Shape note singing, also known as Sacred Harp singing, is an American practice of singing and reading music. It has its roots in colonial America and is believed to have started in the late 18th century. It is especially popular in the Southern United States, where it has a long history of being performed in rural communities, churches, and revival meetings... but there are communities all over the U.S.!
There are also many annual Sacred Harp singings and conventions, where people from different communities come together to sing and participate in this unique and lively tradition. These events are typically held in rural areas and are open to anyone who would like to attend.
SOLVING A MUSICAL DILEMMA
Reading sheet music in a traditional Western style can take some time to learn, and many people find it intimidating. Shape Note singing was designed to help with the dilemma of wanting to have music written so people everywhere sing the songs the same, while also making it as accessible as possible. The earliest known shape note tunebook, "The Easy Instructor" was published in 1801 by William Little and William Smith. They incorporated a method of notation that used different shapes to represent different musical notes, making it easier for people who could not read music to learn and sing songs.
In shape note singing, each musical note is represented by a specific shape, rather than a traditional notehead on a musical staff. The four shapes used in shape note singing are:
These shapes are typically written on top of the lyrics in a shape note tunebook. Singers use these shapes to help them quickly identify the notes in the melody, without having to read traditional musical notation.
Shape note singing is typically done in four-part harmony, with each part assigned to a specific shape. For example, the tenor part is usually sung to the "fa" shape, the alto part to the "sol" shape, the soprano part to the "la" shape, and the bass part to the "mi" shape.
A UNIQUE REQUIREMENT...
Shape note singing is usually performed in an "energetic and participatory" manner, with singers standing in a square facing each other, singing the different parts in unison and in counterpoint. The tradition is known for its a capella singing style (no instruments), strong harmonies, and the use of extended harmonies and dissonance to create an emotional and powerful sound.
As Ian Boswell says in Episode 4 of Zeitgeist Radio, "The only requirement is that you sing with gusto!"
WHERE DID ALL THIS COME FROM?
The "father" of Shape Note singing is generally considered to be a man named William Billings (1746-1800) who lived in Boston, Massachusetts during the late 18th century. He is considered to be one of the first American composers of sacred music and is known for his contributions to the development of the tradition.
Billings was born in Boston and worked as a tanner for much of his life. Despite having no formal musical training, he became interested in music as a young man and began composing hymns and anthems. He published several collections of his compositions, including "The New England Psalm Singer" (1770), "The Singing Master's Assistant" (1778), and "The Continental Harmony" (1794).
Today, Billings is remembered as a pioneer of American choral music and as an important figure in the history of shape note singing. His music continues to be performed and recorded, and is considered an important part of America's musical heritage.
Would you like to experience this tradition firsthand and meet other people who are interested in this style of singing? There are groups all over the country, and an online search will likely show local groups or events in your area. You can also reach out to local music organizations or churches to see if they have information on local groups. And if you really want to jump in, you can attend a shape note singing convention!
In Episode 4 of Zeitgeist Radio, musician and shape note singer Ian Boswell shares his experience with Shape Note singing. Listen to it here!