Shape note singing was developed in New England in the 1790s as an alternate method of musical notation. The system was originally devised in order to teach those without musical training to sight-read. Notes are represented both on the traditional musical staff and also by shapes indicating the intervals between notes.
The style lost popularity in the North in the 19th Century, but it migrated down the Shenandoah Valley to find a lasting home in the South. Among those who have kept the torch burning are the Atlanta Sacred Harp Singers. An informal network of shape-note enthusiasts, Atlanta Sacred Harp gathers in local homes and churches to celebrate the traditional music they love. In addition to the many all-day singings which take place on weekends around greater Atlanta, many singers, along with some curious beginners, gather the first Thursday evening of every month at Emory Presbyterian Church.
But don’t plan on going as a spectator; a Sacred Harp singing is a participatory event. The trebles, altos, tenors, and basses divide up and sit in a square facing inward. Singers take turns leading from the center of the group. They run through each song at first vocalizing only the notes as “fa,” “sol,” “la,” or “mi.” Then they sing the words, and since there are no dynamic markings in Sacred Harp, they sing loudly! Beginners may find the singing tricky and the music unusual or dissonant at first, but they’re soon swept up in a sound from the past that still echoes today.