Article "Amazing Grace" and Shape-Note Singing

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Subjects Article
History and Criticism
Hymns, English
Popular Songs of the Day
Social Change
Songs and Music
Worship and Praise
"Amazing Grace" and Shape-Note Singing
Subject Headings
-  Hymns, English -- History and criticism
-  Worship and Praise
-  Songs and Music
-  Social Change
-  Popular Songs of the Day
-  Articles
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Image: The Sacred Harp with inset of New Britain
The Sacred Harp, with inset of "New Britain" (Amazing Grace).

One way that "Amazing Grace" was disseminated in 19th-century America was shape-note hymnals. The principle behind writing music in this unique, non-traditional notation was pedagogical, as was the English fasola technique. Fasola taught students to identify pitches by names: fa-sol-la. Shape notation, however, is different: each pitch, as the name implies, has a specific shape. For instance, fa is triangular, sol is circular, la is square, and mi is diamond-shaped. When these shape-note heads were added to traditional note stems, they were thought to resemble stalks of grain; hence, the system also was known as "buckwheat" notation. Particularly popular in the South and Midwest, shape-note "singings" were as much social and recreational gatherings as they were spiritual meetings, often taking place in secular meeting places.

Even though shape notation attempted to simplify musical learning, the arrangements, generally made up of three or four parts, can sound quite complex. The main tune is performed by one of the inner lines (often the tenor), while the outer voices (soprano, alto, and bass) sing along with independent melodic lines that interweave harmonically. Shape-note hymnody is still practiced in some churches in the rural South, but generally is of interest to contemporary singers and scholars intent on preserving this unique American vocal practice. Perhaps the most active shape-note organization is the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Society (

Image: Shape Note Scale