Several years ago I heard about something called “shape-note singing.” I had only a cursory understanding of what it was, and it turns out that most of what I thought I knew about it was incorrect. One thing that is correct is that this is mostly a “southern” thing. Although the concept originated in New England, it was popularized throughout The South. It was developed and used to facilitate a-cappella worship singing. At various times on various trips in The South I have looked for opportunities to learn more about it and experience it for myself, but until today I had not succeeded.
There is a shape-note singing group in the Triangle area, and they meet on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. Today was the fourth Sunday, and they were meeting in a small chapel in downtown Raleigh. I couldn’t interest anyone in going along with me, but this was something I had to attend! I had to find out for myself what this was all about.
There is still a lot I don’t understand, but here’s what I do know. The entire musical scale is represented by notes in the shape of triangles, diamonds, squares and circles. Each shape has a name: FA, or SOL, or LA, or MI.
Songs are written in four-part harmonies, and they are sung a-cappella. Since there is no instrument to play the parts, the shape notes make it easier for a singer to read his or her part. The songs are sung by all singers, each singing one of the four parts, from the first time through. There is no time taken to have someone sing or play each part individually. This first time through there is a singer who starts everyone off by singing the pitch for the first note of each of the four parts. Then everyone sings through the song once without using the lyrics. Instead of the lyrics, they sing FA, or SOL, or MI, or LA, for each note in the song. It sounds ridiculous. But after this one time through everyone seems to know their part, and they sing the entire song using the lyrics.
The songs are all hymns, but almost none of them are hymns that I was familiar with. They came from a hymnbook called The Sacred Harp.
This really was a history lesson for me, as well as a music lesson and a worship experience. This form of singing has been in use in this area for over 200 years.
The singers sit in the four parts: bass, melody, alto and soprano. They sit in a square facing each other, all the members of a specific part sitting together. For each song, one member of the group is the leader. This person selects a song by number from the songbook, and then stands in the center of the square to lead the song. The pitch-giver gives each of the four starting notes, and everyone begins to sing. The leader conducts. Everyone is given the chance to lead a song, but you can pass when it is your turn. They continue to go around the room, so everyone has an opportunity to lead more than once. This goes on like this for two hours with only a short break after the first hour. (The leader-guy passed around throat lozenges during the break.)
The singers were not shy. They sang out with gusto! It was a beautiful experience to hear and participate in all of these lovely four-part harmonies.
At the end of the two hours everyone greets everyone with a handshake (not good during flu season) as they sing one final song.
It was an absolutely amazing experience!!