Aural Comprehension Guide

David Loberg Code          Western Michigan University

Shape-Note Singing

My grandmother, Edith Guild (who was musical, but not a professional musician), always sang with solfege syllables. Even after hearing something for the first time, she could usually sing along with proper syllables. When I was very little, I didn't notice. When I was a little bit older, I just thought it was something strange that Grandma did. By the time I was in college, I was amazed. It wasn't until I became a theory professor and starting teaching sight-singing that it occurred to me to ask her how she learned solfege. She was so delighted that not only did I know about solfege syllables; not only could I sing with solfege syllables; but I was teaching other people to use solfege (e.g., you). Solfege was not an abstract pedagogical tool to her, it was part of her childhood. (It is good to ask your grandparents about lots of things.)

This is what Grandma Guild told me. When she was a girl, the church that she grew up in (Church of the Brethren) always sang the hymns twice: first time with solfege syllables, second time with the hymn text. It was easy (she said) to learn the solfege because each syllable used a different shaped notehead. She couldn't remember the exact shapes anymore (she was in her 90's) but she knew a friend who still had a hymnal who could surely rip out a page to show me. (I tried to explain the virtues of xerox machines, but received a torn page in the mail anyway.) More recently, I have actually found my Great Grandmother's hymnal from 1901, which not only uses shape-notes, but also employs the number/symbol style of time signature found on the Rhythmic Syllables page. (If someone has more information about the origins of this time signature notation, please let me know.)

Below is the same melody as on the Mapping Strategy page, written with the seven shape-notes used by the Church of the Brethren. As a sightsinging tool, it is similar to the 'Functional Pitches' version, except that you can still read the rhythms and you can more easily distinguish each syllable.

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Shape-note singing uses moveable DO (the same as you are using) for major keys. In further discussions with Grandma Guild, I asked her about minor keys. She used LA-based minor. In other words, in minor keys, the tonic was called LA; supertonic TI; mediant DO; etc. This system is also used in the Kodaly method. When I tried to explain the benefits of DO-based minor (tonic is still DO), she immediately pursed her lips, shook her head and said "No, that's just wrong." We never reconciled on that point, but neither have numerous music theorists.

By the way, this seven-shape tradition is also in William Walker's Christian Harmony, published in 1886. There is another more common tradition of shape-note singing called 'Sacred Harp', which uses a five-note shape system that I don't particularly like and I am sure Grandma would agree.


David Loberg Code, School of Music, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI, 49008. E-mail: 
Revised: 28.Feb.99       (c) 1999