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Shapenote Music

One perspective of the history of the development in the UK

by Sheila Girling Macadam


One perspective of the history of the development in the UK

Shapenote music, or Sacred Harp music as it is more often known, has its origins firmly rooted in the English psalmody tradition.  Psalm singing was a popular part of worship in England over 450 years ago, and most people today know the tune set to Psalm 100, ‘All People That On Earth Do Dwell’. This tune came from the Anglo-Genevan Psalter published in 1556, set to the Biblical Psalms of David that had been turned into verse form by Sternhold & Hopkins less than a decade earlier.

This tune, and 12 others like it were taken across to New England by the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620, and just as in England, so in the next 150 years, new tunes were written to fit both the Sternhold & Hopkins psalms (the Old Version), the Tate & Brady psalms (published in 1696 and known as the New Version), and most importantly, the poetry of the greatest hymn writer of the English speaking world, Isaac Watts. Most people know hymns and psalms to Watts’s words, they are still sung today: O God our Help in Ages Past (Psalm 90), Jesus Shall Reign Where E’er the Sun (Psalm 72) and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.

The native born composers of the New World were influenced by the psalm tunes being written in the mother country during the 18th century, and the first American to publish a collection of his own compositions was William Billings, in 1770.  Billings was born in 1746, in Boston, and through his publications and touring  Massachusetts, running singing schools to teach the colonial communities these new tunes, he inspired others to do the same.

Over 300 collections of original American sacred music, were published before 1810, but it was a book called ‘The Easy Instructor’, compiled and produced by William Smith and William Little in Philadelphia,  that introduced a special form of notation, one with different shaped note heads. 

Nearly 800 years earlier, a system of naming notes with syllables was devised by Guido D’Arrezo in Italy.  He was working on a slightly simpler form of music, based on 6 notes, not the 8 we have today. He named these notes UT, RE, MI, FA, SO and LA.  English composers as early as John Playford in the mid-17th century used D’Arezzo’s syllables as an aid to teaching psalm music, but by then the syllables UT and RE had fallen into disuse.  FA, SOL, LA were repeated up the 8 note major scale, MI became the 7th note and the scale began again on FA. The minor scale started LA, MI, FA, SOL, LA, FA, with SOL as the 7th note and ended on LA. It became as known as Lancashire solfege.

This teaching aid went over to New England in the early 18th century and was printed as part of the tuition instructions at the front of most psalm tune books.  In 1786, a man called John Connelly, living in Philadelphia, devised specially shaped note heads to correspond with the solfege names, with FA having a triangular notehead, SOL a circle, LA a square, and MI a diamond.  He sold the idea to Smith and Little, who used it for the first time in ‘The Easy Instructor’, which they brought out in 1800.

By the beginning of the 19th century, tastes in church music, both in the old country, and in New England, were changing.  The old tunes were thought of as simple and rustic, and in New England were ousted by music of the likes of Handel, Haydn and Mozart, although still set to religious texts.  In Old England, largely for reasons of doctrine, rather than fashion, the old psalm tunes were superseded by new ones which were to appear in print in Hymns Ancient and Modern.

In America, some of the old psalm tunes managed to survive, by migrating down the Appalachians in collections of music which introduced new works by composers from the Southern States, set to Evangelical texts in preference to Isaac Watts.  The last of the collections, the Sacred Harp, first published in 1844 and the only book of its kind to remain in continuous publication today, uses the same shaped notation first seen in ‘The Easy Instructor’.  It is a living tradition in many communities in the Southern United States,  Alan Lomax’s field recordings of Sacred Harp singing in the 1940s bear an uncanny resemblance to the singing at gatherings (conventions) in Alabama and Georgia today.

The 1991 edition of The Sacred Harp contains a wide range of sacred tunes from The Old Hundredth to works by living composers, who write in the same genre as their forefathers of 150 years previously, and to the cherished Isaac Watts’s texts of old.

Thanks to the perpetuation of this musical tradition in the Southern States, nearly 40 years ago, singers from New England rediscovered this link to their musical heritage, and re-introduced in Boston the practice of psalm singing that had been lost in the North Eastern United states for 150 years. Several American singers have brought this vibrant and exciting music back to the UK since 1990. A debt of gratitude from singers in the UK is owed in particular to Larry Gordon from Vermont, in the forefront of the New England revival. Larry hosted a group of singers from the UK in autumn 1995, enabling them for the first time to attend a Sacred Harp Convention in the USA, in Burlington, Vermont .

In 1996 the first UK Convention was held, in Hitchin, Herts., organised by some of the party who had visited Vermont in the previous year. The guest leader on that occasion was Bruce Randall, from Massachusetts, and for several  years thereafter, singers at the Convention were able to share in the wisdom and experience of Robin Fox, Steve Marini, Richard DeLong, David Lee, Ginnie Ely, and Shelbie Sheppard.  With Shelbie in 2003, came the famous 'Southern Bus', a coachload of Southern singers who brought a new dimension to the understanding of the music and its traditions. Similarly, within a couple of years of the start of the UK Conventions,  singers began to attend the National Sacred Harp Convention in Alabama, and have been privileged to share in the wealth of one of the oldest extant forms of music history and practice in the USA.  British attendance at the Fasola Summer Camps, organised by the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Foundation, has increased experience and enhanced interest and singing practice.

What is the attraction of this form of sacred music for us in the UK?  Possibly that the original roots are English, that it is enjoyed within a community of fellowship that has bounds which extend in both directions across the Atlantic Ocean, and that much of the music was written by and for the ordinary working man.  All-embracing, the texts and the music call to the spirituality within us, whether we are believers or not.  Some call it sacred folk music, certainly  choral music it isn’t, but to be sung ‘lustily and with good courage’, as John Wesley prescribed over 250 years ago.

© 2009 Sheila Girling Macadam
Oxford, UK


This Web Site has been set up for the United Kingdom Sacred Harp and Shapenote Community to provide a resource centre for singing in the United Kingdom. 

Any correspondence, helpful suggestions and contributions as to content, amendments, additions and new web links should be sent to Edwin and Sheila Macadam at .  All material copyright © 2000-2015.