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Shape note

Shape-note singing, also called Sacred Harp singing, is an American tradition of sacred choral music that took root in the southern United States of America.

The tradition takes its name from its distinctive musical notation. In the rural United States, singing schools sprung up in the eighteenth century that provided instruction in choral singing, especially for the use of churches. In 1801, a book called Easy Instructor by William Smith and William Little was published for the use of this movement; its distinguishing feature was the use of four separate shapes that indicated the notes according to the rules of solfege. A triangle indicated fa, a circle sol, a square la and a diamond, mi. A major scale in the system would be noted Fa - Sol - La - Fa - Sol - La - Mi - Fa.

The shape notes were abandoned in New England shortly after their invention, but they took root in the regions of Appalachia and the southern United States. They were specifically adapted for the dissemination of sacred music in books such as William Walker's Southern Harmony, published in 1835, and Benjamin Franklin White's The Sacred Harp, published in 1844.

The tradition involves unaccompanied, a capella choral singing. The pitch at which the music is sung is relative; there is no instrument to give the singers a starting point. Music includes hymns and what are called fuguing tunes, which are actually canons or rounds. It is associated with small Calvinist and fundamentalist churches in Appalachia and the southeast U.S.A. Churches that keep the tradition alive typically have beliefs that discourage the use of instrumental music in church services.

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