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If you are familiar with “shape note” sheet music, then you may have from time to time wished you could print your own sheet music in the shape note style. These instructions are for you!


Even if you are not familiar with shape notes the classic movie “The Sound of Music” has introduced the concept of the “moveable do” system to millions through the memorable song “Do-Re-Mi.” Many people prefer to sing from sheet music that is formatted in the shape note style.

For those of us who are not proficient at an instrument but still like to sing, sometimes there is a musical phrase that gives us trouble. It can be handy to type a few letters and not only see the musical score (in shaped notes if you prefer) but to be able to press a button and hear the music to help train our ear to the tune.

The tools we will be using are free, very flexible and allow a wide range of vocal and instrumental scores to be entered and printed. The “language” we will use to input the music is called “abc.” One nice thing about abc notation is that it is entered from your computer keyboard in plain letters and symbols. If you have been frustrated in trying to learn how to input music in a “high end” software package, you may find that you love how simple and intuitive abc notation is.

Step 1: “Hello World”

There is a long tradition that when learning a new computer programming language, tutorials will show the easiest and quickest way to display the message “Hello World!.” The purpose is to show quick results, to demonstrate the fundamentals of the environment, and to reduce the feeling that things are going to be “impossible.” While we are not learning a programming language, abc is in the category of “music macro languages,” which means the abc “language” is a representation of music that computers can easily read and process. (It’s great that the abc “language” is also music that humans can easily read and process too!) As a “play” on the “Hello World” idea, our first tune will be the musical phrase of “hello world” from the song “Hello World” by Lady Antebellum.


Open up a browser (Google Chrome is recommended) and enter this URL into the “location bar.” If you are reading this online, you can simply click the link and it will take you there. http://www.projectnotions.com/abc2shapenote/abc2sn.xhtml

You will see a screen that looks like this (Figure 1)

Replace the lines in the left window with the following lines:

X:1
T:Hello World! 
K:Eb
EE G2 |

In a couple of seconds notice your “Hello World!” tune is displayed on the right: Congratulations, you’ve created a musical score in the shape note style! (See Figure 2 - "Hello World")

Here is an explanation for all of the lines.

Abc Tune Header

The lines

X:1
T:Hello World!
K:Eb

make up the abc tune header. The header starts with the reference number (X:) and the tune title (T:). The header ends with the key field (K:). Other fields can be between the X:,T: and the K: fields and we will cover some of them later.

X:n is the reference number. “n” can be any number you choose. We have used “1”.
T:text is the Title. The Title can be anything you choose to name it. K:xx is the “key” of the song. Examples are, “C”, “Eb”, D#”, etc.

Abc Tune Body

The lines after the header key field (K:) make up the tune body. The tune body contains the music code that specify the notes, bar lines, and other musical symbols. In our example

EE G2 |

indicates that the notes E, E, and G above middle C should be written. The G note should be twice as long as the default (in this case the default is an eighth note) and that a bar should follow.

And that’s it! It IS as easy as “abc!” You can even press the “Play” button and hear the notes played.

Overview of next steps

We will be using the classic early American song “Amazing Grace” for these instructions For this “getting started” set of instructions we will use a vocal arrangement designed for four part harmony. We will call the parts soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Here is a summary of the steps in the following sections:

  • Step 2 - Enter the tune header
  • Step 3 - Review the basics of the abc tune body
  • Step 4 - Enter music for the Soprano voice
  • Step 5 - Enter music for the Alto, Tenor, Bass voices
  • Step 6 - Enter the lyrics
  • Step 7 - Play, Print, and even more resources
  • Step 8 (Optional) - Music Basics Refresher and Links

Here is an example of “Amazing Grace” with a normal music score. (See Figure 3 - Amazing Grace in traditional sheet music notation.)

Below is an example of the same music printed in the shaped note system. (See Figure 4 - Amazing Grace sheet music in the 7 shape note style.)

Beyond just printing a score in shaped notes, the web page will also play the song. For songs with multiple parts(or voices) you can select which parts you want to hear. For many non-professionals this ability to play the song helps tremendously in learning to sing the desired part. In a few short steps, you will be well on your way to printing and learning music in the shaped note tradition.

So, let’s get started.

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