American and European sources. Pennsylvania and the Ohio River valley were early centres of shape-note publication. Many shape-note books included “folk hymns” (tunes drawn from oral tradition, harmonized by the compilers or other local singing teachers, and underlaid with sacred texts).

shaped notes pic 2

Beginning with Jesse B. Aikin’s Christian Minstrel (1846), many tunebooks were printed in seven shapes, representing the seven syllables of the doremi system. Aikin’s seven-shape notation achieved wide use in the southern United States, where it was adopted in some denominational hymnals. After the American Civil War, singing schools and shape notes became increasingly identified with the South, while declining in popularity in other regions. Many teachers switched from the four-shape system to a seven-shape system to keep pace with new teaching methods. Leading teachers and publishers established “music normal schools” for the training of teachers. Southern firms such as Ruebush-Kieffer and A.J. Showalter began to publish small collections of music every year or two. These upright songbooks gradually began to supplant the large oblong tunebooks and their fixed repertoire. After 1900, mass-market publishers such as James D. Vaughan, V.O. Stamps, and J.R. (“Pap”) Baxter printed one or more books a year of music that was largely used at singing conventions and, consequently, is known today as convention gospel music. (See below Current practice.) These songs, almost always in major keys and intended to be accompanied by the piano, imitated the popular songs and dance tunes of the Victorian era.

While shape-note gospel music cultivated a constant supply of new songs, the standard 19th-century tunebooks changed much more slowly, retaining their oblong format and repertoire, while enshrining themselves in the rural culture of the South. The Sacred Harp (1844) in particular, supported by county and regional conventions in a number of Southern states, kept its four-shape fasola notation and a large corpus of New England psalmody, fuging tunes, spiritual songs, and revival choruses in several 20th-century editions. Other early tunebook survivals include The Southern Harmony (1835) in western Kentucky, Harmonia Sacra (1832/1851) in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, The New Harp of Columbia (1848/1867) in East Tennessee, and The Christian Harmony (1867) in several states of the South. All of these books became the focus of all-day church homecomings and community singings and of a ritualized practice whose distinctive features include: seating by parts, facing inward in a “hollow square”; rotation of leaders, whereby each leader stands in turn in the centre of the square, selects one or more songs, and leads the singers by keeping time with a simple motion of the hand, unaccompanied by instruments; and “singing the notes” (singing each selection using the fasola or doremi syllables prior to singing the lyrics). Prayers, observances in memory of deceased singers, and a shared “dinner on the grounds” add spiritual dimension to a day devoted to music, family, and community.

Current practice

These traditions attracted the attention of scholars and folklorists, such as George Pullen Jackson and Charles Seeger, as well as of American composers such as William Schuman, Virgil Thomson, Alice Parker, and William Duckworth, who incorporated melodies from shape-note sources into their works. They also attracted folk music enthusiasts outside the South. Spurred by appearances of Southern singers at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival (in Newport, R.I.) and other events, singers from the North and elsewhere began in the 1970s to organize Sacred Harp singings, based on the Southern model and often aided by visiting Southern singing teachers. Since the formation of a National Convention in 1980, Sacred Harp singing has continued to spread to cities and college campuses in almost every U.S. state, as well as to Canada and the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, the tradition has suffered a slow decline in the rural South. Shape-note gospel singing, which once threatened to overwhelm the tune book singings, similarly has declined since the late 20th century. While some conventions emphasize performances by amateur and professional quartets, traditional community singings persist in many areas.

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Technology and the Music Student

Our current generation of music students and parents are involved with technology in a variety of ways. Guest blogger Kathy Schmidt, a music teacher, musician, and member-in-good-standing of Ontario Registered Music Teacher offers some great insights into the various examples of technology she has embraced in her music studio. Her insights are inspiring for everyone!

“Technology and the Music Student”

Kathy Schmidt Pic

I can vividly recall the day in the mid-80’s, when I explicitly said, “I’ll never use a debit
card”, and I also remember when the computer at University of Waterloo ,where I did my
undergraduate in Science, took up an entire building! When we relay these experiences to our tech savvy students, they can hardly believe it.

In my case the next question to follow is, “How old are you Kathy?”. Ugghhh!!! The reality is that our music students are living in an ever increasing technological world. As a piano teacher I firmly believe that in order to engage our students, we must keep up with them and even be one step ahead…if not, we will lose students.

My modern piano studio is well equipped with Apple TV to mirror from my Macbook and
iPad. My studio iPad is loaded with APPs that include quick sight reading exercises, flash cards, rhythm games, note naming, melody and harmony Apps, Apps for composing and jamming, one App for loading my music so that I no longer have to carry paper scores, hand-eye coordination Apps, finger numbers, technique and theory. This list goes on….. I also have a desktop computer for students to complete theory assignments while they are waiting. As well as regular keyboards, I have an Axiom 39 key keyboard which plugs into my iPad or Macbook so I can accompany a student with 250 voice combinations and drum tracks etc…. Wow!

I must admit that I use practically all of it each and every lesson! And….I no longer have to make my own flash cards and board games (although sometimes I still do…kids love board games!). Some people could argue that all of this technology is just gimmick and that this could all be distracting from what really matters in the music education of a student. Really? Did you catch what Apps I use? At a quick tap I am able to incorporate so much into the lesson…far more than years ago, when it was just me, my acoustic instruments and a huge library of scores. Don’t get me wrong, I still use these as well, but the great thing about technology is that it is available to everyone and I can encourage students and their parents to download free Apps or very inexpensive ones so that all of these concepts can be assigned each and every practice day. That way the student is reinforcing lots of musical concepts every day rather than just once per week at lessons.

With the use of technology students who live in remote areas or who would normally
have to miss a lesson due to a cold can now be taught over the computer using Skype or other programs such as Internet Midi. Piano examinations through Conservatory Canada can also be done using computer technology. This has been great for students who want to play an exam outside of the the set February, June and August time slots.
Communication has improved immensely between myself and my students’ parents.
They and I are just a text away. Parents can video the student using their phone and send it to me outside of their lesson time to make sure they are practicing correctly. I can reply briefly and quickly and give instant feedback. Lesson plans and notes are emailed with links to websites, performances and other activities. My website has the calendar for the month, featured students and performances, a blog centred around practicing and other “at home” musical activities. I can send out announcements and give a heads up regarding changes to the schedule. Now no one misses out on any studio information!!

I rarely hear the complaint, “It’s so difficult to get my child to practice”. I can structure
each practice day so that the student has a lot of variety besides working on their pieces. An App such as MyMuCo assists the student in keeping their week organized and is a wonderful motivator. With all the demands placed upon kids who are active, one cannot rely solely upon an organized mind and memory. What better way to ensure musical growth and productivity than by using technology in the studio and home to keep all the “ducks”, I should say, “notes” in order! Then we can celebrate with our students and hear comments such as, “piano is so fun, it’s not work mom and dad”! Of course we know it is work, but technology can disguise this fact and help the student to integrate it all into their daily lives and routine….just like “brushing your teeth”.

So if in the next decade I am asked discard my debit card for a microchip in my arm…I
think I’ll be ready to embrace it!!!

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Interview with The Modern Musician Show

Modern Musician Show

Colin Thomson is a great friend of MyMuCo! Colin is a talented music educator, is a music educator with a busy music studio, and is also operator and host of the podcast “The Modern Musician Show”.

This podcast features musicians and the various music activities they are involved in. Colin is a great host and asks some excellent questions to help not only feature the various activities of his guests but also to help his audience to learn and grow in the process.

Ian Green sat down with Colin for a feature interview, “Making Music Practice Fun and Effective”.

Thank you for the great opportunity for the feature interview Colin!

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It is a pleasure to introduce our readers to guest author Dave Orrett, music teacher and entrepreneur. He has many interesting insights related to music education. In this article, Mr. Orrett touches on short-term vs. long-term goals. How does a students view these important aspects of the learning process? How does a teacher view these aspects of the learning process with their students?

Dave Orrett Pic


As a Music School Director (and former teacher of 15 years) I’m often asked for advice on how to set up a child to succeed in music education. What are the obstacles he or she might face and how can we help that child overcome them? There are many of these, of course, including motivation, parental involvement, relating to the style of music, self-sufficiency and more. But today, I will focus on a big one and go into some detail in the hopes that it will help.

As adults we have had life experience teach us about the value of longevity, perseverance, and long- term goals. It is important that we differentiate this from a child’s point of view. Simply put, most children cannot see much beyond the now. This doesn’t mean they can’t theoretically grasp the idea that they are working on something now in order to enjoy it in the future, but mostly they truly respond to things that stimulate them today. Grown-ups might spend 5 days hurting at the gym a week in order to be ready for beach season months away, but the idea of “short-term pain for long-term gain” is only a concept to a child and not one which will likely be sustainable or successful.
So then, how do we teach music to a child which includes the critical balance of short-term fun with long-term building of technique, music theory, etc.? I like to use the expression “Hide the broccoli inside the mashed potatoes.”

When I was young my mother would literally do just that to try and get me to eat my broccoli. First, she would try things like “You need to eat this broccoli to grow up big and strong”, but at 8 years old I frankly didn’t care. Then she tried the technique of “You can’t have your cookies until you eat your broccoli” which was better but still fell short because, while it got me to eat some broccoli, I still hated and resented every minute of it. Finally, she had the best trick of all. She would put a little broccoli inside some mashed potatoes and a touch of gravy. I honestly barely tasted it! I consumed the broccoli and didn’t mind. (Whether I ended up growing up big and strong is up for debate haha.)

I believe music education (including practicing) is much the same. If you tell a child they need to practice scales in order to one day have better hand technique and theoretical comprehension of what key a song is in, this will almost certainly not inspire. If you tell them they need to do well on their scales in order to enjoy passing an RCM exam, that will help but they will still resent the sunny days spent inside going over those scales. Now, if a skilled teacher can teach a child a song they are excited to learn, but secretly include passages of scale technique required to best perform the song, THAT will almost certainly work.

As a parent at home you can also play a role here. The first and most obvious one is to communicate with your child’s teacher about what music most inspires your child and what tends to excite them when practicing at home. This will allow the teacher to better understand what “mashed potatoes” are to your child in their preparation of a lesson plan. You can also show enthusiasm to your child at home during practicing time about what they are learning. When Mom or Dad likes something it makes it instantly more fun and relevant to a child, and will further disguise any accidental lingering broccoli taste!
Of course, as in life, there is no one-size-fits-all solution in music education. Having said that, I sincerely believe that proper understanding and application of the concept of balanced goals, as well as the need to hide long-term goals inside the joy of short-term ones, will go a long way towards helping your child enjoy a lifetime of music.

More information can be found on my blog post entitled “10 Tips to Help Motivate Your Child to Practice”

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How Does MyMuCo Work?


Over the past few months, it has been fun sharing a variety of articles related to music education. Such topics have been discussed:

  • the efficacy of music lessons in the lives of music students
  • when is the best time to start music lessons for a young student
  • guest blogs

With this in mind, it is important to share what we are currently working on at MyMuCo. We enjoy sharing information and articles on various topics related to music education, but some of our audience have been asking about what is important to MyMuCo as a company?

To help answer these questions, here is an introductory video:

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How To Motivate Students to Practice, an interview

Donna Schwartz Pic

Recently, MyMuCo founder and teacher Ian Green, along with his student Elise Pridmore, sat down with online radio host Donna Schwartz. Donna Schwartz is a talented musician, music educator, and online radio personality. Her podcast, on BAM Radio, touches on various topics related to music education.

Click here for the interview.

Click here to learn more about Donna Schwartz.

Thank you Donna for this amazing opportunity!

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Being Involved Counts On Many Levels


In a recent post, guest author Wilson Man offered comments on the importance of how parts should be involved in the educational process of their child. Just like any skill such as sports, math, reading, and writing, music also requires a lot of time and attention from the student, the teacher, and the parent in order to achieve success. In particular, the most successful students are those that had positive parental involvement from an early age. The formative years of music education are the years in which practice habits (both good and bad) are formed.

MyMuCo had these particular ideas in  mind when creating the concepts surrounding the MyMuCo apps. For example, Students and parents can offer feedback in the comments section of the MyMuCo KIDS app. This feedback is shared with the teacher when the MyMuCo Teacher app and MyMuCO KIDS app are synced at the next lesson. In addition, students keep track of their practicing while working through the various activities of the app while creating a strong framework of positive practice habits while reading the comments from their teacher.

Thank you Mr. Man for your insights!

To learn more about MyMuCo, please visit


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