Shape-note singing descends from the singing-school movement of the 1700s. Though once widespread, it is an unbroken tradition only in the South. The Sacred Harp, which has been continuously in print since 1844, is the most commonly used shape-note book. Since the 1960s, the shape-note singing revival has expanded across the United States and to several other countries. This Folklife Magazine article has more about Philadelphia singing. See Fasola.org for more on the history and practice of Sacred Harp and shape-note singing. There is a special connection between Philadelphia and shape-note publishing – see this post.
“Shape notes” are the four symbols Fa, Sol, La, and Mi, which are used to aid in learning vocal parts. The pattern of shapes is the same in every major scale and every minor scale (see picture). We connect with the music first by “singing the shapes”—that is, singing the song with the shape names that represent scale degrees—before singing the lyrics.
This is community, participatory singing with no instrumental accompaniment. Singers face each other in ranks of chairs forming a “hollow square” whose sides are tenors, trebles, altos, and basses. There is no audience. Each singer, regardless of experience, may choose a song from the book and take a turn standing in the middle of the square leading the group. Shape-note singers are not hesitant; we sing in full voice, with a strong, driving rhythm. Many of us move our arms to keep the beat.
Many of the texts used in shape-note music are extraordinarily poetic. They deal with one’s relationship to God, life and death, and the human condition. Chorus songs are associated with the camp-meeting movement of the early 1800s. Although most of these texts have fallen out of favor in modern churches, they remain an essential part of shape-note singing practice, which participants, regardless of individual religious belief, often describe as a powerful spiritual experience. We welcome participants of all faiths, or none, and endeavor to create an atmosphere of tolerance and respect.
The best way to learn shape-note singing is to go to singings! It’s also a good idea to buy a book so you can make notes and follow along with recordings or videos. For more intensive instruction, Camp FaSoLa in Alabama offers week-long courses in Sacred Harp singing. There are more resources at fasola.org and Warren Steel’s site.