For the past year, I've been going to shape-note singings. It all started when Jonathon took me with him to a singing at Furman last spring. I was fascinated by the sound of the music and the rich history of this long-standing American musical tradition. In shape-note singing (known in the South as Sacred Harp or Fasola), singers take turns standing in the center of the group (who are sitting facing each other in a square) to "lead a song". Leaders aren't the only ones who do the hand motions, though. Usually many of the singers will also be pumping their hands up and down, and tapping their feet loudly too. The singing is in three or four parts, is often quite polyphonic (they call it "dispersed harmony", in contrast with the lockstep homophony of traditional hymns), and is very loud! In the right acoustic space for a singing of this type, the room will be roaring with sound. Here's a sample of the sound: . Notice that they sing solfege before singing the words of the song. These otherwise untrained musicians become expert sight-singers simply by learning how to "read the shapes": The shape of each notehead represents a solfege syllable. You can read more about the tradition of American singing schools upon which Sacred Harp is based at Fasola.org.
Some people have an immediate reaction against the sound of this music, saying it is hard on the ear or has no dynamic inflection to it. And yet there is a huge following of shape-note music today, all over the country. Why do I dig this music? Other than the fact that Sacred Harp is the thrash metal of American hymnody, I think that I was predisposed to an affinity toward the tradition by several factors. First, I heard this type of singing in my youth, on the radio, I think, but I don't remember when. Second, there are a few shape-note tunes in the hymnal I grew up with, and I was taken by the striking difference in harmonic language of the Southern Harmony tunes, and spent hours playing them repeatedly at the piano (along with Renaissance tunes with cross-relations and other cool sounds in the hymnal). Finally, after four and a half years at Florida State, I think I've got the hand motions down.