Tongan music notation

The Tongan music notation has been developed by Moulton in the 19th century, as an aid to the church choirs. It is an alternative the international note notation, but simplified and much easier to learn.

In effect it is nothing else than the doh-ray-mi-fah-sol-la-si-doh scale, but unfortunately, as Moulton quickly found out, do-ray is prounced as to-le in Tongan and vulgarily refers to the vagina. So instead he used the numbers 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 3. Some notes can be sharpened, as indicated with a slash through them, for example 7, for the use of 7# or 8b.

Back to homepage

Tuʻungafasi on the computer

program icon

Traditionally the choirmasters chalk the notes on a blackboard in front of the congregation. Or they provide fotocopies of handwritten notes; usually barely readable. Because doing it on a computer in a wordprocessor gives more problems than it solves.

Until now that is…

How to get the program

A typical Tongan song

Hiva ʻo Silia Kalaniuvalu

Written by Malukava (Tēvita Kavaefiafi) around 1930, for his lord Kalaniuvalu-Fotofili (Semisi), so that he could woe his bride to be, Silia.

(Midi version, playback quality set by the used synthesizer)

More about Tongan songs

The same song in tuʻungafasi

tongan notes

There are usually 4 voices. Every line is 1 voice. Every digit coresponds to 1 note. The number of notes in a beat determines their length.

The same song in standard notation

international notes

Every note has a 1 to 1 correspondence to a digit in the Tongan notation. The use of stems and flags determines the length of the notes.

key signatures

The base doh-notes for the 4 voices: fasi & alto on top; tenor in the middle, bass on bottom. For some keysignatures the bass doh would come too low, and is then put on the same level as the tenor, so that only 2 notes appear.

Note pitch

octave to lu fa ma ni o no tu fi va a hidot & tail

These are the full 12 notes of the octave with their Tongan names (variants of the Tongan numerals 3 to 9 being tolu, fā, nima, ono, fitu, valu, hiva). All these notes can have a dot above them to indicate that they belong to the next higher octave, or they can have a little tail under them for the next lower octave. Therefore 3 octaves can be spanned by a single voice. Yet occasionally one encounters a double tail or double dot, which puts the note one octave farther out still, but that should largely be an exception. A space or a 0 indicate a rest.

A typical Tongan song has 4 voices:

Although sometimes less or even more are used. For example, when there are only 2 voices fasi and laulalo is common.

The tēnoa is often 1 octave above the laulalo, but 1 below the fasi & kānokano.

Usually all voices sing the same lyrics, but sometimes the bass delays its text with a beat, or it uses a complete different lyrics.

Note duration

In Tongan music notation the duration is determined by the number of notes in a given beat. As example 2/4 notation: (2 beats in a single measure, the beat being a quarter note long). If there is a single note in the beat, it is a quarter note. If there are 2 notes, then each is an eighth, and so forth, up to a maximum of 4 notes per beat. To make notes of longer duration, some beats are to be tied. This is simply indicated with one or more dashes (-). The beats are separated from each other by colons (:) and slashes (/). The two symbols are equal, although it is customary to have the slash in the middle of long measures and the colons elsewhere. The measures are separated from each other by vertical bars (|) or double bars (||) the latter especially used to indicate sections or repeats.

A (weird) example


There are 2 measures, and assuming 4/4 signature, they contain 4 beats each of a quarter long. Therefore the 3 is a quarter note; the 4 is with the following dash extended to a half note; the 5 is an eighth note; the 6 is with the following dash extended a quarter note; the 7 is an eight note; the space is a quarter rest (or use a 0 if confusion could arise); every 8 is a sixteenth note; the 9 is with the 2 following dashes extended to a 3/16 note; then end with a sixteenth rest. As in the example above, it is perfectly allright for tied notes to cross measure boundaries.

Some special cases

In 2/2 (like |3:3|) and 3/2 (like |3:4:5|) time signature every single digit in a beat is a half note. Two digits in a beat means each of them is a quarter note. When there are three digits in a beat, then the first is a quarter and both others are eighths. And when there are four, then each is an eighth note. The three digit notation is preferably only to be used for a /3-4/ construction, which is a three-eighth note followed by a one-eighth. A construction with digits only, like /345/ is better to be written as /3-45/ to avoid confusion. Some musicians use a dot or a comma in such a case, like /3,45/ to remind the singers of the unequal length of the notes.

In 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 the same story holds true, but all notes are now twice as short.

More special cases

6/8 (like |3:4|) and 12/8 (like |3:4:5:6|) are compound time signatures, every single digit is a three-eighth note. With two digits the first is a quarter and the second an eighth note. With three digits each of them is an eighth note. And with four digits one has two eighth notes followed by two sixteenths. In this case a comma or dot may appear, as in /34.56/ as a reminder to the different durations. The two digit notation is preferably only to be used for a construction like /3:-4/ being a five-eighth followed by an one-eighth note. A notation like /34/ is better to be avoided to be written as /3-4/ instead. Occasionally one encounters 6 digits in a beat, each then is a sixteenth note. This is usually foreign music put in Tongan notation.


Tuʻungafasi was designed for singing. The possible pitch range and note durations are limited. It also does not really have all the features to provide for an orchestra. For example there is no special notation for triplets. One could place a triangle to indicate 3 notes in a beat where normally 2 would appear. Some musicians place staccato and fermata, and so forth. Jump brackets to indicate repeats and the next stanza can be used, but often are left out: the choir knows the song, they only use the notation as a reminder.