Shape Note Notation

Shape notes are a music notation designed to facilitate congregational and community singing. Links to more information on shape note are available on the More Notation Systems Page, under the heading “Systems that use the traditional diatonic staff”.

To understand shape note, consider that there are three things related to a note’s pitch that can be represented:

  • A note’s absolute pitch
  • A note’s relative pitch / interval relationship to other notes
  • A note’s scale degree or position in the current key

In shape note the shape of a note and its position on the staff indicate its position within the key or scale, rather than its absolute pitch, which is not indicated. It works like a moveable-do system. This works well for singing because with the voice it is easy to pitch a song at any key, with no transposition difficulties like with most instruments.  The voice is the relative pitch instrument par excellence.

Most instruments are played by absolute pitch rather than by relative pitch/intervals, or scale/key degree, at least at first. Clearly shape note notation would work much better with isomorphic instruments, since they’re closer to the voice’s relative-pitch intuitiveness. You would presumably have to internalize the diatonic scales/keys on a given instrument to be able to play by scale degree rather than absolute pitch.

Combining Shape Note and Chromatic Staff Notation Approaches

One way to use a shape note approach in an alternative notation system would be to have the staff position represent the absolute pitch value and then have the note shape represent the note’s scale/key degree. This would provide both absolute pitch info and scale degree info.

This would work well for music that stays in one key, or switches cleanly at once from one key to another. It would impose the diatonic scale/key framework on the representation of music, hard-wiring it into the notation (as is the case with traditional notation). So it would impose a meaning on notes that may not be there, say if the music is drifting from one key to another such that the scale degree/position of a series of notes is ambiguous. In other words, this approach would be less neutral than just representing the intervals and absolute pitch values.