Regarding Shaped Notes

If you’ve done any congregational singing among more traditional American churches, chances are you’ve run across something like this at some point:

ShapedNotes-01

Instead of customary note heads, every pitch has a unique shape. Ironically enough, a trained musician may find this system disconcerting because they may have never encountered this method of notation in any other setting. These note shapes are based on the seven basic scale degrees, and each shape represents one of those pitches.

ShapedNotes-02

seven shapes for seven basic pitches

A Little History

The seven shape system of notation is not very old and is usually credited to Jesse Aiken. In fact, many music manuals and notation software applications refer to these notes as Aiken Note Shapes. His 1846 book The Christian Minstrel brought shaped notes to spiritual music, and, while gaining little traction overseas, the seven-shape system became very popular in the United States — particularly in southern states. Four-shape notation can be traced a few years farther back but never gained the popularity of seven-shape notation.

In their original form, shaped notes were supposed to be self-sufficient. Aiken’s books would contain simple time signatures and no clefs or key signatures. Absolute pitch was considered unnecessary when singers could easily see the relative relationship between notes through Aiken’s system. (Remember that a capella singing was more prevalent in congregations of the 1800s than today.) Today, some hymnals use a hybrid system where absolute and relative notation is combined.

ShapeNotes-03

We Shall Overcome – traditional notation

ShapeNotes-04We Shall Overcome – Aiken notation with clefs/key signature

Lowell Mason — a name that is probably familiar to many Christian musicians — would later seek to eliminate shaped notes from Christian hymnals, but they were too firmly entrenched. Some northern hymnal publishers have abandoned shaped notes in favor of traditional European notation, but Aiken notation is still popular among southern hymnals.

Shaped Notes’ Worth

I’m not a fan of shaped notation. I find it a distraction from what I already know about music. On the other hand, another member of the congregation I attend swears by it. He has limited knowledge of modern music theory, but he can sight-read almost any song with Aiken notation. So when are shaped notes appropriate to use and teach?

  • If you’re teaching in a music curriculum, vocal or instrumental, I’d avoid shape notes altogether. Most choral music does not use them, and instrumentalists rely wholly on absolute pitch. The note shapes would provide no benefit.
  • Note shapes can be useful in teaching sight singing. In the 1950s, Gerorge H. Kyrne carried out a study that Aiken notation is more effective in teaching vocal sight-reading than traditional notation.
  • If you’re writing music for professional musicians or any instrumentalists, don’t use shaped notes. They will only distract from what these musicians already know.
  • If you’re writing music for congregational singing, shaped notes may be appropriate. Individual music publishers will often have the final call, but, if you are independently writing for a single congregation, check their hymnals and use the system to which they are accustomed.

Shaped notes are an interesting footnote in American music history. The Aiken notation system is one of the very few musical innovations unique to our hemisphere. While they remained limited to a specific musical culture, they enabled whole groups of people to experience and create music they might have otherwise been too daunted to try.

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