Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Shape of Things, part 2

Way back in July 2004 I had made a brief post about shape note music. I had linked to a site that had exhaustive information on the subject, however, I just checked it again and the site is gone now. For anyone who read my post about hymnals, the "shape note" remarks might have been confusing. Here's an example of shape note notation from a song I wrote (music only--someone else wrote the lyrics). Click to enlarge.

I understand this may look bizarre to people used to regular "round note" notation, but there is a purpose. The vast majority of church-goers are generally pretty much musically illiterate. Nothing wrong with that. Most people just never get around to learning how to read music, much less sight-read songs they've never seen before. Couple that with congregations that don't use any instruments other than the human voice, and it would be very difficult for most people to learn new songs. Shape notes are a sort of intermediate step between not being able to read music at all and being able to get a pretty good idea of how it sounds. Each shape corresponds to a specific note of the scale. Once you get the key fixed in your head, most people, even if they can't actually read music, have a pretty good idea of which notes are which in relation to the key note. This especially applies to people who have grown up singing two or three times a week during church services.

This is essentially my native tongue, when it comes to music. I first learned to read music...uh...well, I can't remember. I remember right after I learned to read (around the age or 4 or 5) I was reading some elementary church music books that my dad had picked up. But round note notation has always looked strange and, well, lacking in substance to me. I still think in shapes even when I'm only listening to music. Of course I learned to be proficient with round notes because I was in band all through junior high and high school, as well as my stint in college.

Anyway the shapes are:
Do -- Equilateral triangle.
Re -- A cup without a handle.
Mi -- Diamond.
Fa -- Right triangle.
So -- Oval.
La -- Rectangle.
Ti -- Ice cream cone.

This is the seven-shape system with which I am familiar. There is also a four-shape system that uses the same shapes for some different notes, but I'm not familiar with it. Someone explained it to me once about 20 years ago but since I never used it, I've forgotten it. The seven-shape system is, I believe, newer than the four-shape system and was developed so that each note would have a distinct shape with no duplicated shapes. Still, both systems are pretty old.

By the way, I use software called Melody Assistant. It's much easier than writing by hand, and allows one to print the music in a very easily readable typeface. In the olden days (10 years ago or more), the only way to go was to have someone professionally typeset it for you, and that cost money. Melody Assistant was not really meant for this kind of song writing, but it does have all the shapes necessary, and I've fiddled with it long enough that I've come up with a few workarounds when it won't do exactly what I want it to.

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