Shape-note singing, a predominantly rural, Protestant, Anglo-American music tradition, involves singing from hymnals or “tunebooks” having shaped notes (aka “character notes,” “buckwheat notes,” or “patent notes”) as opposed to the standard “round notes.” Shape-note singing is rooted in the Singing School Movement that began in New England during the eighteenth century, but swept west and south with settlers during the early nineteenth century. That reform movement–an attempt to raise the level of congregational singing in the colonial churches by teaching them to read music notation–spurred an increase in both the number of published tunebooks and the number of newly composed tunes and anthems. The Singing School Movement thus fostered the earliest body of indigenous American musical compositions following the arrival of Europeans. These tunebooks, in fact, are most important historically as repositories of indigenous American hymn tunes, anthems, fuguing tunes, and folk hymns of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In a further effort to help students learn to read “by note,” a system of four shaped notes–Fa, Sol, La, and Mi–was invented in the early nineteenth century to be used with the four-syllable “fasola” solmization system. In the mid-nineteenth century, a system of seven shaped notes–Do, Ra, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, and Ti–was introduced to be used with the seven solmization syllables still used in music instruction. These systems, as well as the rudiments of music, are usually explained in an essay preceding the three- and four-part compositions.
The Sacred Harp, a four-shape-note hymnal first published in Georgia in 1844, is the most popular of the shape-note books, especially in Middle Tennessee, northwestern Georgia, and northern Alabama. In East Tennessee, the favorite is The New Harp of Columbia, a seven-shape-note hymnal published in Nashville in 1867. The Southern Harmony, another four-shape-note book published in 1835–and for many years used only in Benton, Kentucky–is also used by some Tennessee singers.
In keeping with the tradition’s foundations in the Singing School Movement, shape-note singing typically occurs in annual, one-to-three-day “singings.” These singings are not just musical, but social, pedagogical, and religious events. Each day consists of morning and afternoon sessions (or “classes”) with the hosts providing “Dinner on the Grounds.” The singers sit in a square formation facing the center. Each side of the square represents one of the four vocal parts. Alto and bass are sung by women and men, respectively, but the treble and tenor (or “lead”) parts are sung by both sexes in octaves, resulting in a rich, six-part texture. Hymns or “tunes” are led from the center by a singer who stands facing the tenors, in whose part lies the melody. Each tune is sung first using the solmization syllables, after which one or more verses of the hymn proper are sung. The singing style is characteristically loud (sometimes piercing), often quite fast, and marked by a vigorous beat and much enjoyment among the participants.