Learning How to Sing the Notes

By Ginnie Ely (October 2009)

Learning to sing the shaped notes is very much an individual proposition. Not everyone can learn to do it the same way. Some people see the shaped notes on the page and can easily sing the name of the note when they see it. For others all this shape-note business is an extra distraction if they already know how to read music. For yet another group of people who have no musical training, the shape-note thing is just another mystery to be unraveled. My question to all of you is: do you really understand why we have the shape-notes and how they relate to each other and to the degrees of the scale?

The old time singing masters originally taught the notes to their singing school classes without the use of a special notation. Our four-syllable system was brought over from England in the 1700s where singing masters had been using this method for many decades. Repeating the scale over and over in both major and minor modes was a part of the lesson. The parts for new tunes would be taught by ear by singing the syllables that represented each note and their relative intervals in relation to each other. By the time this music made its way to New England in the 1700s many people who had been taught in this manner knew the notes and their relationships in their head. This tradition continued in New England as the singing masters continued this method of teaching.

Printing of the notes in shapes on standard music paper, thus giving the singers visual cues to match what they already knew in their heads, began when William Smith and William Little published The Easy Instructor in 1801 in Philadelphia. Thereafter, singing masters could teach singers how to read unfamiliar music using the shape-notes. No prior musical training was necessary.

What follows here is a description of how I learned to sing the notes. This method may work for some people, but not necessarily for all. Still, I have observed that many new singers struggle with learning the notes, and maybe this will help.

In the beginning I just tried to sing fa whenever I saw a triangle, sol for round notes, la for the squares, and mi for that little diamond. I had learned to read music by playing the piano and by singing in school and in our church choir. But actually getting the relationship between the shape-notes or the reason why the notes fell on the page in the order that they did was still a mystery. With the encouragement of well seasoned singers that I had met at the National Convention back in the early 1980s, I set about trying to teach myself to sing the notes without using the printed page just as singers had done two hundred years before.

I had a forty-five-minute commute to work each way five days a week. Much of that commute was on interstate highways. It is not a good idea to lay the book across the steering wheel while driving, so my task was to do it without the book. At first it was just singing the scale, both up and down many times, and doing the same with the minor scale. Then I would take a very familiar tune, like OLD HUNDRED (p. 49 top), give myself a starting pitch, and then struggle to sing the notes. At first I made mistakes, but by singing the scale again, and testing the syllables I chose for the tune notes against that scale, I began to be able to sing OLD HUNDRED quite accurately. There were other tunes that worked well. Songs like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat", and then songs I knew well from hymn singing before I became a Sacred Harp singer, like CORONATION (p. 63). I print the scale here so that you will have a frame of reference while you are reading this paper.


There is a definite advantage to singing in your car. No one else can hear you so you are free to make all sorts of mistakes and no one will know. Singing the scale and then singing various intervals helps. When you can pick out what makes up a third (notes between, say, the home tone (count that as no. 1 of the scale) and 3 notes up (no. 3 of the scale), that works out be fa and then la and you have sung a third. There are many other thirds. Thinking of the scale as fa sol la fa sol la mi fa, you have a number of thirds. Beginning at the bottom and moving up, fa la, then sol fa, then la sol, then fa la, and sol mi, etc. The trick is to visualize this in your head while driving the car. And then keep testing your ear as you sing it.

Besides practicing thirds, there are also fourths. Again looking at the scale printed above, those fourths would be fa fa, sol sol, la la. Do you begin to see some logic here? What does a fifth look like? The easy one is fa sol. And the triad would be fa la sol. If you sing these over and over long enough, then the autopilot in your head will begin to be programmed such that when you pick out another favorite tune, something you sang at the last singing you attended that is stuck in your head, the job of figuring out the notes becomes much easier.

Since this method of singing is key independent, it doesn't matter what pitch you set for yourself as the starting note for the scale you want to work in. Just pick something that isn't too high or too low for the range of your voice. Sing that scale over and over to make sure your voice is happy and to cement it in your head. Then try to remember it as you drive along and sing your favorite tune so that you keep coming back to the same notes during that half hour or so. Once you can remember that starting note, the rest will become easier.

Weeks will pass, maybe even months, but keep at it. And each time you attend your monthly singing (or however often you are able to go) keep trying to read those printed shapes. The relationship between what you are doing in your car every day and what you see on the printed page will begin to become clear.

There came a time, maybe after six months of working at this, when I realized that the Muzak (TM) from the grocery store was coming back at me in shapes as I walked out to my car. Think of singing the Beatles in shapes.

Ginnie Ely (ginnieely@gmail.com)

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