Introduction to Shape Notes

To play a musical instrument, you need where to put your fingers - an exact location.

To sing, there are no exact locations -- the relationship between the notes is what matters.

It helps to give each note its own shape.

Seven notes, seven shapes (Aikens system)
Four names, four shapes (Sacred Harp system)
In the 7-shape system, Do and Fa are both triangles, differing in the tilt; Mi and Ti are both "diamond-like" or "lozenze-like"; Re and So are both rounded, with the differentiating flat top of Re made ambiguous by its confluence with the second line of the staff; Re and La both have straight edges with right angles, but only La is completely so.

four-shape system = three primal shapes + one elegant shape

Three primal shapes

"Universe" -- Zen master Sengai Gibon (1750 - 1837)
Brushing from right to left - the master dipped into the inkwell just once.
By the time he gets to the rectangle (La), the ink is becoming faint.
Like singing a primal phrase of music with one breath.

Fa: the tonic or home base (triangle)

As singers, we don't need to know whether we are singing in the Key of F or the Key of C. But we need to begin each song by fixing the "tonic" or home-note in our minds. In the major mode, that note is always the triangle.

Key of C

Key of G

Key of D

How do I tell the 2 fas apart?

1.      The fa that starts and ends the scale (the tonic) is either in the center of the staff, or towards the top & bottom. Before you start singing, notice which position is the tonic.

2.      There is only one mi (7th degree of scale). The mi is right below the tonic fa (mi = the leading tone because it leads to the fa).

3.      In major mode, the last note in the tenor line is either the "home base" fa or (exceptionally) a sol.

Key of F: fa at top and bottom

Key of A: fa in the middle

Traditional stepwise motion

Much world music uses stepwise motion, as in this 13th Century Plainsong ("Gregorian chant") called Divinum Mysterium.

In the first line, the fas are top-and-bottom of a natural musical phrase.
In the second line, the las are top-and-bottom of a phrase.
The third line uses every note of the scale.
The fourth line has no ambiguous notes: each shape is used for a single note.

Joy To The Scale


1.  Unison

The first two notes of "Happy Birthday".

The first three notes of "Comin' Thro' The Rye".

2.  Minor second (m2) "Danny Boy" ("Londonderry Air")

3.  Major second (M2) "The Bear Went Over The Mountain"

4.  minor third (m3) "Brahm's Lullaby"

5.  Major third (M3) "Marine's Hymn"

"Michael Row The Boat Ashore"

6.  Perfect fourth (P4) "Here Comes The Bride"

7.  Perfect fifth (P5) "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star"

8.  Major Sixth (M6) "My Bonnie"

9.  Octave (P8) "Somewhere Over The Rainbow"

10.  Minor third drop (m3) (P4) "O Say Can You See?"

11.  Major third drop (M3) "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"

12.  Octave to major third "Where Do I Begin?" (Love Story)

13.  Octave to perfect fourth (P4) (important for basses)

Culver City Weekly Shape Note singing on Thursday evenings
  7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Join the announcement list (one message per week)
Santa Monica Santa Monica Learner's Group
  Introduction to Shape Note singing on the Saturday before the second Sunday
4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.

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Link to other shape note singings in West Los Angeles area
More information on Shape Note Singing in general
Local Shape Note singings around the country
Contact: David Olson (310) 410-9033 for more details.

Singing location: 4427 Overland Avenue, Culver City, California
Close to "The Spot Cafe & Lounge"