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Shape Note Singing Baby Steps

March 29, 2010

hollow-sq.jpgI have a friend who's nuts about shape note singing. For anyone unfamiliar with this powerful yet not widely known and often misunderstood form of music, you can find out all about it here at the Fasola website. It's a uniquely American form of a cappella singing which developed in the south. Also known as "Sacred Harp" singing (though it's an a cappella format and there are no harps or other instruments involved), shape note singing is a non-denominational community musical event which emphasizes participation over performance. According to one description, I found online, singers sit facing inward in a hollow square. Each individual is invited to take a turn "leading," i.e. standing in the center, selecting a song, and beating time with the hand. The group sings from The Sacred Harp, an oblong songbook first published in 1844 by B.F. White and E. J. King. The music is printed in "patent notes," wherein the shape of the note head indicates the syllables FA , SOL , LA , and MI . The repertory includes psalm tunes, fuging tunes, odes and anthems by the first American composers (1770-1810), and also settings of folk songs and revival hymns (1810-1860). The current 1991 Edition contains many songs in these styles by living composers.

Last night, my friend opened The Sacred Harp and I had a go at singing a few of the tunes with him. Following the notation was pretty easy, though I think it would be easier if I learned the actual shape notation of circular, oblong, triangular and square notes rather than read the lines as I would while sight-singing through a manuscript in standard notation. What threw me off mostly was the fact that the words for the verses are only written underneath one vocal line, which means your eyes have to dart backwards and forwards to sing the corresponding words to the right notes. Once you get familiar with the tunes though, this ceases to be a problem, I guess.

Even with only two of the four parts covered in the songs, I felt the music to be very powerful. I want to sing more of this stuff. Apparently, shape note singing is experiencing a bit of a resurgence these days, partly kicked off by the Hollywood movie Cold Mountain, which featured some shape note music in the soundtrack.

I'll be checking out the 6th Annual Golden Gate Sacred Harp Singing convention on April 24 in Berkeley. Information about the all-day event can be found here.


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