What are shaped notes?
Shaped notes are a device created to make sight reading music easier. Shaped note-heads were invented near the end of the 18th century in the United States. A different shape is used to represent the different syllables of the scale instead of all round note-heads. "Shaped notes were invented for the purpose of making it possible for large numbers of people to be quickly taught to sing correctly in parts for harmony, to the edification of all." (Sightler, Music in the Bible)
Do shaped notes "work"?
That is, do shaped note heads actually facilitate the learning of music? Do they improve sight reading ability? By learning of music, I have in mind singing rather than playing instruments. Most shape-note partisans would readily argue that they do help. Those never exposed to the shape note tradition (if they have an opinion) or those who have rejected it, may feel that the shapes are of no help. Some who could already read music before coming to the shape note tradition might concur that they are of no real help.
Irving Lowens and Allen P. Britton wrote, "Had this pedagogical tool been accepted by 'the father of singing among the children', Lowell Mason, and others who shaped the patterns of American music education, we might have been more successful in developing skilled music readers and enthusiastic amateur choral singers in the public schools." (Journal of Research in Music Education, Spring 1953) So on might go the debate, each side presenting their theories with no experimental comparison to provide proof. A good comparison would have to take the form of a controlled study. The subjects of the study would need to be young enough not to have established patterns and preferences. Wouldn't it be helpful to conduct such a study? Just such a study was actually carried out!
In the 1950s, George H. Kyme carried out a controlled study of "shaped notes versus round notes" with an experimental group of fourth and fifth grade students living in California. Kyme carefully matched his experimental and control groups for ability, quality of teacher, and many other factors. He found that the students taught with shaped notes learned to sight-read music much better than those taught without them. The results were statistically highly significant. As a side effect of his experiment, Kyme also found that the students taught with shaped notes were more likely to pursue musical activities in their future education. Kyme proved what shape-note singers already knew -– shaped note heads improve our sight-reading and facilitate our singing. Though perhaps no particular blessing to the instrumentalist, they are a boon for the singer.
1. Music in the Bible and in the True Church, by James H. Sightler
2. "The Easy Instructor (1798-1831): A History and Bibliography of the first Shape Note Tune Book," Journal of Research in Music Education, I (Spring 1953), 32. Irving Lowens and Allen P. Britton
3. "An Experiment in Teaching Children to Read Music with Shape Notes," Journal of Research in Music Education, VIII, (Spring 1960), pp. 3-8. George H. Kyme
4. Some material adapted from an article which I and many others have written on Wikipedia, and can be used under the GNU Free Documentation License: "Wikipedia content can be copied, modified, and redistributed so long as the new version grants the same freedoms to others and acknowledges the authors of the Wikipedia article used (a direct link back to the article satisfies our author credit requirement)." Wikipedia.org - Shape note
"Shaped notes -- helpful for those who know them, unobtrusive to those who don't."