Shape note singing & today’s hymnody

At the New England Folk Festival, one of the workshops I attended was an introduction to shape note singing. Shape note singing is a tradition of hymn singing that stretches back to the singing schools established by North American ministers in the second half of the 18th C. as a way to improve congregational singing. The shape note tradition began in New England with composers like William Billings (1746-1800) of Boston, moved south where it produced books like The Southern Harmony in 1854, and held on into the 20th C. in Appalachia and a few other out-of-the-way regions. Finally, starting about 1975 shape note singing enjoyed a nation-wide renaissance with singing groups from New England to California (link to list of regional singings). Thus shape note singing is an indigenous North American musical tradition with an unbroken two-and-a-quarter-century history.

At the workshop I attended, I learned the basics of one shape-note tradition. The music is sung in four parts (sometimes three parts) and is printed in a distinctive style of musical notation where the note-heads have different shapes depending on the pitch. The singing style is full-throated and open, even a little nasal. The singers are always arranged in a square divided into four sections: tenors or leads (they carry the melody) in one section; sopranos or trebles to their right; altos to the right of sopranos; and basses to the right of the altos and the left of the leads. The center of this square is left open and whoever is leading a given hymn stands in the center facing the tenors, and beats time (the front row of tenors also beat time for those who can’t see the song leader).

As a working minister, what really struck me is the gap between singing shape-note hymns for an hour sitting in a square on the one hand, and the realities of incorporating hymn-singing into real-life liturgy on the other hand. Shape-note singing started as a singing school, a way to teach ordinary people how to sight-read four-part harmony; the singing master would come to your town for six weeks or some months, and lots of people would learn how to sing shape-note hymns, and then the singing master would go away and (in theory, at least) a big percentage of your congregation would have some basic music skills. Of course, when you use shape-note hymns in a worship service, I can’t see that you would have everyone sit in a square, and divide up your congregation by tenors, sopranos, etc. But the shape-note hymnal embodies the teaching method of the singing master.

What particularly interested me is that shape-note singing connects a specific hymnal with the pedagogical method (teaching people how to sight-read music, etc.). Hymnals such as The Scared Harp are both teaching tools, and liturgical resources. Compare that to the hymnal that I use everyday, Singing the Living Tradition, which seems to be written by musicians for other musicians; there is no concession made to the non-musician, and there are no singing schools to help people how to use that hymnal. The new Unitarian Universalist hymnal supplement, Singing the Journey, makes even less of a concession to non-musicians — most of the hymns require an accomplished or professional accompanist, some of the hymns stretch out over six pages (requiring three page turns) — while it contains some beautiful music, it’s really a hymnal for trained soloists and choir directors, not a hymnal for the average member of a congregation. Having peeked into the hymnals of other denominations, I think this is a widespread problem.

Contrast a hymnal like Singing the Journey with the group singing songbook Rise Up Singing. Rise Up includes only lyrics and simple chord progressions, no musical notation — you either have to know a song, or you have to have a song leader who can lead the song. Rise Up has a pedagogical method implicit in it:– you learn to sing by singing songs you’re already familiar with, and then when you gain confidence you’re willing to learn new songs that are led campfire-style (mostly unison singing, with simple guitar strumming) by a song leader. I’ve used both Rise Up and Singing the Living Tradition extensively, and in my experience, Rise Up is much better at empowering average singers to simply sing.

I’m not suggesting that we replace our hymnal with Rise Up Singing (although I have used Rise Up successfully in worship services). But we could learn this from shape note singing:– every hymnal could include a coherent pedagogical method that will improve the skills of the average singer.

6 thoughts on “Shape note singing & today’s hymnody

  1. Philocrites

    But there is a pedagogical tradition embedded in 20th-century Protestant hymnals: The once-prominent but now rapidly declining centrality of piano instruction in middle-class homes, and classical music education in schools and especially in liberal arts college education.

    The scores printed in Protestant hymnals were easily within the range of conventionally trained pianists. The overwhelming majority of this music was passably playable by amateurs — and because sight-reading was much more widespread than it is now, and because each Protestant tradition tended to draw on only a handful of harmonic traditions, congregations could sing much of this music, even in four-part harmony. Hymnals frequently sat on the family piano, because individuals and families actually sang from them at home. (I’ve even visited a Unitarian home where the 1930s “Hymns of the Spirit” sat at the top of the stack of piano music beside the piano.)

    Some traditions have responded to the decline in piano and general music instruction by simplifying the music in their hymnals. Others, like the UUA, have continued to embrace an expanding range of musical styles and traditions and have come to emphasize musical professionalism. And this has led to the problem of “unreadable” music for congregational singers and a tendency to treat music in worship as performance.

    Although I don’t see a way for churches to overcome something as widespread as a change in the way people learn and engage with music at home — after all, the transition from the dominant role of piano playing to listening to MP3s and compact discs would be impossible to reverse — I do think churches can find ways to teach their own music. Spending time before the worship service begins teaching hymns can be a casual and enjoyable way to gather. Children’s choirs and singing groups work great, too.

  2. Adam Tierney-Eliot

    This year the Eliot Church traded in its regular choir for a “Shapenote Choir” whose name, not surprisingly, is the “Sacred Harp Singers”. The Director of said group emails them the individual parts on MP3 and they also meet regularly to rehearse. I realize that it is somewhat different from the original mission and style of the form. However, I think our experiment reveals great potential for smaller congregations and Choirs… The results always sound impressive on Sunday morning!

  3. Dan

    Philocrites @ 1 — Yes, there was a pedagogical tradition built into mid-20th C. hymnody. My mother’s generation of Unitarians not only had the 1937 Unitarian/Universalist hymnal you mention, they also had an excellent children’s hymnal, and children in Unitarian Sunday schools often sang every week, both in a collective children’s worship service, and in their classes — in fact, one Unitarian church I served as a DRE had a piano in nearly every room in the building, a legacy of those days when the piano was the primary middle-class musical instrument. So learning how to sing was a part of the total curriculum of the church. But that was dying out by the time I was a UU kid in the 1960’s.

    Today the primary musical instrument is arguably the guitar, and few people learn how to read sheet music so they learn songs through recordings and by rote. So our hymnals no longer work, pedagogically speaking — there is no longer a musical “ecosystem” out there to support their musical approach. Whereas Rise Up Singing, published in 1985, works well because it plays to the musical strengths of its time.

    Adam @ 2 — I want to join your church.

    Hmmm… maybe it’s time for a wider revival of shape-note singing in our churches.

  4. Elizabeth J. Barrett

    This topic always get me excited because I grew up knowing nothing about music: no singing, no piano, no money for piano or other lessons. In grade school, I was told not to sing — “just move your lips.” Many, many people have had similar experiences of not being taught to sing, but instead being told not to. As if singing is completely an innate skill!

    Imagine saying to a child, “You cannot read, so put down that book.” No, we teach children how to read. Luckily, a member of my UU church offered a class for people who’ve been told not to sing, where we learned a few basics.

    The most important thing I learned is that singing is about connection, not perfection. To sing hymns together can be deeply spiritual, so it is our birthright to sing.

    Every year at GA, the music directors emphasize the importance of having songleaders in our congregations — someone with a microphone who is smiling and encouraging folks to sing. A worship leader or minister with his head in a hymnal is NOT being a songleader.

  5. Deborah Mensch

    We aren’t the first to notice this challenge with STLT. At First Unitarian Church of Oakland, they’ve made three CDs over the last several years. One goal of the project is to familiarize folks with some of the more obscure hymns. If you’re interested in what this great music program has done, here’s a link to the recordings. There are links to song lists with the page numbers in the hymnals for each hymn, and there are samples of some of the tracks.

    Since a CD of just a choir singing hymns is not exactly entertaining listening — hymns are meant to be sung, after all — many of the hymns are in alternate arrangements — but in my opinion, the CDs are still great tools for learning the unfamiliar material. I don’t know if this is still the case, but they were the hold music for the UUA offices at 25 Beacon St. for a while.

    Something else I’ve noticed since STLT came out is more instances of songleaders (usually real ones!) teaching one or more hymns to the congregation at the beginning of the service. I’m not sure whether this is a newer practice for UU churches or whether it’s just worked out that way in my own church life, but in my own experience, we seem to be developing some pedagogical habits to go with our newer, more musically ambitious hymnal. In the churches where I have worshipped, this teaching has led to more participatory singing, not more music as performance.

    I’m a big fan of shape-note singing and other traditional liturgical music myself, but I still enjoy the way STLT has opened up UU liturgical music to a wider variety of musical sources. Do I wish for more from the Kentucky Harmony, etc.? Sure. But my tastes aren’t everyone’s.

  6. Dan

    Hey Deborah @ 5 — Thanks for bringing up the Oakland church’s CDs — a great way to learn unfamiliar hymns.

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