A Look At Modern Literature – Variants on a Shaped Note Tune, Johnnie Vinson

Published by Hal Leonard Corporation. Grade 3. 5 minutes long (but sections could be played to make it shorter). $60US.


This piece is in the folk song section of J W Pepper’s catalogue. Its name caught my eye.


Shape notes are a music notation designed to facilitate congregational and community singing. The notation, introduced in 1801, became a popular teaching device in American singing schools. Shapes were added to the note heads in written music to help singers find pitches within major and minor scales without the use of more complex information found in key signatures on the staff.”  – Wikipedia


When I am perusing music, I give eight seconds for the work to catch my attention. If my fancy has not been tickled, I move onto the next. This one tickled!


I loved the simple modal quality of the tune presented on unison clarinet. The traditional Scottish melody is from a southern US hymnal called The Sacred Harp which used shape note notation. This in itself is a fascinating piece of musical history worth exploring with your group.


In variant form, the tune is passed to flutes harmonised in 4ths, an intriguing colour. The third statement in brass is followed by homophonic full band, ending with a beautiful whole tone sort of cadence (E major/F# major/Ab major… is there a name for this?). The other nifty harmonic trick is its movement through the circle of 4ths (Bb to Eb then Ab). Use this to show your students how to simply and easily give harmonic interest to their own compositions!


From here, a confident, full band plays a more ‘modern’ arrangement. A lovely fragmentation of the tune creates the accompaniment figure, the melody emerging from it. Again, an excellent example for your composers to model from.


A variation for your lead trumpet player follows with homophonic support from the rest of the band. The penultimate variation is delightful (reminds me of Variations on a Korean Folk Song by Barnes Chance) and the final is a rich statement for full band with that whole tone cadence finishing off.


This is a wonderful piece grade 3. The tune will become an ear worm! It is cleverly arranged: melodically, harmonically and texturally. I’d buy it!