Shape notes were invented in the late 18th century to simplify teaching people to sight read unaccompanied sacred musical scores. They were called shape notes because, instead of drawing all of the music scale’s seven notes with round shapes, each note was represented by a triangle, square, oval or diamond shape called fa, sol, la or mi, depending on its position in the scale.
Singers usually perform in four-part harmony—alto, tenor, treble and bass—unaccompanied by instruments. Shape note singing has enjoyed wide popularity in Appalachia. Dozens of hymnals have been produced, with the most popular called The Sacred Harp. All-day singings, accompanied by covered-dish meals, are held on church grounds. They are most often scheduled outdoors in the summertime.
Digital Heritage Moments are produced at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. To learn more, visit DigitalHeritage.org. You may also hear Digital Heritage Moments each weekday on radio stations WKSF-FM, WWCU-FM, WMXF-AM, WPEK-AM and WWNC-AM.