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SHAPE-NOTE (FA-SOL-LA) SINGING

Shape-note or character-note singing developed in the eighteenth century as a way of sight reading music for group a capella singing. In the United States, the teaching of the shape-note method started in New England soon after the nation formed, and the musical form moved into the southern states, where it quickly became a singing tradition. The shape-note method was as revolutionary as was the new nation. In the European method of musical notation, each tone is represented by a round-shaped note head placed on or above a specific horizontal line; in contrast, in shape-note notation each tone is represented by a different geometrical shape. The method proved popular on the American frontier because families could not afford to buy instruments, other than the occasional fiddle. A song leader could easily learn a melody by reading the shapes and singing the appropriate tones. Shape-note singing proved useful among Protestant denominations that frowned on the use of instruments. In addition, new hymns could be written in the easily taught shape-note method.

Itinerant teachers of shape-note singing traveled from community to community, teaching in the evening, when people could congregate. A singing school usually involved a three-hour lesson each night for one month. As people learned the method and the melodies and sang together, group harmonic singing became popular.

The early frontier version of shape-note notation involved only four characters fa, sol, la, mi. The shape of the note basically indicated its relative pitch to the sight reader. Eventually, the European seven-note musical structure do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti or the "do re mi" method of reading music and singing, became standard. The four note shapes were expanded into seven geometric characters, and notes were later printed on a staff of lines, as in the European method.

As shape-note or "fa-sol-la" singing evolved into a strong religious tradition, tune books such as The Easy Instructor or A New Method of Teaching Sacred Harmony (1818) were published "for the Use of Singing Societies in general, but more particularly for those who have not had the advantage of an Instructor." The books contained numerous hymns printed in four-part harmony, which encouraged quartet singing, a practice that became a major tradition in the South and eventually in Oklahoma.

It is probable that a few members of the Five Civilized Tribes, forced from the South into Indian Territory along with their slaves during the 1820s and 1830s, brought with them a knowledge of shape-note singing. However, singing conventions and itinerant singing teachers did not appear in Indian Territory until the 1870s and then occurred primarily in the eastern and southern regions of the territory. Itinerant teachers taught freedmen as well as Indians. It is conceivable that Indian Territory (present eastern Oklahoma) was the westernmost extent of this Southern singing tradition.

Singing conventions were often more than an annual activity that attracted thousands of gospel music lovers to a specific event. The gatherings were held by organizations that met on a regular basis to share their beliefs and talents. For many decades in Oklahoma there were two African American singing conventions, the New Harmony Musical Singing Convention and the New State Singing Convention. These evolved from the Union Singing Convention, an Indian Territory organization about which little is known.

The New Harmony Musical Singing Convention dates back at least to 1911, with the goal of "promoting humanity intellectually, spiritually, and musically." Their songbooks "from which the praises of God were sung" were always selected by members of the singing convention, and authorized singing teachers were available. Regular meetings in east-central Oklahoma to "Sing Praises to God" were held at different churches, for no specific denomination was involved. In 1982 the New Harmony Musical Singing Convention represented Oklahoma at the annual Smithsonian Institution Festival of American Folklife held in Washington, D.C., during Oklahoma's Diamond Jubilee of statehood.

For many years a gospel/singing convention held annually in Konawa attracted thousands of singers and fans. Shape-note or fa-sol-la singing is not dead, but its popularity has diminished. Recorded songs, radio, and television have created a popularity for contemporary gospel music within all races and creeds. Nonetheless, many religious organizations and singing groups still keep the shape-note tradition alive through all-night singings, fifth Sunday singings, and singing conventions. Some of these gatherings fulfill social needs as well as religious worship, with dinner-on-the-grounds and similar activities.

SEE ALSO: FOLK MUSIC, FOLKLIFE.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Kay Hively and Albert E. Brumley, Jr., I'll Fly Away: The Life Story of Albert E. Brumley (Branson, Mo.: Mountaineer Books, 1990). Dana L. Morrow and Cynthia Taylor, eds., A Celebration of Tradition: Retrospective, 1991-1993 (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma County Metropolitan Library System Outreach Services, 1993). Smithsonian Institution, Festival of American Folklife, 1982 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1982). David Warren Steel, "Shape Note Singing Schools," in Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, ed. Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).

Guy Logsdon

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