Shape notes are a music notation designed to facilitate congregational and community singing. The idea behind shape notes is that the parts of a vocal work can be learned more quickly and easily if the music is printed in shapes that match up with the solfege syllables with which the notes of the musical scale are sung. The notation, introduced in 1801, became a popular teaching device in American singing schools. Shapes were added to the note heads in written music 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 notes of various kinds have been used for over two centuries in a variety of music traditions, mostly sacred but also secular, originating in New England, practiced primarily in the Southern region of the United States for many years. Although seven-shape books may not be as popular as in the past, there are still a great number of churches in the South, in particular Primitive Baptist, Independent Fundamental Baptist, and Churches of Christ, as well as Conservative Mennonites throughout North America, that regularly use seven-shape songbooks in Sunday worship.1
Sacred Harp singing is a tradition of sacred choral music that took root in the Southern region of the United States. It is part of the larger tradition of shape note music. Sacred Harp music is performed a capella (voice only, without instruments) and originated as Protestant Christian music. The songs sung are primarily from the book The Sacred Harp.2
Sacred Harp Singing
University of Mississippi: Sacred Harp Singing
Smithsonian Education: A Shape-Note Singing Lesson
Minnesota Public Radio: Shaped Note Singing
Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Shape-Note Singing Schools