Skip to main content
Topic: Shaped Notes (Read 116970 times) previous topic - next topic

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #50
I was hunting for some links to tonic sol-fa notation and luckily happened to be here. I see that even though a lot of discussion was there about 'Shaped notes' nobody even mentioned about the tonic sol-fa notation. Is that because tonic Sol-fa (and people like myself) are relics just like shaped notes? :-). I need  some information on any software that can convert staff notation to tonic and also to typeset for the purpose of preparing sheet music. NWC though does a lot of nice things, is unfortunately not doing this. For the uninitiated in this "relic", we don't use even the timing from the staff format. Just "Do, re, mi,....." and symbols like "| - : . ," to denote time. Following is an example in 3/4 time.
s:s:s      l:-:s      s:f:m      s:-:-

Following the above thread, I acknowledge that it is difficult singing pieces other than hymns with notations like shaped notes. But we have been singing fairly successfully quite a number of classical pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, Bach etc. in tonic Sol-fa notation.

Is there anybody that can help? Stephen.Hutcheson ?

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #51
well, if I've well understood, fasola, fasolami and Aiken shaped notes indicates the "degree" of the notes in the scale, that's all, and it may help people since it's a bit more intuitive than reading the key signature, see a note, and deducing its degree. But it cannot work when a key signature occurs; and one sings "do" even if it is a mi (E) because the shape indicates it is the tonic.
Is this correct?

For the sol-fa system just mentionned, this is not the same, except that (like gregorian in a sort of way) the name also indicates the degrees; here also no change of signature, and the rhythm is indicated with text items, so Notepad would be enough (as some guitar tabs).

This seems to me that it would have been possible to avoid such a system, if writing ALL scores in C major, with a little text which would indicates the real tone, as fret3 in a guitar tab indicates the E chord will sound a G chord). Each note would have been seen as its degree, since there is ONE tonality. But I don't want to create a new discussion! This is not my point.

If you want some interesting sites, a google search leaded me to:
Further searching would lead to other web sites. But these ones are already linking to other ones...

Hope this helps!
    Musically & respectfully yours

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #52
In re: this absolutely fascinating discussion, I would like to point out that searching "Early music FAQ" has quite a fascinating set of historical data from boethius, guido, up through discussions on shape notes and hand signs - plus is just an all-round enjoyable site to splurge in -
Personally, as a singer, instrumentalist and composer (choral mainly - I love voices/opera theatrical) that 2 things I notices immediately on checking out the links given, was A) the graphic aestetic usage - B} How amazingly easy it was to instantly identify chords - (theory) and as a manuscriptist that considers manuscripting an art, and is wont to "sound" anything if it looks remotely like a note on a line - I sat down and played it instrumentally - [examples given] and had no problem!  What absolute fun! Although I grew up surrounded by standard notation and nuemes (I'll go anywhere music-wise in history) - the most intriging thing I want shape notes for are the graphic/ historical usages -it's aestetic - what can I say?
BUT! Funny story here - while familiarizing myself, sitting in a coffee shop working on a graphic incorporating shape notes, I actually met 3 singers from pennsylvania - who saw what I was doing, and recognized it, thereby adding 3 new accapella friends! Hey! - it's a cultured etching - like a lodge sign! (laugh!) but also, I want neumes too, and xs' and ///! But hooray for shape notes - and thank you for letting me immerse myself in new knowledge! Jen

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #53
I've sung some of the Sacred Harp music (which I love), and seen old hymn books in a couple of shape-note styles. It's interesting, but not too surprising, that so many people still find the shape-notes useful; it's a simple and clever idea to aid sight-singing.

How about this as a Noteworthy wish: if there was an "erase note head" function, which would probably not be a big deal, we could add x's, diamonds for harmonics, and any sol-fa shape that's on an existing font, all as text additions. It would be slow, but the new search feature could speed it up a fair bit.

Headless notes would also be useful for rhythmic notation (especially with the new option for one-, two-, or no-line staffs).

Okay, I'm submitting it.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #54
I have enjoyed this line very much. I love shape notes because they are what I learned to read. They are more beautiful and easier to follow. They all have different sounds and when notes are sung it is compelling. I Can pick up a song that I haven't seen and find the tune so it can be learned correctly. I would like to find software that I can write the music to my own songs.


Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #55
A quick look at the major sites and BBS realted to shaped notes reveals that (a) they seem to be dominated by academic users, who are more concerned with history-related projects; and (b) they are not users of ordinary True Type fonts on ordinary Windows operating systems, for ordinary purposes.

Folks, if there were a widespread, substantial usage of standard shaped note symbols, then the necessary font would exist. I can find True Type fonts for Sanskrit, two kinds of Heiroglyphics, ancient Greek, and a language from Nepal. Why not shaped notes? I can only suppose that the number of persons who would really use a shaped note font, for real purposes (not academic projects, and not ancestral research) is not very large.

If there is a standard - repeat, standard - usage of shaped notes in contemporary music, where oh where is the published standard?

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #56
It saddens me that use of the shaped-note is not more widespread. Much talent lies dormant in the southeastern United States because of the incompatibility of academic music with users and readers of the shaped-note. I know of more than one naturally gifted musician with much wasted potential because of such inability to "read music". These southerners, non-academics, and rural, or a-cappella vocalists could enrich the academic environment greatly if purists were more welcoming of recent American traditions, rather than so firmly safeguarding the European heritage we have canonized- (pre-WWI American art & musical tradition of course has been pigeon-holed as mere folk art of colonists, only after we gain world power status does our artistic legacy begin to matter). As a visual artist with a background in an a-cappella-only denomination,  the shaped-note hymnal has had major impact on my work and thinking- the forms on the pages, as well as the harmony in the vocal sounds. Its impact is felt greatly by others in this region as well, and the tradition needs the support of academia if it is to be allowed appreciation and recognition outside it's currently limited niche.  APSU- Chattanooga/Clarksville,TN

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #57
There's a lot to be said about that. However, if you search the Internet for info regarding shaped note music, you mostly come across - guess what - academics, particularly in reference to "historical" gospel music.

The southeast US has Internet access. I see no reason why interested parties don't put up their own web sites, and let the rest of the world know.

A paid web site (not the free kind that has annoying ads) need not cost much, especially if its cost is shared among several users. However, you would not be able to post a lot of audio files (mp3, etc.) because those are heavy on server space. If you or someone else does set up a suitable web site, be sure that you are not paying per-bandwidth usage fees. It would be better to have an upper limit on how much bandwidth you can use per month for a low cost, than to committ to arbitrary bandwidth charges.

It would also be better if any media files were released with right to copy to other websites, without royalty, to encourage others to spread the word. The details of that would be your own responsibility.

If someone wanted to write a brief intro to shaped note music, you could publish it as PDF on the Internet, and encourage users to download and print it without limitation.

My point: Your horse can be led to water.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #58
Having absolutely nothing to do today at work, I wound up perusing this thread, and found it fascinating.  I'm not a shaped-note user, but I have plenty of respect for those who are.

One observation: it is clear to me that some folks along the way have been confused by the Solfage references in the explanations of Shaped Notes.  To folks such as myself, being I suspect those who had their primary school music training in the U.S., Do-Re-Mi does not refer to absolute pitches (as we strictly use the A-B-C system of pitch names in the US).  It is used instead as a replacement for "Tonic, Supertonic, Mediant, Subdominant.. etc." in the major scale.  Do or Re or Mi can be any pitch, until the key signature is set.

This is is not the case for those who grew up in France, or a large number of other countries, where Do-Re-Mi refers to actual pitches, independent of key.  I believe this is the explanation for many confused responses about what happens to noteheads upon transposition, and much lack of understanding about what the shapes are good for.

As I understand it, when you see a given combinations of shapes on the page, you not only know what chord is being sung, you understand which note in the chord you are to sing. This is important in churches where congregational a-capella singing is preferred. In some of these churches, use of instrumental music in the church service is actually considered blasphemous, and for these, it is vital that everyone be a very quick study on unfamiliar hymns. I have personally stood in awe while a visitor to such a church, listening to the congregation sing as good as a professional chorus, without an organ in sight.

If I understood clearly, the guy originally wishing for shape notes was needing to be able to print new music for such a congregation, or perhaps for a singing society emulating the same music.  It seems like a reasonable request, and apparently was reasonable enough that Coda added the capacity to their software.

Personally, I too would like to have "x"s for note heads. Percussion parts look weird to me without them. (I do a hidden staff with the "real" (MIDI compliant) percussion staff, but I also create single- or triple-line staffs for printing.)

Googled this font for Aiken shape notes:

Same dude's home page, has plenty good info:

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #59
The above reply is enlightening. My remarks:

(1) Yes, Do-Re-Mi meaning different things in different places IS very confusing.

(2) The blashpemy thing is interesting. I am told that there was a time when no Christian churches (there was only one, then) would play music, because the Romans liked to play music during events such as Christians vs. Lions. That changed with time, and then changed again. Where I sing, hardly anything is a cappella except maybe during Lent, and even then it would be OK to strike a tone (or chord) on an instrument to get the choir in gear. But in a place where that's a no-no, the confusion from different systems would be more severe.

(3) Most sites I've seen on the subject of shaped notes do, indeed, refer to 19th century systems, and do not indicate any common system that is "the" method used today (if such exists).

(4) Aren't there any computer programmers among shaped note singers? Well then, what are you waiting for?

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #60
I am not sure this string is even active anymore as I am reading it in May of '04 and there hasn't been a post in over a year.

However, growing up in South Mississippi and attending small churches most all of my life, shaped notes are NOT at all strange to me and seeming many of you are familiar with them.

I just wanted to point out that prior to the AIKEN system there was a system called the FA,SOL,LA  system in which the major scale would have been sung; FA SOL LA FA SOL LA MI FA with the raised seventh of the Major scale being the only alteration.

This is very interesting to note.

By the way, if your interested in more concering shaped not hymnals composed using the AIKEN system, email me at  I will be GLAD to recommend some to you that are still being published and WIDELY used in the south.

Gerald Penton

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #61
The four-shape system is older; it was devised in New England, and presupposes the sort of solmization described in the previous message, which was long used in England.  The shape notes were criticized by those who wanted to introduce the more up-to-date system used in Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century, and to encourage the use of do-re-me solmization.  The seven-shape systems, of which Aiken's is the most successful, were a reaction to this criticism.  Both four- and seven-shape systems remain in use in some circles, and latterly there has been a revival of shape-note singing among urbanites with no ties to the conservative churches that preserved the tradition through the twentieth century.

Stephen R.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #62
Having found this thread, I didn't read all to see if anyone knows of shaped note capability for composition software.  Someone has developed a way to use shaped notes with Finale.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #63
I recall seeing some sort of shaped note capability elsewhere (but don't recall where).

NWC2 (now in public beta test) has the new capability to place notes with invisible (empty) note heads. That is, you can choose to show just the stems and flags, etc. If you happen to have a font that includes suitable symbols for the heads of shaped notes, you can place them as text items at the empty note head locations.

That's not exactly the same thing as built-in shaped notes, but it's something new.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #64
Personally, I think that it's a great idea.  I've never used shaped notes, but the Xs are perfect for percussion.  Glad to har the NWC2 can do this.


Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #65
What are the chances that the generous folk who brought us the other Noteworthy specialty fonts could be persuaded to generate the fourteen noteheads required?

The Aiken system would enclude open and closed noteheads of these shapes, inscribed in a rectangle circumscribing the standard oval notehead. (The four-note systems are mostly subsets of this):

DO: equilateral triangle, base at bottom
RE: semicircle, diagonal (flat side) at the top.
MI: lozenge (equilateral parallelogram with vertical and horizontal axes)
FA: (a) right triangle, lower left half of square.
FA: (b) right triangle, upper right half of square.
SOL: (no help required, uses normal notehead)
LA: rectangle.
TI: quarter circle, center at bottom center of circumscribing rectangle.

Obviously the circular sections are stretched to meet all four edges of the enclosing (circumscribing) rectangle.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #66
S.H.: I don't work for NW, but at some time in the past I gave some thought to creating the required note-heads myself (having a font editor).

But correspondence with a handful of shaped-notes afficionados showed that nobody really cared. All of them already had some sort of specialized way of doing it. Even though they were enthusiastic about having numerous music programs handle shaped notes, nobody was enthusiastic enough to send me a precise specification for the required shapes! They couldn't have been very enthused!

Although some systems (such as the one you mentioned) are described in various net resources, none was clear about how they are used, or why.

So, I abandoned that idea. as the users of shaped notes might say, God helps those who help themselves; I didn't see much self-help.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #67
Please, please, correspond with me!

The description I gave above was intended to be detailed enough to be implementable, but I'd be happy to provide clarification wherever needed.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #68
S.H. : The link to my own web site can be found in the NWC center stage. From there, you can find my current email address (which I change from time to time).

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #69
I wanted to update the link to my shaped note page in comment #58. It has moved to:

The value of shaped notes is not evident to those who are musically trained on an instrument but to those of us who read music by just looking at it, if the notes are shaped it is a huge help.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #70
As a music editor of a 'Southern Gospel Convention Music Company', many of the comments and statements are interesting. Especially those who seem to think they are experts on the subject.  Even when they are wrong.  If you will use the FINALE program, you will find it in shape notes for DO RE MI FA SO LA TI.  It does well enough for us, as we publish music each year, and typeset our proof sheets on this program. We have a new book and CD each year.  As to you all who have questions, may I recommend going to a SINGING SCHOOL, to learn some of the History of this truly American Music.  Even if it is Southern and Christian.  This is differnt from FaSoLa or Sacred Harp, but linked by history.  Go see the James D. Vaughan Museum in Lawrenceburg Tennessee, or visit us at or email me

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #71
If you correct the spelling of, you will get to the site on Geocities. Once there, "click here to enter site" seems to be the wrong thing. Unless it is changed in the future, try clicking on the image of the spinning ball.

The site seems to sell CDs and other materials related to church music, presumably in the style described above. But it doesn't appear to be an on-line educational resource for shaped note notation.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #73
The L In SOL over the last fifty years of more, has been dropped from usage in teaching, so that all of the notes have a vowel ending.  This is more useful when teaching voice lessons, to an individual student, or to a class.

Sorry the site name was spelled wrong.  It is  We do sell music.  But we do teach in music schools, like the DO RE MI Gosepl Music Academy.  You can also access Cumberland Valley School Of Gospel Music, (They have a music company as well), and the Jeffress/Phillips music company, Marty Phillips teaches in music schools year round as a living.  Also, the Alabama School of Gospel Music, North Georgia School of Gospel Music, Heritage Music Company, etc., etc. etc.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #74
By the way, this fall will see several big Gospel Singing Conventions.  This is class singing, with a piano player, and some special groups along the way.  The 3rd weekend in August-Mississippi State.  2nd weekend September-Tennessee State.  1st weekend October-Oklahoma State. 2nd weekend October-Georgia State. 3rd weekend October-Arkansas State. 1st weekend November-Florida State. 2nd weekend November-Alabama State.  3rd weekend November-National Gospel Singing Convention @ Crossett Arkansas for 2004.  All of these big singings will have songbooks from the music publishers, (5 or 6), and you get to sing out of them, learn where some of the music schools will be next summer, and have a great time Praising God and singing songs with friends from accross the land.  Email Joe Windham, he will give you directions.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #75
Thanks for the additional leads!

Incidentally, version 2 of NWC (as of the first public beta test) allows a note (or any number of notes, selected individually), to be shown without a note-head. This allows the user to insert any font item as "text" where the note-head would be.

So, if there is a Windows True Type font with shaped note-head symbols, it could be a user font in NWC, and you could get the ffect of shaped notes.

This is not the same as in internal shaped note capability. But with practice, it would allow a NWC2 user to print music with shaped note symbols.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #76
Chomatic pitches and chords are used quite often in Southern Gospel Music, altho simplicity of style and, as I was taught, having 'natural' or easy to follow voicing of your harmonizing parts, makes the music easy to sight sing. I can remember getting a new book, and singing the notes first, then singing the words, just to make sure we would sing it right.  This we all did at home, before we would go to a singing.  This type of singing is a participation activity, not a passive one.  The chromatice scale is DO DI RE RI MI FA FI SO SI LA LI TI DO, ascending the scale, and DO TI TE LA LE SO SE FA MI ME RE RA DO, descending the scale.  Please note, these names are for the 1/2 steps between the full steps of a Major Key.  You can get a James D. Vaughan, Jeffress/Phillips, Cumberland Valley, or other basic rudiment book with this info.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #77
For more information, you may want to email, Mr. Joel McKissack, Senior Music Editor, Leoma Music Company at  Also, you may email Mr. Joe Windham at  Mr. Windham runs an information site and could help forward you to many different people.  Having grown up with this type of music, (although I studied music in school), and having a father who taught singing schools every summer, (He was a school teacher), I realize how lucky I was.  To many people, they have no idea what this is, and they always get this and FASOLA, (Sacred Harp), and Black Gospel, all mixed together and think it is the same thing.  That is like saying that Soccer, and Rugby, and Football are all the same.  They share a lot in common, and they borrow from each other, but they are unique in there own way.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #78
So that no one else will email me another question, there are no additional shapes for the CHROMATIC pitches.  You just put an accidental, (a degree modifier), like a sharp of flat, in front of the shape note and use the pitch name indicated. Example: SO (o) when sharped (#) becomes SI (#o).  The same as with the absolute pitches, that is, D when sharped becomes D-sharp.  The only time a conflict arises between shaped note relative pitches and the absolute pitches, (C D E F G A B C), is when you sharp MI or TI, or flat FA or DO.  There is no 'pitch name' altho as a musician, you would 'read' a F-flat as a E, or a C-flat as a B, or a E-sharp as a F, and a B-sharp as a C.  Since relative pitch changes with each key, where ever DO is, RE MI FA SO LA TI, fall right in line.  Please keep in mind that shape notes served as a visual aid to teach tonality, to people who did not have the time, or opportunity to study music, in what many of us would consider the Classical Western European Model.  In this, it serves the same SYMBOLIC purposes, as A E I O U does, in teaching vowel sounds to school children.  It is a visual aid, to train the mind to remember a sound with a symbol.  Some learn by intervals by lines and space on the music staff, but to the average person going to church over the last 200 years, they just wanted to be able to know how to sing, and that they could sing it correctly.  Even in those days, many clergy wanted the congregation and local community to get this basic of music education.  And after visiting some churches, reading words off a screen with no music tells me, we have missed the boat somewhere!  People seemed amazed that my family can sing, much less compose our own music.  If they would only have or go to a SINGING SCHOOL.  But, people want to be Entertained, not put an effort into something that will require them to learn.  That is the challenge.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #79
The L In SOL over the last fifty years of more, has been dropped by lazy people.  It always will and ever shall belong in the word.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #80
As I said, The L was dropped in teaching voice.  That way, in using the pitch names, you are singing all vowels.  It is not that any one is lazy, or does not want to use it.  You will find it still written as SOL in many rudiment books, but you will also find many who use it as SO.  That also makes each pitch name a two letter word.  So KETTLE, forget the lazy bit.  No lazy people I know of, since many I deal with are serious about the music they compose, and the work for God they are doing.  I don't know you, so I don't know what kind of point you are trying to make, unless it is to be picky over a petty issue.  I am sure you are just trying to point out the historical aspect of SOL having a L. Well, okay.  For us who teach voice, you sing vowels, and enunciate consonants, and thus DO RE MI FA SO LA TI are much better to use.  As to music composition, the melody and hamony make the music, and the lyrics make the message. The shape notes make the sight reading easier for those who do not choose to make music a career, or active avocation.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #81
Believe me, Dr. Bryon L. Reid know his music.  I was the Best Man at his wedding and have called him my friend for many years.  No one is more dedicated to the preservation and perpetuation of shape note music than he.

Hello, Byron.  It's great to read your treatises on this site.  Give me a call sometime soon.  I've got some great tunes that I'd love for you to set the harmony to for me.


Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #82
Senator Jimmy Jeffress is a good friend, and writes great lyrics and great melodies!  He would also make a great President!  Good to hear from you Jimmy, and enjoyed seeing you and Candance at Hot Springs.                    I have had a few emails sent to me, and thought I would say that not everyone who sings music with shape notes sings acappella.  In fact, most of the 'Southern Gospel Convention Singings' use a piano or organ for instrumental accompaniment.  While some Christian churches sing acapella as a standard practice, others sing with a piano.  It is a shame that more people in the Academic world have over looked and treated as inferior this type of music.  It is just like getting young people to listen and appreciate classical music.  A closed mind is a aurgument you have already lost.  Like Dr. Cecil Roper, and his brother Joe Roper, (both from my hometown of Hayden, Al.), I can also appreciate any music that is presented well.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #83
To all concerned,
This past weekend, Nov. 12, 13, & 14, 2004, the 74th Alabama State Gospel Singing Convention met at the Holiday Inn Convention Ctr. in Decatur.  The Holiday Inn had over 600 chairs, and ran out.  They estimate over 700 people were there, and the local paper ran an article for Saturday from the Friday Night program.  They had folks there from the Alabama School of Gospel Music/Boaz, Al., to be held at Snead State Jr. Coll. June 6th thru 17th, 2005, as well as Texas School of Gospel Music and North Georgia School of Gospel Music.  Six music Publishers had song books there, Cumberland Valley, Gospel Heritage, Jeffress/Phillips, Leoma, Speer, and Texas Legendary.  Next year, the Convention will be held at Shocco Springs, near Talladega, Al., which is A Baptist Church retreat.  They have 1300 motel rooms on site according to the information given at the convention.  For those of you wanting to learn something about the seven shape note music, this is a singing convention you must plan to go to next year.  You will make contacts with people from Texas to North Carolina, and many people in the Music Education field and in Church work, who also participate in Southern Gospel Convention Singings.  See you at the National Gospel Singing Convention next weekend in Crossett, Arkansas, Nov. 19th, 20th, and 21st.  May God bless you all, everyone.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #85
I just found this site and was happy to find my family name as a "leader" in promoting shaped notes.  From a musicians' point of view, I find it easier to read and transpose music when using shaped notes.


Seriously, thanks for this site.  It's good to know there are others who want to preserve this system of music and allow others to be aware that shaped notes are alive and well.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #86
I have used shaped notes since I was old enough to read and they are a lot easier for me to use when I sing than are the round notes.  With the round notes it is harder to tell if the note is full step or a half step.  With shaped notes it is easy.  My folks were too poor to afford music lessons, but I was able to learn to read music in church singing schools.  I probably could not have learned enough in the few lessons that I got if I had to rely on the lines and spaces to sing the song.

I have sung in a choir that used the round note music, and I could sing with the round notes by relating them to the shaped notes, but it is harder.  Many Churches of Christ use only a capella and every song book I have ever seen from the Churches of Christ uses only shaped notes.  I think a lot of the Baptist Churches are the same, but probably not so much in the North.  From what I have seen, the shaped note tradition was most active on the rural Western Reserve in the early 1800s and was preserved in the 1900s in the Southern churches.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #87
Be sure to look at version 2 of NWC. The program allows "headless" notes, and you can place your own note head shapes. A font with the correct shapes, and automation to do it, is now available. The method is only for changing the appearance just prior to printing.

Re: Shaped Notes

Reply #88
To anyone who cares the church i am a memner of still uses shaped notes. We sing the notes to songs everyonce in a while. We key everysong you know like Do Sol Mi Do or La Ti Do Sol Mi Do pending on the key. Ihave taught one singing class. I am trying to write some songs but i can't find a computer program w/ shaped notes. If you would like totalk or have any info my email is or Thank you