Behind A Beginner’s Guide to Shape-Note Singing

Editor’s Note: Lisa Grayson’s popular A Beginner’s Guide to Shape-Note Singing has been a fixture for years at our singings across the country and beyond, welcoming newcomers to large annual singing conventions and local regular singings alike. You can access the new Fifth Edition of A Beginner’s Guide on, and read about the guide’s creation below.

As much as Sacred Harp feels imbued in every part of my life now, I can still remember when I stumbled upon the music in 1991 at the University of Chicago Folk Festival. Although I arrived only three songs before the session was over, the singing exerted its tractor beam on me, as it has on so many others, and my heart knew that I was at home not only in the music itself, but among the singers, all strangers to me.

Nine years after the Chicago Sacred Harp singers published its first edition, Lisa Grayson's "A Beginner’s Guide to Shape-Note Singing" is now available as a free PDF download on

Nine years after the Chicago Sacred Harp singers published its first edition, Lisa Grayson’s “A Beginner’s Guide to Shape-Note Singing” is now available as a free PDF download on

I wanted more. I wanted to immerse myself in the Sacred Harp sound and experience. However, I was utterly baffled when I opened the tunebook.

Three years later, I had managed (with much help from kindly singers, including many wonderful souls North and South who no longer grace the hollow square today) to figure out the basics. To my astonishment, after three years of trying, and failing, to sight read, I could at least stumble through some slow tunes. And new singers were approaching me, often sheepishly, to ask the same questions I had when I first opened the Sacred Harp.

By then, I had written a few columns for the Chicago Sacred Harp Newsletter as the cranky Dr. Mixolydian Moad. I started to create a one-page guide for our singings, explaining to newcomers what they were encountering in the room: where the parts were seated, how shape notes work, why we beat time, etc. What began as a single flyer soon became a series of handouts. People seemed to like them, but the pages generally mouldered in the bottom of book bags.

After polling a few singers from different parts of the country, I realized that there was no published general introduction to Sacred Harp—outside of the rudiments, of course. In 1994 I decided to publish a booklet that would fit inside the tunebook, something I could create on my home computer (I was working as a publication designer at the time) printed inexpensively and sold for little. Thus the guide, first printed with a lurid lemon yellow cover, was born.

Fourth Edition (2009) of Lisa Grayson's Beginner's Guide.

Fourth Edition (2009) of Lisa Grayson’s Beginner’s Guide.

People started approaching me at singings with suggestions for revisions and additions, and I tried to pay attention. The book is in its fifth edition now. Sure, I’ve fixed mistakes, but I’ve also had to revise and expand the contacts and resources section: Think of all the web pages, not to mention new singings, that have sprung up since 1994!

For the first few years, through about 1998 or so, the Chicago Sacred Harp Singers (i.e., Ted Mercer) paid for the cost of printing the booklets and recouped the expenses as they sold. Multiple orders for single copies came to Ted’s storefront office, where many a pizza party had been held after mailing out Sacred Harp newsletters and postcards. I took over the printing and sales, and soon realized just how much hard work Ted had put into production and promotion of that little booklet.

A few years ago, Annie Grieshop helped me find a relatively cheap printer and even schlepped boxes of the guide from Iowa to Chicago. I soon realized, however, that as much as I loved the publishing world, I was not cut out for sales and distribution. And I was getting into heated arguments with local postal clerks over international shipping rates, suddenly an issue with the overseas spread of Sacred Harp. So this year, after suggestions and encouragement, notably from Chris Thorman in California, I decided to publish the guide online. It’s available as a free download on the resources page.

I don’t know how many copies of the guide are in circulation, but it must be over a thousand by now. I will continue to update it, albeit irregularly. Thanks to everyone who has taken time to comment on the beginner’s guide, and extra thanks to everyone who helped me to sing.


About Lisa Grayson

Lisa Grayson is the author of "A Beginner's Guide to Shape-Note Singing." An active Sacred Harp singer in the Chicago area, she has been singing since 1991.
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One Response to Behind A Beginner’s Guide to Shape-Note Singing

  1. Rollyn Trueblood says:

    I am starting to piece together a group in Delaware. Perhaps I’ve set an unrealistic start as March 2015. But I had to put the first stake in the ground. Any hints or “watch out for” will have my heartfelt appreciation.

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