Editor’s Note: In this essay, first published in the National Sacred Harp Newsletter 2, no. 6 (November 1986), Raymond Hamrick analyzes published scholarship and an interview with Hugh McGraw to argue convincingly that shape-notes aid in composition, not just in sight-singing. In addition to assembling such a compelling case, Hamrick points the way to the yet-unrealized potential to learn more “about the methods of composing shape-note tunes as practiced by … present day composers.” If any readers find themselves moved to take up Hamrick’s call, the Newsletter stands ready to publish the results. Just get in touch!
Any prolonged study of the music in the early shape-note books will impose one with the wide variety of styles. George Pullen Jackson postulated some eleven categories with several tunes not falling into any of these. We find tunes from one of Haydn’s pupils, something of Mendelssohn, tunes from very early England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Germany, plus many from the first American composer. Also in profusion are pages of music by less lofty writers and it is of these that this paper deals.
Many researchers have noted that the invention of the shape-note system simplified the reading of music for the masses. Also, I think that a good case can be made that the system also was, to the rural or little-trained composer, a magic key that unlocked a door to musical expression. With this hypothesis in mind, let us consider the following.
In the Spring 1960 volume of the Journal of Research in Music Education, Dr. George Kyle of the University of California at Berkeley wrote about his experiment in teaching upper grade elementary students how to sight read music in two different ways, on the traditional format style, the other being shape-notes. For those interested in the several conclusions reached in that experiment I recommend its reading. My concern here is with the paragraph subtitled “Concomitant Learnings.”
In addition to the measured skill in singing at sight, the experimental group seemed to excel in other ways. The students in the experimental section (those taught by shape-notes) were the only ones to develop skill in notating their own created melodies. They alone attained a grasp of the harmonic structure in music necessary to create an auto-harp accompaniment.1
Also noted in this group was a three-fold increase in music interest as evidence[d] by a large increase in the number of students electing to study vocal music in the succeeding year.
Researchers in early American music tend to focus on the benefits of the shape-note system to the beginning singer, especially those “of mean ability” as one compiler phrased it. But I think the preceding paragraph is the key to yet another benefit of the system—the enabling of the amateur composer to create, notate, and harmonize his own tunes—or perhaps more importantly, to set down and preserve British-American folk tunes as did John McCurry in his partly secular Social Harp.
In reading of the early New England composers and compilers it is evident that many were fairly well versed in music. Some played instruments and they composed in round notes. After 1800, however, and especially after the movement into the South, the style of harmonization changed and homespun composers began to set folk-tunes to paper and to grace them with the hymns of Watts, Wesley, et al. thus creating some of the loveliest music in The Sacred Harp and other books of the period. It would be of interest to research the musical training of these early composers and have some idea of the shape-note-generated music that evolved.
In the doctoral dissertation of Mai Kelton entitled “Analysis of the Music Curriculum of Sacred Harp,” [the author interviewed] some twenty-two [singing school teachers, of which] twelve have composed songs and five of them have a total of twelve songs in The Sacred Harp. Also, of the twenty-two, only three are noted as having had some formal musical training.2 These three are not included among those who have songs in The Sacred Harp so it would seem that these twelve published songs were probably composed via the shape-note method.
Very little has been written about the methods of composing shape-note tunes as practiced by these present day composers but it is hoped that this will be done while they are yet living.
In recent conversations with Hugh McGraw, who has composed quite a few songs over the years, the question was asked:
“Do you compose in round or shape-note style?”
“In shapes,” was the instant answer. “If I tried to compose in round notes I’d be completely lost.”
“Do you know of any other composer of Sacred Harp tunes who composed in any other way than shape-notes?”
Mr. McGraw’s opinion bears weight since he was the chairman of the Music Committee for the 1971 Revision of The Sacred Harp (Denson) and was in direct contact with all individuals whose songs were considered for inclusion in that edition.
Considering the above, it seems there is a fairly strong case to be made that the benefits of the shape-note system flowed in more than one direction and in doing so made possible much of the music that has now become a tradition to be cherished.The importance of shape-note composing can be summed up in the following quote from Buell Cobb’s fascinating book The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music:
Throughout the history of the Sacred Harp, the urge to improve or renew the storehouse of songs has been vital. And where this urge is lacking or where it remains unfulfilled the song tradition dies. The many and recent revisions of the Denson and Cooper books indicate the continuing strength of the Sacred Harp.3
- George H. Kyme, “An Experiment in Teaching Children to Read Music with Shape Notes,” Journal of Research in Music Education 8, no. 1 (1960): 8, doi:10.2307/3344231. [↩]
- Mai Hogan Kelton, “Analysis of the Music Curriculum of ‘Sacred Harp’ (American Tune-Book, 1971 Edition) and Its Continuing Traditions” (Ed.D. dissertation, The University of Alabama, 1985). [↩]
- Buell E. Cobb, The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978), 125–26. [↩]