Shaped Note Music

“For God is the King of all the earth: sing ye praises with understanding,” —Psalm 47:7  Did you know that in the early 1900s people used to attend special schools during the summer so they could learn to sing?  These singing schools operated mostly in the southern part of the United States, but a few northeastern and other states held singing schools during that era as well.

These schools were unique because the only thing taught was how to sing and read sacred music.  Students learned to read music by using shaped notes and the songs they sang were very special too.  They only sang psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs just as the Bible tells us to sing in Ephesians 5:19.

Although music is generally taught very differently today, the tradition of shaped note music and the songs of Ephesians 5:19 still remain.  Singing schools still take place, mostly during the summer months in states like Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi.  In addition, new songs are constantly being written and printed in songbooks that are published annually and used at the singing schools.

The goal of the singing schools is not only to teach people how to sing in four-part harmony, but also how to write songs of praise to God.  The people who promote and operate the singing schools understand the importance of suitable music for worship, so they also teach students how to conduct and lead music so they can be a help and a blessing in their home church.

People, young and old, travel from many states to attend these singing schools, and they often come back year after year.  Sometimes parents even attend with their children because they enjoy learning to “...sing with the understanding...” (1 Cor. 14:15) as a family.  Long lasting friendships are made with the teachers and many other students who also enjoy praising God together in four-part harmony as well.

Helpful Information

-Sometimes people use the word, “solfege” or “solfeggio” instead of the phrase, “do-re-mi” when describing shaped note music.  All of those terms refer to the use of the sol-fa syllables to name or represent the tones of the scale, as the scale of C.

-The term, “moveable do” means that the “do” and subsequent solfege moves according to the key a song is written in.  For example, if a song is written in the key of C, the solfege starts with “do” on C.  If a song is written in the key of F, the solfege starts with “do” on F.  

-If a note is changed to sharp or flat, it changes the syllable name too.  As you learn more about shaped note music, you will learn about these changes and other fascinating things that make the music that is sung so easy and fun to learn.

Things to Learn

  1. In the key of C, what is the letter name of each syllable starting with “do”?
  2. What are the four vocal parts used for singing a shaped-note song?
  3. What is the difference in the melody and harmony part?
  4. In what section of the four vocal parts will you generally find the lead part of the song?
  5. Draw each of the shapes and label each one with its proper name.
  6. Draw a sharp, flat, and natural sign and label them.
  7. Explain what direction a sharp takes a note, what direction a flat takes a note, and what a “natural” does to a note. 
  8. Draw a quarter note, half note, dotted half note and a whole note.  Label each one and tell how many beats each note would get in 4/4 time.  (Shaped notes or standard notation can be used.)
  9. Find a simple song written with shaped note music and learn to sing each of the four parts using the syllables.  For more fun, you can gather some friends, find each person’s part, and sing the song together in harmony.