Resources: Genres and Performers: Shape Note, (Golden Harp)Shape note singing is based on a method of ear-training called solfege that assigns specific spoken syllables to degrees of the scale to assist a singer's memory of pitch. Guido d'Arezzo establihed a code in the 2nd century for the European six-note system of notes: Ut - Re - Mi - Fa - Sol - La. This code for a hexachord (six-note system) was used for hudreds of years, even though use of it on an eight-note octave was quite complex. Printers began to include letters U, R, M, F, S, L under the notes in printed music to provide aids to music reading.
Before Brittish colonists traveled to the "New World" solfegists in England simplified the original code to a four-note system or tetrachord. the resulting octave scale, Fa - Sol - La - Fa - Sol - La - Mi - Fa, came to the United States with the colonists who had been trained in music. By the late 1600s, the book that is believed to be the very first printed in the colonies put the four letters, F, S, L, M beneath the staff. By the early 1700s Rev. John Tufts printed the letters on the note-heads in the staff of the music. By the early 1800s, the letters were replaced by shaped noteheads. A triangle replaced Fa; an oval replaced Sol; a square replaced La; a diamond replaced Mi. Before the middle of the 19th century, shape-note singing was out of vogue in many parts of the United States, but people in south and west used the shaped notes to keep thier hymns alive.
The shapes, associated with the sylables fa, sol, la and mi, allow the singers read through the music, vocalizing the appropriate pitch for each shape (referenced to a starting pitch). This process allows the singer to commit the melody to memory and then learn the matching words. In this way the shaped notes helps singers easily sight-read music that they have never heard.
Groups of shape note singers still sing from shape note text, some from original printings and others from material that was originally printed in the mid 1800s that were reprinted as recently as the mid 1990s. The link below lists many active shape note singing groups.