Shape Notes

- the eight note, seven shape method -

- one for each tone of the diatonic scale -

Why Shape Notes?
Internet Articles about Shaped Notes
Shape Notes and Harmony Writing
Shape Note Publishing Solution
Publishers of Shape Note Material


There are two main shape note methods in use today. Both are usually associated with Christian music.

Sacred Harp

This method of shape note notation gets more attention, especially on the web, than the other because of its novelty and the interest of those who wish to preserve it. But this "sacred harp" shape note method only finds use in singing conventions whose main purpose is to preserve the use of this four shape method. For a discussion on sacred harp and links to other related sites, visit Ishmael on Shape Notes.

The Other Method

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. For some additional information, visit this history archive.

Some History

From SHINING LIGHT - a hymnal published in 1879 by Ruebush, Kieffer and Co.

"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. ....

"This system is not an old one, as some suppose, but is the reformed notation of a progressive age, and has been steadily gaining in public favor. Its growth, like that of the Alpine avalanche, has been slow; but, like an avalanche, it seems now ready to sweep before it all opposing obstacles. Especially of late years has it gained strength and volume, until many of the publishing houses of influential Christian denominations have endorsed it. ...

"Aside from these endorsements, however, there are many others of equal importance. Shrewd business men are beginning to discover the vast strength which this system of notation is developing, and are showing a willingness to aid and abet that system which certain musicians, years ago, pronounced a dangerous delusion. .... That character notes must eventually become the standard notation of the country is evident, and only becomes a question of time."

Shape notes never did become the standard because instrumentalists opposed them. Since our institutions of higher learning usually base their instruction methods on instruments, they see no need for any useful helps (they call them "crutches") in vocal instruction, considering them so much extra baggage. After all, they will have the vocal student for several years, not the few days available to us in summer singing schools. Most churches are willing to allow whatever music training their members will get to come from either public education or the music departments of our colleges. Yet, it is the lack of music education on the part of both our song directors and members in general that is hurting our singing the most and that is true whether the congregation is using a cappella music or accompaniment.

Very few denominations still use share notes but there are some, especially the Churches of Christ (non-instrumental) and some Baptist. Since these groups sing a cappella (without instrumental accompaniment), they see the need for helps like shape notes. Members of the churches of Christ operate several summer singing schools in the South that stress shape notes, in both sight singing and even writing harmony.

Why Shape Notes?

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 foreven 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 (and here there is a distinction between Sacred Harp) 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.

Internet articles, etc. about shaped notes

A good article about singing schools and how they teach shaped notes

Shape Notes and Harmony Writing

Writing harmony is even easier to teach, learn and use when using shape notes. As an example: the Tonic Chord (Major I) is made up of Do, Mi and So, no matter what the key of the song is. This is much easier than learning to spell the Tonic Chord in 13 different keys.

Those of us who teach summer singing schools of one or two weeks in length, have found that using shape notes allow us to present the chords quickly without the student having to waste time memorizing and grasping the concepts of spelling the chords in the different keys. Determining the chord and whether it is major or minor is so easy that it can be done at a glance by even a new student.


Shape Note Publishing Solution

One of the big problems we have faced over the years is publishing our music in shape notes. All music publishing programs used only round notes. One major music publisher had an add on solution programmed for them by Coda but this solution was not available to the general population. Coda has now incorporated shape notes into their main product, Finale (TM), which is available at many music stores. This has been the leading product on the market for years, is used by more publishing houses than any other and is required by more music departments of colleges than any other computer publishing program.

I want to express my thanks to Coda for making Finale available with shape notes. Many of us have bought Finale of late because of this capability. The illustrations on this page were done with Finale (TM).


Though Make Music (Coda) produces several fine music publishing programs, only Finale is capable of publishing shaped notes.
We also know that there are other programs by others that will publish shaped notes, but we have not found them to meet our standards.

Standard Finale (TM) 3.7 templates for the PC using the Finale shape note font
hymnals, two staff choral and four staff choral
are available for download.

New shape note font
is available for download.

Enhanced Finale default music font
with C clef and old style F clef is also available for download.

Finale (TM) 97 templates for the PC using the new shape note font
hymnals, two staff choral and four staff choral
are available for download. Last update 9/5/98.

Finale (TM) 2000 templates for the PC using the new shape note font
hymnals, two staff choral and four staff choral
are available for download. Last update 7/30/2000.

Finale (TM) 2005 templates for the PC using the new shape note font
hymnals, two staff choral and four staff choral
are available for download. Last update 8/31/2006.

Finale (TM) 2009 templates for the PC using the new shape note font
hymnals and two staff choral
Also needed is a new font file and a new font annotation file.
Last update 2/26/2009.

Click here for a sample of a shape note song using the new font.
Print the screen for best results.

Also available for download are
Times New Roman fonts at 95%, 90%, 80%, 70% and 60% width
that you can use for those words you have trouble fitting in a lyric line.

Go here for instructions on how to set up Finale to publish in shaped notes.

(TM)Finale is a Trademark of Make Music