Sacred Harp is the largest surviving branch of what is known as traditional American shape note singing. Singers in this tradition sing without accompaniment and sit arranged by vocal part (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) in a “hollow square,” facing one another across the square and taking turns at leading from the middle of the square. Song books are provided, and group leader Kyle Johnston will lead a primer (or refresher) before the official start time of these sings! No prior experience is necessary to participate in these gatherings – all are welcome.
The name “shape notes” comes from the musical notation that was designed to facilitate congregational and social singing. The notation – using shapes on the note-heads in hymnals – was introduced in late 18th century England, and it became a popular teaching device in American singing schools to help singers find pitches within major and minor scales without the use of more complex information found in key signatures on the staff.
Shape-note singing has roots in an even older tradition, an 11th-century Italian system that uses syllables like “fa,” “sol,” and “la” to teach musical scales. Instead of writing music with classic oval-shaped note heads, the system uses different shapes — a triangle for “fa,” an oval for “sol,” a square for “la,” and a diamond for “mi” — to indicate each note’s pitch. This helps singers easily sight-read and learn new pieces of music. In the middle of the 19th century, various seven-note systems based on the seven-syllable "do re mi" system were also being developed and used in various shape note singing groups.