The demands of settling the New World left little time for the first waves of immigrants to attend to the fine arts. Unlike Europe, with its ongoing traditions, America had no courtly patrons or vested institutions. No Lorenzo de Medici or cathedrals, for instance. In fact, many of the Protestants looked askance at the vanity running through many of the arts or questioned the truthfulness of entertaining fictions. The Puritans banned theater, after all, as well as social dancing, at least until yielding where I live on New England contradance. The Quakers and Baptists went further, forbidding music from their worship services altogether.

Something had to bend and, over time, did. Slowly native voices took shape in literature, painting, and music, mostly. To us today, these “primitives” can be refreshing encounters.

In music, much of this impulse surfaced along vocal lines. (Little wonder, considering the rarity of instruments and teachers.) And out of this came a desire for choral music, a community activity of a social nature.

In the absence of trained musicians, though, some music masters, mostly self-taught, opened workshops known as “singing schools” and eventually created a unique notation style we know as “shape-note” scores. These pages have the staves, time signatures, sharps and flats like the scores generally used today, but rather than having the notes themselves be round, some are square or triangles – and each of those markings designates a fa, so, la, ti, do – an ancient foundation for singing.

When singers pick up a hymn from a shape-note book, they run through the music the first time by using the words fa, so, la, ti, do rather than the lyrics, which are introduced once the singers have their musical lines and harmonies in place. And away they go.

Boston tanner William Billings (1746-1800) is regarded as the first American choral composer, and increasingly as an original, even startling, voice. His four-part “fuguing tunes” of one voice after another embracing and embellishing a phrase create bright polyphonic tapestries on Biblical and patriotic texts. Henry Cowell, a major 20th century American composer, has argued that had we heeded Billings rather than later reformers, we would have had a unique serious American musical tradition much earlier than we did. Other observers have said that hearing Billings is like encountering the wonders of music for the first time. I’d agree. While Billings, himself a singing-school master and publisher, did not employ shape notes, much of his music has survived in that style.

In Virginia, the Mennonite Joseph Funk (1778-1862) created a seven-note system still in use among Mennonites and Brethren. Many of those hymns were published in both English and German. (I have several editions of these volumes.) The crossroads where he lived and is buried is now known as Singers Glen. It’s a lovely site.

Best known today is the Sacred Harp, taking its name from a 1844 tunebook once New England choral singing took root in the American South. It’s a loud, lively, even raucous style of four-part a cappella activity – with many of the hymns composed by Billings, in fact.

Historical purists can argue whether shape-note music should be performed in the Sacred Harp style or in the more lyrical piety of the Mennonites and Brethren, which I favor. What I do know is the joy we feel as a choir when we take up pieces from this stream, as well as how difficult and challenging they can be. For the record, we use standard notation, rather than the shape-note scores. No need to further confuse us.

For related poetry collections, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.



  1. Very interesting. I’m a latecomer – joined a Mennonite church that uses shape notes while I was in my late 30’s. I can’t read any kind of music notation, have no idea why shape notes are supposed to be easier, but my daughter and her children love to sing and are lost when faced with round notes.

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