I can’t sing a lick. When my daughters were young and misbehaved, I sometimes threatened to sing to them if they didn’t behave themselves. They begged for any other punishment and immediately became little angels.
Despite my lack of singing ability, a good singing voice is something I’ve always admired and coveted. A desire to express one’s self in song has inhabited the human soul since the dawn of mankind. Worldwide, the music business is a multi-billion dollar industry.
So it’s not surprising that during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the average person enjoyed few cultural opportunities, singing schools became a popular social activity.
The rural singing school first emerged in
in the late 1600s. English immigrants brought the idea to England America, and the first American singing school
appeared in New England in 1720. Originally
developed to improve singing in churches, the singing school soon became an
important social and cultural activity.
As Americans moved
westward they took the idea of the singing school with them. Itinerant singing
school masters would hold school for two weeks to a month, generally during the
winter months, in a local school house or church building. For a fee of fifty
to seventy-five cents per pupil, the singing master would school his rural vocalists
in the art of singing a cappella by reading shape notes, often called “buckwheat”
notes because they resembled buckwheat seeds.
|1800s Singing School|
In shape note singing, invented in 1801, students learn to read music by associating the particular shape of a note with a corresponding music syllable. The four-note system used fa, sol, la, and mi, while the seven note system used do, re, mi, fa, sol, la and ti. This method was thought to help singers otherwise illiterate in reading music find the correct pitch. Though melodious, shape note singing can sound a bit halting and stilted.
During the 1800s, singing schools using the shape note method became wildly popular, especially west of the Alleghenies. While both sacred and secular music was taught in the singing schools, most of the songs were sacred since the
original purpose of the
schools was to improve singing in churches. Books like
Kentucky Harmony, Missouri
Harmony, Southern Harmony, and Sacred Harp printed in the four shape
notation, became popular in protestant congregation of the South and the
southern Midwest. I remember hymnals with the “funny
shaped notes” as a child in southern . Indiana
|Sacred Harp sing school class |
1892 Macedonia Primitive Baptist
Today, groups such as the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association are devoted to keeping the art of shape note singing alive. Holding all day or multi-day singing conventions complete with traditional pot-luck dinners on the grounds, they continue to train the singing challenged.
|Mt. Union Sacred Harp Singers|
Could learning to read shape notes help to improve my singing voice? It’s doubtful, but maybe worth a try. Have you heard of shape note singing or even tried it? I’d love to hear your story.
Ramona K. Cecil is a poet and award-winning author of historical fiction for the Christian market. A proud Hoosier, she often sets her stories in her home state of