Shape Notes

It could of been the free doughnut holes talking, but sound was divine. Voices climbed and blended with one another high above thanks to the superpub resonance of the wood floor and the vaulted wood ceiling. It’s a good thing that I travel with a nice audio recorder for such occasions, knowing full well that photos alone could not tell the story of the annual Sacred Harp gathering at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh.

Here’s a sample of three numbers from the day so you can get a sense of the scene.

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The following words are by Independent Weekly reporter Bob Geary,

Fa-So-La, with the occasional Mi: The relationship of these four notes, and the shapes assigned to each one, are the basis for shape-note singing, as I learned last weekend at the North Carolina Sacred Harp Convention in Raleigh.

Think Julie Andrews and “Doe, a deer, a female deer,” but not exactly. The Von Trapps were accompanied by dad on the guitar; shape-note singing is a cappella. And where Maria taught the kids to sing using a seven-note system with examples that weren’t religious, traditional shape-note singing employs just the four notes. There’s no “Doe,” “Ray” or “Tea.” (But there is a potluck luncheon, so you can BYO jam and bread.) And all the words are directed to God.

If it sounds simple enough, it is, though sight-reading shape notes isn’t a whole lot easier than sight-reading ordinary music. The idea of the circle, triangle, square and diamond is that if you know how Fa (the triangle) is supposed to sound after someone sets the pitch for you, you’ll know how the next note up (So, the circle) and the next note (La, the square) ought to sound. Mi, the rarest note, is a diamond. Then it’s back to Fa-So-La.

I think I got that right. In any case, here’s the key thing to know about shape-note singing: You don’t have to know anything. Just listen, catch the tune and use your shower voice when you can.

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One thought on “Shape Notes

  1. This was great. Never heard of “Shape Notes”, but glad these people had. Sorry I missed you at Matt’s reception. Carry on.


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