WHAT IS SHAPE-NOTE MUSIC?

by James Solheim


         Shape-note music is a living folk-singing tradition with over two hundred years' history in the United States and with roots that go back centuries before that.  The sound is different than that of any other music, and the tunes are written in special notes invented to help untrained singers learn to read music! The music was invented to help people sing in harmony, so you are welcome to sing with us whatever your background.
         Many hundreds of wonderful songs have been composed in this tradition, and many are still being written today.  Developed originally in Revolutionary-era America from British Isles sources, the tradition lives on in the twenty-first century in certain southern churches and has spread to many other parts of the world.
         The shape-note tradition preserved in such books as The Sacred Harp (which we use in Omaha) is a capella, four-part harmony music.  It is not the same thing as gospel music, and it is not regular church hymns printed with different notes.  It is its own tradition.  (And by the way, there aren't any harps in The Sacred Harp -- it's all unaccompanied voice.)
         The sound is both rich and stark, ranging from somber to wild.  In many of the wildest songs, all four parts (bass, tenor, alto, and treble) sing different melody lines with different words, and each part has a melody that could stand on its own.  Nobody is singing "backup."  Everybody gets a good tune, and the four parts merge into something that is beyond melody.  Men and women sing tenor, and men and women sing treble (the men sing it lower, of course), which creates the feel of six-part harmony.
         Traditionally, the songs written in minor keys are sung in the Dorian mode, which gives them an indescribable haunting quality, especially in songs that contain another shape-note tradition:  the "open chord."  To understand this unique and stirring music, you just have to hear it!
         Omaha's shape-note singing group meets because we love the music and want to preserve this great tradition.  And our singers include both trained and untrained musicians from a wide variety of backgrounds and philosophies.  Many of the best shape note singers around the U.S. learned through singing from The Sacred Harp!  So to learn the music in a supportive environment, come and join our group, which meets in St. Vincent's Church at 51st and Lake Streets in Omaha, Nebraska.

         The national web site for shape-note singing is at www.fasola.org.