Singing & Worship

About Shaped Notes

Original article from, accessed 2/2020

In the Western World, we have all grown up listening to music based on the Major Diatonic Scale. If you can sing at all, you can sing this scale. The tones of this scale and the syllables we use for the names of those tones have forever been immortalized in "DO-RE-MI" by Rogers and Hammerstein in The Sound of Music. Just as that song was used to teach the children to sing, those same syllables are still used today to teach people to sight read music. 

Shape notes use a different note head shape for each of the tones of the scale. With the Major Diatonic Scale, all the pitches are a whole step apart except for those between the 3rd and 4th tones (Mi and Fa) and between the 7th and 8th tones (Ti and Do) which are 1/2 step apart. When the key of a song changes, some of the pitch relationships between the absolute pitches (A, B, C, D, E, F and G) change. Even though the keytone (the beginning tone of the diatonic scale) moves to another absolute pitch, the relationship between the tones of the scale do not change. 

To teach one to sight sing in all the different keys by using only the absolute pitches, the student must learn to recognize and reproduce up to 13 different scales; but by using shape notes, only one scale is learned. The only thing that changes when using shape notes is the shape of the note head. No rules have to be altered and it can be used with any music (major or minor), as long as the music is tonal and not atonal. 

The Aiken seven note system is actually used by several publishing companies in their hymnals and is in use by thousands of congregations around the United States for their main song book. This method, here called the “eight note” method for lack of a better description, does not introduce into the picture anything new that a vocal student would not already be aware of except the seven shapes themselves, one for each tone of the scale. It is a system of notation only and does not involve special arrangements as does sacred harp.

“The peculiar system of notation used in this book is of modern date, being the invention of J. B. Aiken, in the year 1847. Its special advantage over round notes consists in representing each note of the scale by a distinct character. Hence, the reading of notes is greatly simplified, and the learner finds no difficulty in singing by note in any of the keys; and this shape [that of Do] is the keynote, wherever found upon the staff.”  –Shining Light, 1879 hymnal

The C Major scale in shape notes showing both Treble and Bass clefs