Mountain Grown Music - traditional mountain music of Haywood County North Carolina

Shape Note Singing

A history of shaped notes
By Michael Beadle

The method of reading music with shaped notes flourished in the United States at a time when a young nation yearned to become musically literate.
Zack Allen, who wrote the foreword of an updated book on The Christian Harmony,states: "The naming of notes, as an aid to sight reading music, has been in use for nearly 1,000 years. But written music, in its complexity, has often been accessible to only the educated and studious."

Elizabeth Smathers-Shaw, a talented shaped-note singer and daughter of shaped-note master Quay Smathers, explained that many of America's settlers had come with only their necessities. Since music and fine instruments were more of a luxury, the nation, early on, was largely musically illiterate, Shaw said.

Once things became more settled, organized church and music and education developed. By the mid-18th century, a revolution was under way to teach people music. Many teachers looked for a quick, easy way to do it—a sort of Hooked On Phonics method, Shaw said.

Though it's not clear who invented shaped notes, the innovation came from an Italian concept called solfeggio (pronounced sahl-FEH-zhee-oh), which assigns a syllable to each note in a musical scale.

This is where we get today's do-re-mi scale. The syllables were actually Italian words, Shaw explained.
What began with fa-sol-la-fa-sol-la-mi-fa eventually developed into today's eight-note musical scale do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do, as popularized by the Julie Andrews movie, The Sound of Music.

In teaching students to read these notes, some innovators came up with simple shapes representing notes on the musical scale. Soon, publishers sought to corner this growing market in music education, even trying to patent the shaped notes, so they were called patent notes.

By the end of the 19th century, four basic shapes were used, according to one historical account in The Christian Harmony. William Walker, who published his first song book in 1835, was unable to wrestle away patented notes for his own use, so he came up with his own set of shapes, according to a historical account written in the 1994 edition of The Christian Harmony.

But according to Linda Greene, local shaped note singer and secretary with the World Methodist Council at Lake Junaluska, many publishing companies tried set their own spin on the history of shaped-note singing through their own published books.

In Walker's songbook, the notes and their shapes are as follows: Doe is a trapezoid, ray is a crescent moon, mee is a diamond, faw is a right triangle, sole is an oval, law is a square, see is a triangle tilted on its side and doe is a trapezoid again.

"The beauty of reading shaped notes is that you need only look for the shape of the note rather than the lines where the note is placed. And when you read the do, that's the key the song is in," Shaw explained. "It teaches you a quick way of getting into the music,"she said.

And as the frontier expanded, so too did the popularity of shaped-note singing. It spread from New England to the South and then to the Midwest and further out West, according to Shaw.

In Southern Appalachia, where musical traditions were played by ear from one generation to the next, the main social gathering place where shaped-note songs thrived were churches.

"Years ago, this is what we did for entertainment,"said Greene, who grew up with shaped-note singing in her church. Today, she continues to work with many churches that use shaped-note singing.

And through devoted music teachers like Quay Smathers, the tradition of shaped-note singing has endured. For nearly 50 years, Smathers led the Christian harmony singing at Morning Star United Methodist Church in Dutch Cove near Canton.

On the second Sunday in September at Morning Star, the harmonies of shaped-note singers swirl together in a feast known as Old Folks Day.

"And a lot of churches still use that music," Greene said.

While shaped-note singing is something of a dying tradition, grass roots efforts have tried to preserve it, and shaped-note song books are still being printed and distributed. In fact, the 1994 movie, The Journey of August King,featured WNC shaped-note singers singing from The Christian Harmony.

For more about shape-note singing, see FASOLA

Old Folks Day at Morning Star United Methodist Church in Canton, North Carolina

Date: 2nd Sunday in September
Time: 1:00 pm Eastern
Books: Christian Harmony
Contact: June Smathers-Jolley
Phone: (828) 648-4532

Quay Smathers started this singing. Preaching at 11, Dinner-on-the-Grounds at noon. This is not a "sitting in the square"singing; singers sit together in the choir seats.


Located southeast of Canton, which is west of Asheville, NC. From Interstate 40 take the exit for NC State Highway 215 south into Canton. Turn left, east, at US Highways 19, 23, & 74. First Union Bank will be on your left, and youÕll turn right onto Academy and go up the hill. Follow the road as it curves and becomes Dutch Cove Rd. At the cemetery bear left. Continue for a mile or so. The church will be on the left.

Mountain Heritage Day Singing
(At Western Carolina University in Cullowhee)

Date: Saturday, September 30th
the last Saturday in September
Time: 10:00 am Eastern
Books: Christian Harmony, Denson
Contact: Michael Nichols
Phone: (828) 586-4802
Notes: 2nd Contact: Hugh McGraw (770) 537-2283

Sacred Harp singing in the morning; Christian Harmony singing in the afternoon. Box lunches are furnished. Call Mike Nichols for free parking passes (important).

WCU is located in Cullowhee, NC 7 miles south of Sylva on Route 107. From Atlanta GA take Interstate 85 north to Interstate 985 and head north. Stay on I-985 until you reach US 441. Head north on US 441 to Dillsboro, NC. At Dillsboro take US 23 east to North Carolina Highway 107. Go South on Hwy 107 to Cullowhee. Follow the signs to the University. The singing is in the administration building. From Asheville NC take Interstate 40 west and get on US Highway 74 at exit #27. Go west on US 74. At exit #85 in Sylva, merge onto Hwy 107 and drive south to Cullowhee.



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