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OPINION: Singing in shapes helped find tone

April 7, 2021 at 3:00 a.m.

As I was growing up, my family was much involved in gospel singings. For many years we were part of a regular singing gathering on Thursday nights at the old Shady Grove schoolhouse on the highway northwest of Pea Ridge. The building is still there, still serving the community. It has been a home for Extension Homemaker's clubs, numerous music venues, and today hosts an Episcopal church congregation.

We as a family also often joined in great gatherings of singers for things like the Tri-State Singing Convention, All Day Singings with dinner on the grounds, Benton County Singing Conventions at the Dug Hill Church at Bella Vista, and so on. Times have changed, and most music events today are devoted to concerts by singing groups, quartets, trios, family groups and so on. Many of these groups are professional or semi-professional, and the events may be pay to enter events. On the other hand, the events we were involved in in the 1940s and 1950s were opportunities for everyone to sing. There would be some songs by local quartets, and special numbers of various arrangements. But most of the time would involve everybody singing songs under the leadership of persons who were recruited from the audience by the designated leader (or master of ceremonies). Each leader would often call on a pianist from the audience to come play the piano accompaniment.

Quite often our convention singings had on hand the newest published gospel songbook from the Stamps-Baxter Music Company, featuring songs with the music notated with the shaped-note system. The program would have us exploring the new songbook, as well as singing other favorites and special selections. I also remember "singing schools," especially one held at Shady Grove, and taught by Mr. Sam Jackson from the Dug Hill community. The idea of singing schools was to give us a strong beginning at reading music, and to gain some experience and practice by using the knowledge we gained in some real singing. I credit that Shady Grove Singing School as getting me started on some music education. The thing was, not only did it offer some fundamental musical education, concepts and terminology, it also featured the shaped note music notation.

Across the years I have been intrigued by the response to the shaped note system by people who have been educated in music by what we used to call "round notes." Of course the "round notes" are the standard musical notation for church hymnbooks and nearly all other kinds of music. Most of the musicians I have known who were trained in the standard musical notation have had negative regard for the shaped note system, asking, for example, what good is it? Most have even been reluctant to try to understand the shaped notes. So, as I try to give an explanation here, I'm doing something I have never been very successful at. That is, I am trying to show the usefulness of shaped note music notation. So, if you are moved to quit reading here, I understand.

Music is written on a set of lines and spaces, usually with an upper set of five lines, called the treble clef or G clef, and a lower set of five lines, called the bass clef or F clef. The notes, whether round or shaped, are placed on or between, or above or below the lines. The higher on the lines and spaces the higher tone that is represented. Each line and each space has a letter name, A-B-C-D-E-F-G and repeating for the next higher level.

Middle C, which happens to be about the middle of a piano keyboard, is on a special line between the clefs, the D is the space just below the first treble line, the E falls on the first treble line, the F on the first space, and so on. In the upper clef, the spaces represent F-A-C-E, whereas the lines represent E-G-B-D-F.

In standard notation, "round notes," a note is absolute. If it is on the E line, it means play an E on your instrument. But knowing that the note is a C or D or E does not help you much in hitting the pitch needed as you sing the song. This calls for looking at keys and scales. Standard notation deals with a scale by considering Tone 1, Tone 2, Tone 3, Tone 4 and on to Tone 8 to start the next octave. If you learn to "hear" in you head what Tone 3 in your scale should sound like, then that is great. But it is here that shaped-note notation tries to help by giving the scale notes distinctive shapes.

Many will remember the movie "Sound of Music," starring Julie Andrews. In the movie, she has a song "Do-Re-Me" by which she teaches the Vonn Trap children to sing "Do -- a deer, a female deer, Re -- a drop of golden sun, Mi -- a name I call myself," and so on. Shaped note notation gives the Do an equilateral triangle shape (like a tepee), the Re has the shape of a kettle drum, the Mi has a diamond shape, the Fa is a right triangle, the La is a square , and the Ti is like an ice cream cone. With this, once you have the Do or key tone in your head, you can then sound the Mi or the So in relation to that key note. You memorize the tones by sound and shape and can sound them very readily. Also, pianists who have learned the shaped note system and have learned chords for the various keys in which their songs will be played, can play a song in a lower or higher key very easily, without having someone rewrite the music in a different key.

I don't expect to make shaped note singers out of people, but I still think the shaped note system is more respectable, more admirable and more useful than commonly regarded.

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Editor's note: Jerry Nichols, a native of Pea Ridge and an award-winning columnist, is vice president of Pea Ridge Historical Society. Opinions expressed are those of the writer. He can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected], or call 621-1621.

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