Transitioning from Lining Out to Shape-Note

I found an interesting short article on the history of Psalmody in New England.  As with anything “new,” the transition was not smooth or broadly accepted.  Interestingly, there was no mention of race in this article, but more focused what the Scriptures say, gender, and points of view from ministers.

The Puritans had reservations with singing the Psalms of David with a “lively voice.”  They were more interested in continuing the tradition of monotone.  Other questions that the Puritans discussed were whether women should be allowed to sing with men, whether the unconverted (pagans) should be allowed to sing with church members, whether we should sing music in meter created by man, and whether it is proper to sing new music.

When Andrew Law first “introduced part song”, congregations took issue with women singing the melody, mostly in a soprano part.  Some men would insist on singing the soprano part and making the women sing the tenor part.  The author’s authority then references Scripture, saying that it is considered a sin to allow females to lead the singing. Puritan ministers compiled a “Bay Psalm Book” in 1640, which consisted of metered psalms but no music.

Music had gone by the wayside in the 18th century.  Reverend Mr. Walter, of Roxbury, Massachusetts said that congregations would know maybe four of five tunes which “had become so mutilated, tortured and twisted that Psalm singing had become a mere disorderly noise, left to the mercy of every unskillful throat to chop, alter, twist and change according to their odd fancy, sounding like five hundred different tunes roared out at the same time…” This became the new norm for many churches.  Rev. Walter later said “melody sung in time and tune was [considered] offensive.”  The church preferred the old “melodious” way, as oppose to the new way, thought of as an unknown tongue.

The church much preferred the old way of lining out.  Congregations felt as if they were restricted if they were given notes and a melody to sing.  An anonymous writer in 1723 wrote: “Truly, I have great jealously that if we once begin to sing by note, the next thing will be to pray by rule and preach by rule, and then comes Popery!”



“EARLY CHURCH MUSIC IN NEW ENGLAND.” The Musical Visitor, a Magazine of Musical Literature and Music (1883-1897) 14, no. 11 (11, 1885): 286.

One thought on “Transitioning from Lining Out to Shape-Note

  1. D, the article you’ve found is fascinating – it’s an early history of New England psalmody, and it’s dead wrong in so many respects. We know that Andrew Law wasn’t even close to the first person to introduce part singing (although he may have played a role in inventing the shape note system); Reverend Walter seems to be describing the practice of lining-out, which fell out of use in New England but, as you point out, survived elsewhere; and the debates described as being specific to the “Puritans” raged throughout the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries.

    The article is nevertheless useful for showing us what late 19th-century people thought about early American music history, and the lens it provides on questions of gender is particularly interesting. The main lesson here, in my opinion, is that we always have to be careful not to put too much faith in historical primary sources – they often report “facts” very much colored by ideas or research that has since been discredited.

    A suggestion for the future: read articles like this one in the context of the information presented in the textbook, not just for the purposes of fact checking, but to give some sense of how history-telling has changed in the past century.

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