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Collection Home Sweet Home: Life in Nineteenth-Century Ohio

Singing Schools

Cecil giving Felix the music lesson. Pen and ink drawing by Alice Barber Stephens [1888?]. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The singing school was a common fixture in many American communities during the nineteenth century. In the singing school, rudimentary musical sight reading and the mechanics of singing were taught by a 'singing master.' These schools often became popular places for communities to socialize and a place where children could learn about music. The mostly sacred songs which they learned in these schools soon became the standards they would sing in their homes and churches.

Singing schools made use of tunebooks or printed manuals containing instructions, scales, etudes, and sacred choral music. As with their British precursors, American singing schools rose as an effort to reform congregational singing in Protestant churches. In New England the movement grew particularly quickly and resulted in the first school of American composers, and in the publication of hundreds of sacred tunebooks.

The propagation of singing schools was aided by the invention of the shape-note method. The shape-note system used four distinctive note heads to indicate four syllables corresponding to the musical scale tones mi, fa, sol, and la. Eventually, a seven-shape method was devised and popularized by Jesse B. Aikin in The Christian Minstrel (1846). Pupils taught shape-note singing were able to simply correlate shapes with scale degrees, and consequently memorization of key signatures was unnecessary. The methods were almost universally maligned by critics and formally-trained musicians, but the simplified notation caught on quickly, particularly in the South and West, and became standard notation for many sacred music publications.

Recordings and Sheet Music

Sounds of the Singing School

Sounds of the Singing School, by Philip Paul Bliss from The Pyramid of Song (Cincinnati, 1889).

This piece is a five-part round that is a clever blend of solmization, practice in singing short and long notes, and rhythmic variety, with a touch of fun at the expense of stuffy schoolmarmish admonitions.

Bliss was an evangelist, singer, and composer of gospel hymns. Under the sponsorship of Root and Cady Musical Publishers in Chicago, Bliss held musical conventions, singing schools, and sacred concerts.

Pyramid of Song cover

In the final years of Bliss’s short life (he died at 38) he was persuaded by evangelist D.L. Moody to devote himself full-time to evangelistic singing and preaching.

Information on playing the recordings

Learn More About It

Long, Edwin. History of hymns. Philadelphia: Joseph Jaggers, 1875.

Whittle, D.W., ed. Memoirs of Philip P. Bliss, with contributions by E.P. Godwin, Ira D. Sanke, and Geo. F. Root; introd. by D.L. Moody. New York: A.S. Barnes, 1877.