In Appalachia, shape-note singing dominated musical and religious groups. Shape-note music, often referred to by the song book used, such as Sacred Harp or Christian Harmony, uses different shapes, like squares, triangles, and diamonds, to represent notes instead of traditional music notes. The shapes enable those who cannot read or cannot read music to understand the melody and flow of the music. Shape-not music also lacks a key signature, making it more approachable to a wider audience. Rather than emphasizing technique and precision like classical music, shape-note focuses on bringing a community of people together in song and worship. To learn shape-note music, people would attend local singing schools, such as the one pictured below. In the mountains, people would come together for singings—a special event where they all sang together for hours at a time. In a rural area dotted with small, independent farms, events such as this were important to building community and relationships.

Singing school, ca. 1914

Addie Norton on shape-note singing: “Singing has always been more sacred to me than anything in the world, honey. I don’t know why. There’s nothing in the world that bothers your mind if you love to sing. You’re just as happy and as free as you can be if you’re singing a good gospel song. I love it.”

Hyman Brown teaching shape-note singing.

Learn more about shape-note singing and where to get songbooks here.

Shape-note songbook.

Side One of Christian Harmony cassette released by Foxfire in 1984:

  1. 16:45-20:00 In That Morning, Walker, Richard Moss leader, 1977
  2. 20:03-22:04 Sweet Rivers, Moore, Turner Stevens leader, 1979
  3. 22:07-25:52 Angel Band, Haskill, Laura Boosinger leader, 1980
  4. 25:56-28:58 Samanthra, Unknown, Laura Boosinger leader, 1980
  5. 29:04-32:33 Idumea, Wesley/Davidson, Richard and Lula B. Moss leader, 1980
  6. 32:41-35:20 The Saints Bound for Heaven, King/Walker, David Holt leader 1980
  7. 35:28-38:08 Time Has Made a Change in Me, Stamps Quartet (SESAC), Richard Moss leader, 1981