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The primary step in learning to sing by the use of shape notes is learning the So-Fa syllables. These syllables are Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do. The old-timers put the syllables So and Fa together for a shortened way of describing them.

The present system of singing names for the tones of the scale developed from what is known as the Guido System of Syllables. An Italian named Guido (990-1050) took the first syllables of the first word of each line of a poem and came up with Ut-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La. He applied these syllables to the tones of the scale that was known then. Later Ut was changed to Do and another syllable called Se was added, giving the scale seven syllables called Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Se. Do was repeated after Se to give a full octave. This is the scale many early American composers and publishers used. The syllable Se was later changed to Ti to give a smoother sound pattern.

There have been other changes in the syllables and the shape notes which accompany them. The syllable Sol has been shortened to So, making all syllables uniform in spelling, ending with a vowel.

An early variation of the syllables was Sacred Heart singing, used in the South. It had only three syllables Do, So, and La.

The early shape notes (diagram #1) had stems which came out of the center of the note. Present day shape notes have the stems on the edge, as do regular round notes.


In songs written in shape notes, there are four voice parts. Most songs written in regular round notes also have four parts, but can have many more. The four most commonly used parts are soprano, alto, tenor and bass.

The soprano and alto are higher parts written on the treble staff for women’s voices, but men sometimes sing the soprano part an octave lower. The soprano part is always the lead part carrying the melody, except where a special effect is desired. A song-leader always sings soprano while leading.

The tenor and bass parts are lower parts for men’s voices. They are written on the bass staff.

The four parts are shown in diagram #9, arranged in the proper position on their respective staffs. (Here is another change. The plural of staff was formerly staves.)

The Basics

The following image depicts the lines and spaces of the staff and their respective numbers.

Diagrams depict the location of the below symbol called the Treble Clef and Bass Clef.

Reference: A clef (from the French for “key”) is a musical symbol used to indicate the pitch of written notes.[1] Placed on one of the lines at the beginning of the staff, it indicates the name and pitch of the notes on that line. This line serves as a reference point by which the names of the notes on any other line or space of the staff may be determined. Even more about Clefs.

An empty Treble and Bass Clef Staff.

What are those numbers on the staff?

Answer: Time Signature.

Because music is heard over a period of time, one of the main ways music is organized is by dividing that time up into short periods called beats. In most music, things tend to happen right at the beginning of each beat. This makes the beat easy to hear and feel. When you clap your hands, tap your toes, or dance, you are “moving to the beat”. Your claps are sounding at the beginning of the beat, too. This is also called being “on the downbeat”, because it is the time when the song leaders hand hits the bottom of its path and starts moving up again.

Don’t worry about notes right now we will discuss them later on.

What is a measure?

Answer: American term, equivalent to the English term “bar”, signifying the smallest metrical divisions of a composition, containing a fixed number of bets, marked off by vertical lines on the staff. What?????

Let’s break it down. The vertical lines on the staff are called “Bars”. The distance between the bars is called a measure. Reference our time signature diagram above.

The common term meaning bar or the lines drawn perpendicularly across the staff to divide it into measures. The barline came into use in music after 1600. Other variants of the barline are the double barline and the final barline.

What about some of those other symbols like notes and rests?

The above chart shows the notes and rests whole through a sixteenth. The diagram below shows how they might appear on any staff. Reference the time signature diagram to see how the staff would appear without a rest.

In the diagram the staff lines are removed for the sake of clarity. Note the 4-4 time signature and the quarter notes. Notice the straw skimmer hat looking half rest which takes the place of two quarter notes. Note also no sound for the those two beats.

A Whole Note

A Half Note

A quarter Note Rest

O. K. I think you get the point you can do the math.

Let’s start putting it together.

We can see the Staff, Treble Clef, 4-4 time signature, barline, and the shape note scale. What about that “do” that is off the staff? What is going on with the stems? some point up and some down.

What about that “do” that is off the staff?

Answer: A ledger line or leger line is musical notation to inscribe notes outside the lines and spaces of the regular musical staffs. A line slightly longer than the note is drawn parallel to the staff, above or below, spaced at the same distances as the notes within the staff

What is going on with the stems? some point up and some down.

Answer: For single-note melodies, the stems usually point down for notes on the middle line or higher, and up for those below. If the stem points up from a notehead, the stem originates from the right-hand side of the note, but if it points down, it originates from the left.

I have included two diagrams to help explain the diagram above showing the the do, re, mi scale. The first diagram explains notes that are on the line or between the lines. The second diagram explains the notes and the corresponding keys on a piano key board.