The Southern Harmony

A Shape-Note Hymnal

Critical Thinking about Music Literacy

Shape-note notation was often used by itinerant singing-masters to help early Americans achieve music literacy for religious and community singing. The unique use of solfege syllables is based on the half- and whole-step relationships found within the tetrachord, rather than the diatonic scale.

Challenge students who are adept sight-readers using a different system to read a familiar shape-note tune, perhaps Amazing Grace. Reflecting on their experience can help them think critically about their own approach to music literacy.

  • How was the experience of reading shape-notes different than the students' typical sight-reading approach?
  • Why might someone choose a particular sight-reading system?
  • How might someone's sight-reading system impact the way they percieve and communicate about music?

Traditions of Continuity

Shape-note singing continues to be a celebrated musical art form in many American communities, and many of these communities continue to rely on an edition of The Southern Harmony. Featured below are a few recordings from the Library of Congress: Recordings from Alabama and California in the 1930's, a different Alabama ensemble in the 1940's, and Chigago in the 1970's. When listening to these recordings, students can appreciate the timelessness of repertoire that is continually re-invented by different communities in different eras.

  • In what ways are the performances similar? What elements of the shape-note songs seem to be universal?
  • In what ways are the performances unique? How do the ensembles express their distinct identities through the repertoire?
  • How could a contemporary choral ensemble express their unique identity as they continue the shape-note tradition in today's world?