The Sacred Harp and Shape Note Singing

Shape notes are a style of music notation most popularly printed in the songbooks of The Sacred Harp, and is categorized as sacred choral music. Shape note singing originates in the New England region of America as way to help illiterate Americans read music and participate more freely in religious activity. This style of singing was mainly found in the Protestant sect of Christianity. Shape notes reinforce the importance of congregational style of singing in church, allowing for a broader inclusion of church-goers.

The first iteration of shape note notation, invented by Psalmodist Andrew Law, was meant to simplify singing by assigning different shapes to different syllables (fa, sol,  la, and mi) so that singers knew which syllables to sing without needing to read lyrics. In 1801, the system was developed by William Little and William Smith and assigned these shapes to different pitches on a staff. This resulted in the creation of The Sacred Harp tunebook. In an article posted in the Common School Advocate in the year 1838, the tunebook was regarded as “decidedly the best and most permanently useful work yet published… made up of the finest compositions of the great masters of ancient and modern times, with new music.” A review that pays homage to the times, as this was a fairly new invention that gave a church goers a new and inclusive experience participating in the singing of psalms and hymns.

A popular hymn that is sung today that The Sacred Harp transcribed into shape note notation is “Amazing Grace.” Largely sung at funerals, this originally baptist tune transcribed in shape note notation is a great example of the choral music of the Antebellum south period. The Christian Observer, an Anglican evangelical periodical that existed between 1802 and 1874, wrote highly of the Sacred Harp tunebook, posting numerous recommendations of its publication. One that particularly stood out, read “New_Britain_Southern_Harmony_Amazing_GraceThe volume is composed of very beautiful melodies; and harmonies of almost unequalled richness… The tunes are admirably adapted to the effective expression of poetry, a circumstance upon which the happiest effect of Christian Psalmody depend.”  A boasting review of a simple style of music, which goes to show the nature of music during this time period in America. Neither monophonic nor polyphonic, this unique style, which is heterophonic in texture, has a surprising sound that is unfamiliar, even to a trained ear. The more popular hymnody has a far more recognizable polyphonic texture that most trained and un-trained ears are accustomed to.

At the annual conventions, there is a specific structure to how they sing each song, whether or not that is how it was performed in 1850 is unbeknown to me, but the format is as follows: “sung through once on the solfege syllables, then sung in its entirety, with the final phrase repeated as a conclusion” (Miller). Despite the repetitive nature of such singing style, the participants are very enthusiastic in their singing of such tunes, and often clap and stomp along with the beat. Through shape-note singing a community emerged, one that is based around the Protestant faith, but is much more than that.

Shape note notation is important in American music history, as it is seen as the first original American music style and it is a defining style that influences genres to come. Some music historians say that African American spirituals were influenced from the shape note singing of groups like the Sacred Harp. If this is in fact true, the shape note style is an important one in American history that continues to influence music today.



Miller, Sarah Bryan. Post-Dispatch Classical, Music Critic. “Amazing Grace at The Missouri Sacred Harp Convention, Shape-Note Singing Isn’t for Listening, It’s for Participation.” St. Louis Post – Dispatch, Mar 28, 2001.

“VALUABLE MUSIC BOOKS,” 1841. Christian Observer (1840-1910), Oct 29, 176.

“A VALUABLE music book,” 1838. Common School Advocate (1837-1841), Vol. 14: pp. 95.

“A novel sight”: Women and Southern Singing Conventions

A prominent event in Southern music making of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the singing convention. In rural areas of the South, families from neighboring farms would gather to sing sacred Christian music from shape note singing books such as The Sacred Harp. The singers used this type of musical notation because its utilization of only four solfege syllables and corresponding symbols made reading music easier (than traditional Western notation), and most people were able to learn the notation by attending local singing schools. In the excerpt below, a journalist from the Atlanta Constitution reports his observations from the 1892 Chattahoochee Musical Convention near Carrollton, Georgia:

Screen shot 2015-02-22 at 10.21.04 PM   Screen shot 2015-02-22 at 10.21.25 PM Figure 1

The journalist seems to be writing for an urban audience that would not be familiar with such a singing tradition. By referencing how a mother might sing these songs “as a lullaby for her babe,” he emphasizes the music’s importance as a transmitter of culture for rural folk.

The shape note singing described above ensured that anyone could participate after little practice. The singing style at singing conventions reflected this inclusive attitude as well as valued the individual spirit. Singers were not expected to blend with one another; rather, they sang at full volume in order to praise God at their highest capacity. The ability of individuals to worship depended on their zeal as they sang, not their wealth, community standing, or musical sophistication. The clip below from the 2010 Chattahoochee Musical Convention shows that this atmosphere remains today.

Figure 2

As documents from the nineteenth century reveal, gender also carried less importance at singing conventions, which made them significant events in the lives of women. The Atlanta Constitution article states that women were allowed unusual freedoms like being permitted to lead songs at singing conventions.

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Figure 3  and Figure 4

While female leadership seems to shock the journalist observing the convention, Mrs. Denson’s leadership makes sense in the context of the convention’s democratic ethos.

Singing conventions also held importance for women because they provided a venue at which members of the opposite sex could mingle. In the following short story excerpt, published in Arthur’s Home Magazine (a magazine marketed toward women), the author describes a young couple who attends a singing convention together not because they enjoy the singing but because the young woman’s parents allowed her to leave the house with young man only because they would be attending a singing convention.

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Figure 5 and Figure 6

The women who read Arthur’s Home Magazine would have been interested in a story about a singing convention because the singing convention represented an arena in which a woman could participate in social activities without much attention paid to her gender.

Singing conventions were important in the lives of women for three main reasons: 1) they were integral to the transmission of culture, which has traditionally been the role of women,  2) they gave women leadership opportunities in worship, and 3) they provided social venues in which women had more freedom. However, while the democratic nature of the singing convention allowed for more equal treatment in regard to gender, it should not be overstated, considering that the spirit of inclusiveness did not extend to African-Americans. The tradition I have described above refers to white Southerners. Whether or not a similar treatment of gender occurred in separate African-American singing conventions remains a question for another blog.


A.B.F., “Old Time Singing: Devotees of the Old ‘Sacred Harp’ System of Melody,” The Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, GA), Aug. 9, 1892, accessed Feb. 22, 2015,

“Sacred Harp Chattahoochee Convention 2010,” Youtube video, posted by THEbubbleskid, September 9, 2010, 

A.B.F., “Old Time Singing: Devotees of the Old ‘Sacred Harp’ System of Melody,” The Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, GA), Aug. 9, 1892, accessed Feb. 22, 2015

Sacred Harp Singers. Available from (accessed Feb. 22, 2015)

Hester Grey. “At the Singing Convention,” Arthur’s Home Magazine (1880-1897) 65, no. 6 (1895): 570, accessed Feb. 22 2015,$N/1?accountid=351

Arthur’s Home Magazine, 1867. Available from