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A Comparison of Notation Systems in The 19th and 20th Century as teaching Methods:

Shape Notes in U.S. and Angel Menchaca's New System of Musical Notation Sistema Musical
Menchaca in Argentina.

Onur Alakavuklar
Foundations of Music Education
September 24, 2015

In every country, people tend to seek for the best in every subject. Optimal search in ideas,
philosophy and education. As music educators, there are many ways of teaching and learning music.
It's a cumulative system that concentrates on different substractions. With this idea in mind, educators
came up with different methods to help learners with different techniques and styles. Both Argentina
and U.S. were colonial settlements from Europe. Settlers brought their music and craft with them. After
many years of colonization, they had their own folk culture with some heritage of their ancestors. This
led them to create their own organization of studies. In this paper, I will compare the notation systems
from Argentina and U.S. to understand the journey of seeking the best teaching methods for both
educators and learners.
The English were using a four-note system centuries ago, in Shakespeare's 1605 King's Lair,
one of the villains sing fa, sol, la mi. 1 The early shape noted tunes were mainly English, Irish, and
Scottish folk tunes. In 1798, William Little and William Smith published The Easy Instructor. It was
one of the first orthodox and revolutionary method in U.S aiming for to help people learn to read
music. It was mainly for the singing schools and was a big success. Thousands of books were sold and
people were really enthusiastic about learning it. Before the civil war, shape note system was
important, especially in rural America. It was used in social and religious gatherings. After they have
learned how to sing fa so la, people came together for all-day singing. These gatherings were called
conventions. While they were singing, they were facing each other in a square. Who wished to lead the
song may take turn for each piece. Which is still effective today in some places around the world. They
are generally under the name of Sacred Harp conventions.There are annual conventions which held in
different states in U.S. such as Texas, Chicago and some other parts in the world. People get together to
enjoy ancient scales, unusual harmonies and different voicings.
In the second half of 19th Century in Argentina, we see Angel Menchaca, who had a multi1

 Lisa Grayson.A Beginner's Guide to Shape-note Singing: Hints, Stories, Advice, and Minutiae.
(Chicago, Ill. (1807 W. North Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60622): Chicago Sacred Harp Singers, 1994), 5.

layered personality. He worked as a lawyer, professor of literature and history and in many different
fields of the area.2 He believed that music had a great importance in being human and it was one the
main disciplines to advance the civilization. With this idea in mind, he came up with a new scientific
system of musical notation. A chromatic musical alphabet to ease reading and writing music.
Which in 1889 in Paris, Menchaca's notations system was acclaimed as a successful method and he
traveled around Europe to promote his notation system. His notation were used in Boy's school in La
Plata, Argentina as an experiment in 1903. In 1907, it was used in the normal schools of Argentina. He
estimated that nearly 5000 students were following his system. 3
Shape Note and Menchaca's system are similar in the idea, make learning easier. Both of them
use the human body to figure out the music, rather than just reading from the sheet. They were mainly
focused on singing.
In this sense, there are different body motions to help understanding rhythm for the shape notes.
Singers raise their arm up and down, it's a traditional way to keep the time, essential for the
newcomers.
For the Menchaca's method, you use your left and right hand to imitate the shape of notes
which in his method were petal shaped -. This way, learners would visualize the sound with natural
motion.
Both systems were trying to involve music more into life, make it available for everyone,
beginners and/or advanced musicians. Shape notes and Sistema Menchaca were provided to
comprehend the act of education. They were designed to educate people of a high art form in an easier
way and both were successful in their own interpretation.
2

 Diana Fernndez Calvo.Una reforma de la notacin musical en la Argentina : ngel Menchaca y


su entorno. (Buenos Aires:Revista del Instituto de Investigacin Musicolgica Carlos Vega,
2001), 75

 Gordon Cox and Robin Stevens.The origins and foundations of music education: Cross-cultural
historical studies of music in compulsory schooling. (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010), 146

Menchaca's implantation of his system is considered difficult, but if only a young nation with great
energy takes it to heart, you will eventually win. (Tomas Breton)4
One of the other similarity is that they refuse the use of the traditional notation, as if we call it today.
This leads every note to be related with the sound itself only. Every shape has their own pitch.
Besides the similarities, they are not alike in many ways. Shape notes were in staff, just as
traditional notation they use sharps and flats. They only use fa-sol-la-mi syllables. Four-shape notation
system could be traced back to the theory of Guido d'Arezzo. There are also seven-shape systems. They
use do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do, which is common as solfeggio. The shapes are also different from fourshape notation system. Besides that the rhythms, durations and use of the staff are exactly the same
with traditional notation.

Fig.1 Four shape notation (http://fasola.org/introduction/note_shapes.html)


Menchaca uses totally a different system of notes. They are petal shaped and represented in a
line rather than staff. They occur above or below of the line, based on chromatic scale. Each petal's tip
is looking to a different direction to show the notes. It is a complete method of a theory itself with own
rhythm signatures, different use of notes.

Fig. 2 Menchaca's notation system. (http://www.musicologie.org/publirem/menchaca.html)

 Angel, Menchaca.Sistema musical Menchaca sus bases y ventajas, breve, claro, cientfico :
Representacin perfecta del sonido igual para todas las voces y todos los instrumentos. (Buenos
Aires: Sociedad Annima "Sistema musical Menchaca", 1909),

Each sound was called by their own syllables. La-se-si-do-du-re-ro-mi-fa-fe-sol-nu. Also


expression signs were different. They were dashed and the more dashes meant, the powerful should
performer play. The idea behind Menchaca's system is to create a functional method to teach every
person in the nation.
Shape note system had many rivals throughout its history. Such as seven-shape system which
has added do-re-mi in the structure. Also Mason's Better music movement took place in the
northern states. After music education moved to public schools from singing schools, Shape-note
system left only with singing conventions. Especially the oral tradition of Sacred Harp is still effective.
Menchaca's notation system was a revolutionary act in Argentinian education history. It was taught in 4
normal schools, 7 primary schools and 5 private schools in the province of Buenos Aires. There were
many advantages of this notation system. Such as:
- Extreme ease of reading the notes, as listed in the notes below the line corresponds to the
white keys and above of the line corresponds to the black keys.
- Transposition from one tone to another tone no longer offers difficulty.
- The Scale (Chromatic) is more often used and as the main element of the theory it is in a
regulated and safe place for students to understand.
- Because it is visually and technically easier than the traditional notation, it is easier to learn on
the keyboard for a non-professionally trained musician.
With all this information, Menchaca's system was taught to 5000 students in Argentina and the
progress was really successful in a short time.
We don't use both of the systems in Public Education. Due to Lowell Mason's The better music
movement, shape notes weren't considered a noble art form. It wasn't included in the early curricula.
Menchaca's system was canceled because the inspector of Music rejected Menchaca's petition arguing
that it was not a universally accepted code.
With this little comparison of two notation systems we see that every educator have tried and

still tries to find a better way to teach and learn. In this both cases, they were effective in their own
style and in their own region. We must understand the different types of harmonies and methods to
improve our skills in theory and education. It should be essential for all music educators to know
different types of notation to comprehend and develop reading and learning music. This way it's more
likely for educators to brighten students with knowledge of variant methods, not only with western
classical music traditions.
Even though Sacred Harp community still uses shape notes, they are not included in the public
education curriculum. Menchaca's notation system has been rejected, which hasn't been used for nearly
a century in the public schools. It is more likely there will be new theorists in that subject but hopefully,
one day we'll be able to find a perfect method to teach and understand the complexity of the music.

References
Grayson, Lisa. A Beginner's Guide to Shape-note Singing: Hints, Stories, Advice, and Minutiae.
Chicago, Ill. (1807 W. North Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60622): Chicago Sacred Harp Singers, 1994.
Frega, A. Lucia, de Couve, Alicia, and Dal Pino, Claudia. "Argentina: From 'Musica Vocal' to
'Educacion Artistica :Musica'" In The Origins and Foundations of Music Education Cross-cultural
Historical Studies of Music in Compulsory Schooling, 139-151. Edited by Gordon Cox, and Robin
Stevens. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010.
Menchaca, Angel. Sistema musical Menchaca. Buenos Aires: Sociedad Annima "Sistema Musical
1909
Mark, Michael L., Charles L. Gary, and the National Association for Music Education (U.S.) MENC. A
history of American music education. 2007
Fernandez, Diana C. Una reforma de la notacin musical en la Argentina : Angel Menchaca y su
entorno. In Revista del Instituto de Investigacion Musicologica Carlos Vega.2001
Encyclopdia Britannica Online, s. v. "shape-note singing", accessed September 20, 2015,
http://www.britannica.com/art/shape-note-singing.