What is Shape Note singing? What is the Sacred Harp? Shape Note or Sacred Harp singing is a traditional American style of four-part, a cappella, community singing. It is called Shape Note because the notes of the scale are indicated by distinctive shapes and names: Fa – triangle, Sol – circle, La – square, and Mi – diamond. Sacred Harp refers to the human voice. The Sacred Harp is also the title of one of the oldest and most widely used shape note song books.
How does it work? Singers sit on the side of an open square, with one voice part on each side, all facing the square so we can see and hear each other. We take turns picking and leading a song. First we practice a song, by singing the shapes to learn the tune and the tempo. Then we sing the verses.
Sacred Harp singings emphasize participation not performance. All events welcome beginners and newcomers, with no musical experience or religious affiliation required. No experience is required, but like any skill, it takes time to learn the essentials. Brief explanations or extensive “singing schools” are often available.
What does it sound like? The music is social and spiritual, joyous and soulful, powerful and moving, sublime and raucous, ancient and haunting. It has been called “18th century a cappella heavy metal” and “bluegrass Gregorian chanting.”
Why do we sing? We gather to sing in friendship for the joy of the music. “From harmony to fellowship to community, we sing the shapes and our hearts open,” says Dan Hertzler. “We sing the shapes and invoke the spirit and memory of singers gone on before. It works!”
Where did it come from? Shape note tunes came with early English, Welsh and Scottish settlers in the New World, and then spread to the rural towns of the Midwest and the deep South of the US. This tradition began in the 1700s, when Vermonters Justin Morgan, Jeremiah Ingalls and many other itinerant singing masters introduced this shape note style of 4-part, a-cappella music in early New England. Singers sat in parts – treble, tenor, bass, and alto – on four sides of a hollow square, facing and singing to each other, taking turns in the center of the square to select and lead a song, thus achieving a very sociable and musical experience.
This community singing tradition flourished throughout rural new England in the decades following the American Revolution. It features haunting melodies, stark, open harmonies, rhythmic counterpoint, distinctive fugues, and the fierce rhymed poetry of Isaac Watts. When the popularity of this music began to fade in New England at the beginning of the 19th century, it was kept alive as the shape note singing tradition spread across the Southern and Midwestern states.
Also see “The Revival of Shape Note Singing in Vermont: A Brief History” under Resources/Articles.