Friday, June 1, 2012

Sepia Saturday: The Shape of Music

Sepia Saturday challenges bloggers to share family history through old photographs.


This week’s Sepia Saturday prompt is a picture of Sophie Tucker and sheet music from her 1913 hit “I Can’t Get Enough of Your Love.” 



Had my crystal ball not been in the shop for repair, the stacks of sheet music belonging to my two great aunts Violetta Davis Ryan and Velma Davis Woodring would never have gone on to their lesser reward at Goodwill.  At the very least, I would have taken pictures first! 

Luckily during those final days of cleaning out our parents’ home, my sister and I agreed that the 2 songbooks belonging to our great-grandmother Mary Frances Jollett Davis were important enough to keep. 



What I find especially interesting is that both songbooks feature shape notes.  While I have HEARD of shape notes thanks to my sisters-in-law who sing in their Brethren churches, I don’t know much about this system. 

Enter Google. 

Apparently shape notes became popular in the United States in the 1800s thanks to some Harvard-trained ministers who saw the system as a way to improve congregational singing.  Rather than try to teach a largely illiterate group of people to read music, they thought it would be easier for people to learn to associate a pitch with a shape.


Click on images to enlarge
The 4-note system (fa – sol – la – mi) used a half-square, square, oval, and diamond, each signifying a particular pitch. 

But Mary Frances’s books are written in the 7-note system (do – re – mi – fa – sol – la – ti).  How can I tell that with my limited knowledge?  There are some additional shapes including a triangle, quarter round, and half oval.



This 7-note system is known as the Aikin system.  While controversial in the beginning, it grew in popularity due to the very publishers of Mary Frances’s Exalted Praise book.  The Ruebush-Kieffer Publishing Company was located in Dayton, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley, the home of my ancestors. 

The publishers could have selected any shape note system (and there were MANY with a wide variety of weird shapes), but they went with Aikin’s.  As one of the earliest and most successful publishers of gospel music in the United States, Ruebush-Kieffer’s influence resulted in Aikin’s system becoming the standard for shape notes.



Now whether shape notes are effective is a matter of personal opinion. People who grew up singing with shape notes claim they do indeed enhance the group singing experience.  However, people who already know how to read music see no advantage whatsoever. 

Today the shape note tradition continues largely in Mennonite churches, Primitive Baptist and Fundamental Baptist churches, as well as some Churches of Christ.  Since the United Brethren church has Mennonite roots, Mary Frances’s shape note hymnals give me some insight into her experience at church where she was an active and devoted member.

So now I leave you with this last thought:  Why do hummingbirds hum? 

Because they don’t know the words. (I love a silly joke!)

Join the chorus at Sepia Saturday.  It’ll be music to your eyes. 

33 comments:

  1. LOL I'll have to tell my husband that joke!

    I'd never heard of shape notes--very interesting.

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    1. I can laugh and laugh over stupid jokes like that. So dumb!

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  2. I’ve been in that situation so often of wishing I’d at least photographed or scanned something before handing it on. But as you say we didn’t know we were going to be Sepia saturday devotees then!

    This is very interesting about shape notes. I have never mastered the art of reading music, though both my mother and daughter have; perhaps this would have helped me.

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    1. Since I can read music, I don't see how the shapes help. I guess for people who can't read music knowing that a triangle sounds like THIS and a square sounds like THIS could be helpful. They're not caught up in thinking about G A B C D etc. and wondering if it's a space or line.

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  3. This is what I love about sepia Saturday. You learn new things every week. I'd never heard of shape notes.
    Nancy

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    1. I had heard of them but hadn't thought about them -- no need to until I opened that hymnal to take a picture. My blog post then went off in a different direction. I'm enjoying visiting others too -- so interesting what people come up with.

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  4. I nver knew that about humming birds! Ha Ha! What a showcase you brought forth (even without a crystal ball!) The things we learn here, or see again that have perhaps been forgotten, are truly what makes this an exciting read week after week! Always something new!

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    1. Sepia Saturday is my favorite part of the week for precisely what you've said -- learning something new and being reminded of things we've forgotten.

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  5. Interesting all around :) Humming and the shape of music...learning something new everyday!

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  6. Wendy, your post is very interesting, never heard of shape notes; again learned something new thanks to you!

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    1. Thanks. I had heard of the term but had never seen them until I opened up those songbooks.

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  7. Way over my head, but an interesting story nevertheless.

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    1. I doubt that, but thank-you very much.

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  8. Dulcitones from Nell, shape notes from you - I'm learning a lot this week.

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    1. I'm glad there's no quiz at the end.

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  9. I love the thought that the brethren are still belting out these hymns with shape notes 200 years later. Fascinating history.

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  10. Wendy! Thank you for all of this background. I had no idea. This week is turning out to be very interesting and enlightening. I can't read music, so I do appreciate the explanations of the different systems.

    Speaking of regret of not keeping everything that was in your parents home, I regret not keeping a copy of the church hymnal that people were taking and having autographed when our church closed in the mid-90's.

    Kathy M.

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    1. Yes, a hymnal with autographs would have been a wonderful keepsake and piece of history. And what a terrific idea the church members had!

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  11. I never heard of shape notes before. They wouldn't help me because I am tone deaf.

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  12. Great job here. You did some great research. News to me too. I have played the violin since high school and never heard this term.
    QMM

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    1. I understand why since the system seemed mainly to be used for singing in church.

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  13. Never heard or seen shape notes before. You did a great job researching the subject. Good idea to take pictures before you pass something on to Goodwill. That way you have a permanent record of an item and it doesn't have to take up space in your house.

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  14. So interesting! It never occurred to me (and it certainly should have) that the style of writing sheet music had changed over time. I never learned how to read music but have always wished I knew how.

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    1. The shape notes seem to have been most popular in New England and among southern states. I didn't get the impression that it was wide-spread.

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  15. I never knew anything about reading music and it all looks quite esoteric to me... but I've enjoyed your post. Always had great respect for those who can.
    :)~
    HUGZ

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    1. I can read it, but I wish I could read it more quickly and easily without having to stop with every chord to decipher each line and space.

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    2. Awh!!
      That can't be good...
      ;)~
      HUGZ

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  16. Shoulda, woulda, coulda, if only we had a crystal ball! I'm afraid my music knowledge is limited so I'm very impressed with your shape note tutorial.

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  17. I'm also on the list of those learning about shape notes from this post. Love that title, "Exalted Praise," two words that say much.

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