What Is "Shape-Note" Singing?

In this musical tradition, singers read a variety of different note shapes—each one corresponding to a different syllable: fa, so, la, or mi.

Do you remember how it felt to belt out songs with other kids at camp, at a scout meeting, or simply when driving your parents crazy on long trips in the car? No one back then told us how to blend our voices. There was no rehearsal, no performance. Sometimes we overdid it and sang ourselves hoarse, but—oh, it was fun while it lasted!

Enthusiasts of all ages still demonstrate that joyful bravura today when they gather to sing shape-note songs from old books such as B.F. White and E. J. King's Sacred Harp (continuously in print since 1844).

This most unusual form of choral singing has deep roots in American history and a devoted following all over the country, where shape-note singers may gather for a few hours or for all-day "singings."

Miriam Kilmer, a mainstay of the Potomac River Sacred Harp Singing Convention, says the attraction is more than simply the music itself, which she admits can be harsh and raucous, but strangely compelling.

"It is the caring fellowship of the Sacred Harp community that keeps me coming back," she says. "The members are diverse, passionate, often argumentative, and almost always utterly delightful. I especially love watching the children as they grow up in the tradition."

The Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Singing Convention in Northampton, Massachusetts is one of the most well-attended shape-note gatherings outside of the South. It attracts local and regional singers as well as those from all over the United States and abroad. This gathering, like most others, sings from the Sacred Harp.

A Musical Democracy: Everyone Is a Leader

The Sacred Harp repertoire draws upon late 18th- and 19th-century hymns from the Christian tradition. These fuguing tunes are set to four-part, archaic harmonies that hint of medieval organum, with strong fifths and frequent note doubling.

Performing them is an exercise in musical democracy. Each participant gets a turn at leading a song and making important musical decisions.

Shape-note singers sit or stand in a hollow square, which to Jessica Beers, chairperson of Portland's All Day Singing, "is a living manifestation of the 'different but equal' axiom. The notation makes it possible for anybody to learn how to read the music, and the community makes it welcoming for anybody who is interested in participating in the tradition as we know it."

Grouped along each side of the square are sopranos (called "trebles"), altos, tenors, and basses. The tenors usually carry the melody. At most gatherings, it doesn't matter if a singer is male or female—participants choose whichever part appeals to them, singing an octave higher or lower as needed. One by one, each singer comes into the middle of the square, calling out the page number or tune name of a song to sing.

"Everyone singing is singing straight at you," says Neely Bruce, a composer and professor of American Music at Wesleyan University. "It's different than conducting because they're singing at you from every direction. This special spatial aspect of Sacred Harp ties it to so much of America's experimental music."

The person in a leadership role chooses the key and keeps the tempo by moving an arm up and down. Regular participants are often associated with a particular song. At conventions, someone keeps minutes of who leads each piece. Bruce says those who are uncertain or shy about leading a song sometimes bring a friend or relative into the center for musical support.

Sightreading Shape-Notes

At shape-note gatherings, each song always starts with a sightreading by singing the syllables fa, so, la, or mi. Each syllable and its pitch depend on the shape as well as the placement of each written note on a staff. The singers always start out a song in this way, even if they know the song by heart. The practice has become an integral part of the musical experience, so much so that shape-note singers are also referred to as "fasola" singers.

Shape-note singers collectively sightread a form of solfege or solmization known as "fasola" before singing the words of each song. Different notes appear in standard musical notation but with different shapes to correspond to each note's position in a scale.

Most often there are four shapes: fa (right triangle), so (oval), la (rectangle), and mi (diamond), with fa as the first note of a major scale. In this four-note system, each shape and its corresponding syllable represents two different intervals on a scale, expect for mi, which is always the seventh (or leading tone).

Developed by itinerant singing teachers in the early 19th century, the four-note system was designed to assist those who had not learned conventional sightreading. It was considered easier to recognize a few basic shapes than to decipher where each particular note was positioned on a stave.

A seven-note system of shape-notes is used in some songbooks and predominates in southern gospel tunebooks. In either case, the singers, who always sing a cappella, can hold the tune regardless of the key of a particular song.


Where did this music come from, and how did it evolve into the generic forms still common today? The European origins of our shaped-notes seem obvious to anyone who has seen medieval musical manuscripts.

When the Puritans and other English dissenters arrived in North America, they brought with them a storehouse of tunes, not only from their homeland but from the other European countries with whom they were in cultural contact. These early New England Puritans sang with a musical leader standing before them declaiming or singing phrases of a psalm, which were then chanted back by the congregation as a whole, often in a free rhythm with ornamentation. This practice of "lining out" still persists among Gaelic speakers on Isle of Lewes in Scotland and as well as among certain southern Appalachian and African-American congregations.

By the 1720s and '30s, the "old style" of lining-out songs was often criticized as lending itself to cacophony and disorder. Many clergymen wanted to upgrade the musical literacy of their congregation and there was a growing interest in religious verse that could be set to music.

Short-term singing schools hosted by traveling singing teachers became part of New England community life by the mid-18th century. These singing teachers started composing both words and music for the songbooks they sold to their burgeoning clientele.

William Billings is the best remembered of these self-taught composers, but there were others too: Lewis Edson, Oliver Holden, Jeremiah Ingalls, Justin Morgan, Daniel Read, and Timothy Swan all published songbooks containing their own music. These "Yankee tunesmiths" had trained ordinary Americans to sing not just hymns but anthems for performance at the end of a season's singing school.

Early 19th-century musical reformers, such as Lowell Mason and Thomas Hastings, belittled these efforts and encouraged a hymnody that privileged the melody and subordinated the other vocal parts to a supportive harmonic role. Counterpoint gave way to a more chorded sound. The reformers' efforts were successful in the cities, but the earlier music of the New England singing schools held on for some time in the region's rural areas even as it moved west and south with a mobile population.

The old tunes were reprinted in an increasing number of shape-note songbooks. During the 60 years after the publication of the first fasola shape-note songbook, The Easy Instructor (1801), over a hundred shape-note titles were printed, most using the four-note system and appearing in a conventional, oblong shape. Not only did they preserve the old songs, they incorporated new songs arranged in the older style.

Shape-note enthusiasts in the rural hinterlands often traveled a distance to sing with one another. They held singing-schools that emphasized "all day singings" and conventions, characterized by the sharing of food, sociability, and spiritual expression through songs that evoked community memories and understandings.

The Modern Revival of Shape-Note Singing

While modern gospel hymns (such those associated with the evangelical crusades of Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey) swept the South in the late 19th century, the Sacred Harp assured the longevity and preservation of the old songs among Southern religious conservatives trying to retain their traditions.

But by the time Alan Lomax and George Pullen Jackson began recording an ad hoc Sacred Harp Singing Society in Birmingham, shape-note music was unknown to most people outside the rural South.

The Lomax/Jackson recordings gained some currency during the folksong revival of the late 1950s and 1960s and America's bicentennial sparked additional interest as New Englanders discovered that so much of their region's early music had been preserved in the Sacred Harp. Northerners of many different faiths embraced shape-note singing and the social pleasures that went with it. They researched other tunebooks, current and historical, and began writing their own tunes.

Some of these appear in recent New England tunebooks such as Northern Harmony and the Sacred Harper's Companion. Shape-note composers can now be found wherever shape-note traditions have been revitalized, and more of their work is being included in the major collections. 

Neely Bruce has himself composed over a thousand pieces in the Sacred Harp style, including one hymn now included in the Sacred Harp. He has also taken the idiom's musical characteristics and applied them to other contexts, such as a musical setting of the Bill of Rights. Some of his former students are also working within the idiom. Singer and ethnomusicologist, Tim Eriksen, for instance, introduced Sacred Harp to new audiences in the film Cold Mountain, for which he was a musical consultant.

Jesse Pearlman Karlsburg, chair of the 2009 New York State Sacred Harp Convention, also composes shape-note tunes and has helped organize a "composium" for shape-note composers to encourage and critique each others' work.

"It's fascinating to write music in a tradition that's embraced new compositions ever since the Sacred Harp was first printed," Karlsburg says, "but that has always embraced the same musical style and encouraged participants to 'seek the old path' as the book's preface says."

The shape-note revival, however, also has a Southern impetus. Southerners have settled throughout the country and their love of shape-note singing has traveled along with them. Suburbanization and a reverse migration within the South are attracting new adherents to more traditional, Southern gatherings.

For other Southerners, shape-note singing evokes bygone memories of a rural past and the small churches that kept this music alive for so many years. Even though they themselves may have grown up in more urban environments, singing these songs evokes life-cycle events and visits that kept alive their cultural roots long after their own families had left the homestead.

Comingling of Cultures

Two different subcultures are mingling these days: those who have grown up with the songs as a form of religious expression and those who have acquired these same songs as a secular musical choice. If there was any initial uneasiness between these two groups, it has eased over time. The style and convictions of the former group and the zest for discovery of the latter have been synergistic.

"People often sing Sacred Harp from the same place within themselves these days," says Bruce, a native of Alabama. "The difference is that if there is religious significance, Southerners are more likely to say so."

"Over time the music gets down into you," he says. "It is spiritual and often evokes our memories of those who have died. As for the ecstatic part, if something looks like a duck, moves like a duck, sounds like a duck, then it must be a duck. Singing Sacred Harp can be ecstatic and Sacred Harp tells it like it is."