Volume II, No. 1, Fall 1974

Singing With So-Fa Syllables

By Jim Baldwin

Photos by Robert McKenzie, Drawings by Jana Low

"Do                     Do,"
    Mi               Mi
       So         So
           Do Do   sings the teacher of the singing school. All the pupils take their pitch, sopranos high Do, altos Mi, tenors So and basses the low Do. The voices unify, making a chord. The teacher holds his hand upraised until everyone finds his beginning pitch. The pupils, also with hands raised, await the signal to begin. When the teacher's arm lowers for the first count, everyone sings through the song first with So-Fa syllables, following the spirited tempo of the leader, all keeping time with the down, in, up arm movement pattern of 3/4 time.

"Good" compliments the teacher.

"Now you know the notes, let's sing the words." Once more he sets the pitch beginning with high Do. By the last session of the singing school, everyone can sing through the new gospel song correctly in four part harmony.

Once singing schools were a common occurrence in most every community in the Ozarks where everyone from babies to grandfathers attended daily for two to three weeks for music instruction. Most of the instruction in teaching music was learning to read the notes by their shapes, rather than their position on the staff. When the singer saw a , or Ti, he would know immediately what pitch to sing. This type of singing was called shape note singing to distinguish it from round note singing that later supplanted it.


Today singing schools and the use of shape notes are departing the scene, but they are not completely dead yet. A few people in the South and Ozarks continue holding schools, especially some church groups which continue the early tradition of emphasizing total congregation singing as a means of worship. In our community two schools have been held in the past two years in local Churches of Christ. BITTERSWEET staff members accepting the warm hospitality of the two groups and the singing school teacher, Richard Nichols, were privileged to attend both schools to share with our readers another carry-over from the past, still holding on in the modern Ozarks.

However, Richard Nichols has witnessed in the past few years a rapid decline in singing schools. "I hate that," he said. "It's sad because it's such a good thing for the people. Not just certain talented individuals, but everyone can enjoy it."

Why the decline? "I really couldn't tell you unless it's just a lack of interest." But he has seen people who couldn't read music, after learning the shape notes, pick up a song written that way and sing it through perfectly. Some of these people have even become singing' school teachers.

"The beauty of learning shape notes," he told us, "is you can pick up a song you have never seen before and you are able to sing it. Because of the aid of the notes, it's easier to learn the song quickly.

"It's a feeling of accomplishment when you can pick up a new songbook and sing the songs through. I'm talking about brand new songs, and I mean four parts, all the people, the whole congregation.''

He then told us how he felt about using shape notes. "I'd like to see people impressed with the idea that it's a tool or an art a person can learn in their youth and use all the rest of their lives. I feel it's an aid for us to worship God, so I feel it's very important."

(above) Howard Meents sings and beats time. (below) Everyone learns to beat time so they can lead a song.


Singing schools were started to fulfill a definite need. The tight schedules of the crowded one-room schools allowed for no music instruction. But the Ozarkians have always been a musical people. They have enjoyed music, and many played quite well by ear. Even so, they wanted more formal teaching.

They also wanted to learn music that they could use in their church services. Most churches emphasized good gospel singing as an important part of worship. Being very religious, Ozarkians wanted to "sing a joyful noise unto the Lord."

Singing schools were once an integral part of life in the rural community. Held as often as once a year, or as infrequently as three years or more apart, they were always anticipated, for they were a time of fun and fellowship, as well as a time to learn.

Unfortunately, such is not the case today.

There are several factors that have contributed to the decline of singing schools. They are intertwined to such a degree that it is nearly impossible to separate them.

Our increasingly mobile society has done nothing to help the plight of singing schools. With most households having at least one car, people in remote communities must no longer wait for an occasional singing school to come to their community to participate in music education.

With radio, television, phonographs and tape systems readily available to today's people, music is there at the turn of a knob or the flick of a switch, turning us into a nation of spectators. This has hurt singing schools, because singing demands participation.

The thing that has hurt singing schools the most is the move away from shape notes. Shape notes were used mostly in gospel and folk songs, which were not taught in public schools. (Only recently have folklore classes been offered.) The teachers in public schools received their background for teaching in colleges, and colleges did not teach shape notes either. Therefore, when school attendance became widespread, there were many children not learning shape notes.

Sonny Gay leads the singing: "O'ershadowed by God's wondrous love..."

Shape notes began to lose their importance when musical instruments for accompaniment became widespread. An advantage of shape notes and one reason singing schools used them was that using the notes allowed the songs to be pitched so it would be comfortable for all the singers. To use a musical instrument and do that simultaneously would be extremely difficult, for the instrument is pre-pitched. That is, the pitch may only be raised or lowered within a very narrow range, as compared to voice. On a piano or organ it is impossible to do this without an extensive and time-consuming returning. Since instruments are used more, the leader gets his predetermined pitch from the instrument. The printed shape notes have started to function like regular round notes.

Singing schools have, over the years, evolved from community affairs which everyone attended into specialized affairs which teach shape notes and music rudiments to congregations of certain denominations such as the Churches of Christ that continue using songbooks written in shape notes.


An Early Singing School Experience

Following our own advice ("Go Ask Lois," Volume I, No. 1, p. 18), we asked Lois Beard about the role singing schools played in people's lives in the early 1900's. (Interview by Jim Baldwin and Ellen Massey.)

You don't know what it is to try to receive an education in three weeks until you have attended an old-time singing school. The music teacher that we had most often in this county was Professor J.W. Dennis who was raised in Laclede County, but went to Oklahoma and lived many, many years, but he always came back to teach our singing schools and he would stay several months in the communities teaching at one place and then the other. Singing schools usually lasted three weeks. But he really taught you the music in three weeks. I have never had the opportunity to attend too many, for you can see by this picture (see photo p. 8) I wasn't very big in this one, but it was a wonderful thing.

We did have others that turned out to be very successful teachers here in our own county that went to school to him, but he stayed with it the longest, through the most number of years and taught the most number of pupils, I would say.

As you can see from the picture there was all age groups. They went from my grandmother to me. Grandmother was real old and I was only a child in this picture. But they all learned. They learned to read the shape notes or the lines and spaces. I prefer the lines and spaces because I can't just say Do, Re, Mi every time I look at a note and tell what it is, so I read the lines and spaces because I didn't go as far in his music teaching as others. Mr. Dennis always carried a baton, a Do-stick. He kept time and he was very, very strict on time. That was one of the greatest things he taught because if you lost time in music, you'd lose it all. But we did learn to sing and he didn't sing just this old-time "Nearer My God to Thee." He sang the fastest, liveliest songs of any one in the world and he wanted all four parts when he started one, too.

In the old time singing schools, they'd have it three weeks and they'd teach it usually in the daytime if it were through the winter after our grade schools were out. At this stage of the game, this was in nineteen and seven, we would usually have a fall term and then a spring term, and we'd have a dull spell in the wintertime with no school. And that's when he usually came to teach. He would teach three weeks in the daytime. That was a lot of time spending a whole day singing. We'd take our lunch each day, and on the last day we'd have a big dinner when everybody came and we sang all day long. Now sometimes they'd teach a night school if there was school going on in the community.

This way the whole family would go? The whole family would go.

Did everyone look forward to it?

Was it fun?

Yes, yes, great. It was not only a good time socially and a fellowship that was enjoyed, but it was a something of learning. And after we had one of these singing schools, you'd be surprised how many nights that groups would gather in the homes and sing until the wee hours. Our home was always an open house for it because we had an organ. It was very enjoyable. And we knew when we made a mistake that way. If we hadn't had the learning, we wouldn't have.

Did you have to pay any kind of tuition?

They usually gave him a freewill offering, a donation. I can remember a few teachers other than he that you would take a subscription and a family could all go for a certain fee. If there was a half dozen they all went, the father and mother and all the children, and they all went on the same price, but usually they just gave what they wanted to give.

What would it amount to, do you know?

I'd almost have to guess that, but it wouldn't be very much. Now he'd get his board free because he would stay with the people in the community, and it wouldn't cost him anything. But I would say that $10 a week would be a fair guess---$30 for three weeks.


What were the subscriptions for families?

I would say a dollar and a half for the whole family for three weeks.

Did they just have it during the Week days?

Yes, not on Sundays. On Saturdays we'd go, yes. But not on Sunday. They all went to church on Sunday.

About what time would it start?

Just like your regular school, about nine o'clock and run till about four in the afternoon.

Men could go because there wasn't any farm work?

Not a lot in the winter. That's the reason it was a good time in the daytime. You know people didn't used to stay up as late as we do now.

Did you have any accompaniment?

Oh yes. We had an organ. In a school like this we'd take our organ from our home or someone else would bring it and leave it there the whole three weeks.

Would you always have accompaniment or would you sing without?

Either way. We'd carry the organ in the back of the hack. The back seat of the hack would come off and you just set that seat off and put the organ in it and hauled it over there. It wasn't hard to do and everybody was willing to do their part.

Did the teacher use a tuning fork?

Well, he could. And I've seen him do it many times, yes. They had to go lots of places where they didn't have an organ.

After the big dinner of the last day of the Morgan Singing School, January 22, 1907. The arrow points to Lois.


Would they usually hold them in churches if they had one?

They didn't always in all the places. It would depend on--if the leaders of the church were interested, they were at the church, but if they weren't, they held them at the schoolhouse.

What kind of songs would they sing? Mostly hymns?

It would be hymns but not the old, old hymns. He taught a lot of songs--a lot of his teaching was from company books like Vaughn Music Company and they were fast. I mean they put the pep in them. They weren't draggy songs. And he was one person, this teacher was, and most of them were, they could sing the old time slow moving songs but didn't like them.

Each person learned to lead a song. Did girls do it as well as the boys?


Did he deal mostly with the men? Was there any difference?

No. I really don't think there was. I know what you're driving at, because in early days there was a difference made. A woman stood back more. The women didn't step forward and do the things they do now, but when we had an organ it was always women that played.

The women were equal in the singing then?

Yes. They have to be taught and you have to have it equal or you couldn't have a good quartet. And that was one thing this teacher stressed was to have all four parts and make a good quartet showing, or double quartet and have the whole congregation balanced.

Were the people pretty evenly divided between the parts?

Yes. It was the parts that made the good singing.

And the women would lead the singing too?

Yes, even little girls. Everyone had to lead a song. I can remember one that I wasn't old enough to go to school. I'd say it was about nineteen and nine or ten that he came here and I went to the singing school that was held in the daytime. When they went to have the last day, of course, everybody was going to direct a song, I mean with a Do-stick. But oh, they'd practiced me at home on my song. They just drilled and drilled me on that. I couldn't read, see, I couldn't read the words, and they had taught the words to me. I had the one song all memorized for I'd been singing all the way through that three weeks. And when I got up and called my number, my mother held her breath. They all just took a long breath and like to fell over, for I just directed another song completely. Didn't call that number, sang another song and didn't miss a note!

Was this the number that would be at every singing school? About 50?

About that number.

How did people dress when they went to these schools?

Now they usually went about like they are there in the picture for they were going some place.

Like church?

Yes. It was an occasion to dress up. That's another thing that we've gotten away from a little bit is the pride. It didn't make any difference where you were going you were supposed to be proud enough to dress up and be in nicest clothes.

What other kinds of music did you used to have?

We had all kinds of music, but we didn't have it in school like they do now. When times began to change and we began to have cars and could go places, this way of teaching sort of died down and we began to have our teaching more in the schools. But we kids there in that picture, there was never any of us that was privileged to go to high school.


How often would you have a singing school in the same community?

I'd say sometimes we'd have one every year, because there was a demand for that type of learning in that day and time. It was one of the things of yesteryears that has been appreciated I think the most of any one thing we ever had in the community. We appreciated the church services, but it wouldn't have been church services without good music, and that was the only thing that really we needed music for, only in the homes, for we didn't have any occasion to have it anywhere else. People were more in a way---more musically inclined. I don't mean to criticize, but there was more music in that music than the rock you hear now, and it had more depth to it and it stayed with you, I think. I don't mean to be partial or critical, but to me there's so much music today that doesn't have any meaning and music should have meaning to it. It should leave you with a better feeling. Music is something that can cure the ills you have in life, It is something that is soothing to the nerves, it calms you down. There's something about music that's an outlet in your life. You can get by on a lot of things, you can work off a lot of problems with music.
Photo taken about 1939 at a folk festival in a bluff shelter near St. Joe, Arkansas

Photo by Townsend Godsey from "There Were The Last."


Do you think that music played a greater part in everybody's lives then than it does now?

Yes, I do. I'll tell you why. I think that now television has taken the effort away from us. We sit down and lazily relax in front of a television program instead of the outlet we have of our own. That isn't an outlet to sit and listen or watch, or I haven't thought it is. I don't know whether you agree with that or not. But the thing I'm trying to put over is this. Music, if we participate in it, takes care of that problem. We all have our blue days. We all have our moods, I don't care who they are. I know what you used to do on the farm, Ellen. You'd get out, sowed grass seed or something, worked it off. But we have those things in our life that we have to cope with and we better learn as we're younger how to cope. Music is a great way. It's one of the best I think. Now I think all sports are wonderful, but as you get older sports are gone. You can't participate in them. I couldn't go down here and do very much ball playing even though I played ball as a kid like nobody's business and enjoyed it, but I couldn't do that now. But you can participate in music as long as you live if you get to be a hundred. It is an outlet.

There are more or less three generations here today. Do you think the young people like Jim are using music more than my generation?

Yes, but not as much as my generation. As Jim gets a little older I think he'll appreciate it more. Right now at his age he has a lot of other things and he doesn't have to rely altogether on his music, but, Jim, as you get to be twenty-five or thirty and on up, you'll begin to realize that you did a wonderful thing when you learned to play all those instruments. As you get older you won't want to be as active. I don't walk to the top of the hill now as often as I used to. You have to find ways to fill up your lives. And if you keep busy and find something in your life that you can get something out yourself, why it's such a wonderful thing to do. If you've got a musical talent, you'll push that. That talent is what keeps you wanting to do it.

A Singing School Education

The teaching in a singing school covers a wide range. It must be simple so youngsters can learn the basics, but there are more difficult topics for the more knowledgeable persons. This section will try to present the type of material taught in a singing school.


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.

diagram #1


There have also been some changes in teaching the music. Many teachers now say sextuple time instead of sextuple for 6/4 time. Most people accept that the staff has five lines and four spaces, but it used to be taught five lines and six spaces, counting the spaces above and below the staff.

Regardless of how much or how little change is involved, many people, and especially singing school instructors like Richard Nichols, are quick to recommend the shape notes.

"To avoid using shape notes, I don't see any point to that," he said. "i would advise any congregation or group to learn the shapes."


The scale is the basis for all music. It consists of a family of seven tones, with the first tone or key-tone being repeated an octave higher (see diagram #2). There are different scales for different keys. To find a new scale in a new key, go up a fifth for sharps. The old So becomes the new Do. For flats, go down a fifth with the old Fa becoming the new Do (diagrams #3 and #4).

In the scale there are five full steps and two half-steps. Between tones 1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 5-6, and 6-7 can be heard another tone, midway or a half-step between the two. However, between tones 3-4 and 7-8 there is only a half-step. The syllables show this. The third tone is Mi, and the seventh Ti. Both end in an "i." This indicates that the next pitch will only be a half-step higher, while another vowel indicates a full step.

The chromatic scale is composed of all half-steps between the key-tone and its octave-higher interval. As you can see from diagrams 5 and 6, the notes are called different names ascending and descending. A sharped La is called Li, while a flatted La is called Le. You can also see that Le is the same interval from Do as Si. They sound the same pitch however, as do Ab and G#, the pitches they represent in the key of C, or the natural key (no sharps or flats in the key signature).


One of the advantages of using shape notes (without an instrument) is that they allow the range of the voice parts to be placed where it is neither too high for the sopranos nor too low for the basses, the extreme parts. Placing the range in this manner is called pitching.

Singing school teacher Richard Nichols explains the half step between Mi and Fa.


To pitch a song, use the notes of the Tonic Chord, or the arpeggio of the key. The tonic chord consists of the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 8th tones of the scale. However, since the 1st and 8th tones are called by the same name, we can say that the chord is made up of Do, Mi, and So. Disregard any note not in the chord. If the high note in the soprano is a Fa, the note used for pitching would be Mi, unless there are many Fa's. In that case, it would probably be best to use So.

There are five rules for pitching.

1. Look for the high soprano tone of the tonic chord.

2. Pick the correct pattern (diagram #7). The pattern is determined by the high soprano note. Pick pattern #1 if the high note is Do, #2 for Mi, and #3 for So.

3. Look for the low tone in the bass. The two bottom notes of each pattern are in parenthesis because they may not be used.

4. Begin sounding the pitches in the pattern in order from the highest to the lowest, making adjustments so all voice parts will be comfortable.

5. Come up to the beginning pitch of the soprano. If the soprano does not begin on a pitch in the tonic chord, come up to the pitch which is closest. For example, if the starting pitch is Ri, you would come up to Mi.

Major chromatic scale in shape notes

Many song leaders use a tuning fork as a basis for absolute pitch (diagram #8). A tuning fork is simply a prong-shaped device which, when struck, sounds a certain pitch. It tells them if they are near the correct pitch. If they are too far off, they should re-pitch the song. Also, many song leaders who have low voices check to make sure their pitch has not dropped too much.


diagram #7

diagram #8



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.)

Diagram #10 shows the parts used in a male (barbershop) quartet. There are two tenor parts, a baritone part, and bass. The tenor parts are written on the tenor staff. The notation for the tenor staff is the same as the treble staff, but an octave lower. The tenor staff is shown in relation to the others in diagram #11.


The name of the staff is determined by the clef sign. There are three clefs (formerly claves) used in singing. The treble clef centers around 2nd line G, the tenor clef around 3rd space C, and the bass clef around 4th line F.

"Jesus taught me how to smile," sing the sopranos. "Jesus taught me to wear a sunny smile," sing altos and tenors. "Christ taught me to smile," sing the basses.


Immediately following the clef sign is the key signature. This tells you the key tone of the scale. If the key signature is in sharps, find the last sharp and go up one half-step. This will tell you the key-tone. For flats, find the next-to-last flat. This names the key-tone. Another way is to find the last flat and go down a fourth. (Using the flat as the first step, count down four steps.)


After the key signature is the time or measure signature. It consists of two numbers, written like a fraction. (Example: 4/4.) The first number indicates how many beats there are per measure.

The second number tells which note gets a beat. A four indicates a quarter note receives one beat, an eight indicates an eighth note gets one beat.

Beating time helps you feel the beat, thus enabling you to read rhythms better. It also helps keep everyone together, and keeps them from rushing or dragging the tempo. If you do happen to get off, the song leader is beating time too, so you can look and get back on.

There are different patterns of arm movement for different time signatures. The simplest pattern is down, up (diagram #12). The time signature will be either 2/4 or 6/8 (two or six beats per measure, with a quarter or eighth note receiving each beat). The pattern for 3/4 time is down, in, up (diagram #13).

"To Christ be loyal and be true, and he will be your friend .... "


This pattern is also used for 9f8 time. The most common pattern is used for 4/4 and 12/8 time--down, in, out, up (diagram #14). The most complex and least used pattern is that for 6/4 time (diagram #15). Down, in, up, down, out, up. Kind of tricky.


Breathing is very important to good singing. You must have good projection and proper breath support, or a song will get draggy and die.

Richard Nichols used this exercise in Singing schools to increase lung capacity and breath support. While standing, inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, inhale, and count aloud fairly slowly to about 25. Repeat__inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, inhale, count this time to 35. Now that you are warmed up, repeat again inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, inhale, and count as far as you can without sneaking another breath. On two nights that we did this, I was the "champion," counting once to 55 and another time to 70.

As a supplement to this story, side I of our sound-sheet (see Music of the Ozarks II, page 59) features shape note singing at Lee's Summit Church of Christi All the songs on the soundsheet are from the songbooks Golden Sheaves and Heavenly Sunlight, published by M. Lynwood Smith Publications, Route 1, Box 151, Wesson, Mississippi. It is through Mr. Smith's kind permission that we are able to reprint the song, "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms."

Another book written in shape notes is The Good Old Songs, published by the Cayce Publishing Company, Thornton, Arkansas.

"Leaning On The Everlasting Arms," a song familiar to most people, is shown written completely in shape notes.

The song is in the key of A. The high soprano note is Mi, and the low bass note Do, so the pitching pattern is Mi-Do-So-Mi-Do-Mi-So-DO-Mi. To beat time to this song (4/4 time), use the pattern down, in, out, up.

In the first and second, and fifth and sixth measures of the chorus, the soprano and alto are singing the melody while the tenor and bass sing a counter melody.


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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