Quick Contents: Shape note introduction, notation example, other books, Boston area open sings, Sacred Harp singing conventions, other WWW shape-note servers, shape-note resources and Internet mailing list.


Shape-note tunebooks, of which the Original Sacred Harp is a later example, are a development of the New England singing schools and their use of the fa-sol-la (hence Fasola) solmization to teach part-music to otherwise musically untrained folk. A more detailed history of the development of shapenote tunebooks is under development.

The notation makes use of different shapes of note-heads to indicate the seven degrees of the scale. While there are avid singers from seven-shape books, most of the books I use rely on four shapes: Fa (triangle shape-note FA), Sol (oval shape-note SOL), La (square shape-note LA), and Mi (diamond shape-note MI) which is the leading tone. These can represent a Major scale as fa-sol-la fa-sol-la mi fa; where fa is used both for the tonic (I) and the subdominant (IV) degrees of the scale. There are whole steps between fa, sol, and la; the note below fa is a half-step down; the tonic is a half-step above mi. By reading the shapes one need not be too concerned about the sharps and flats in the key signature and how to decipher where the half and whole steps lie on the staff.

It is traditional, and still practiced, that people who gather together to sing this music first "sing the notes", that is, singing the fa-sol-la syllables from the notation, which sets the tune in memory for then singing it complete with the words. Those who do not yet know the shapes can merely read the printed music as written, ignoring the extra information contained in the shape of the noteheads, as this excerpt from the Original Sacred Harp shows below:

New Britain

from the Original Sacred Harp

Shape-Note example New Britain
The familiar melody is found in the Tenor line.

Other Books

Additional shape-note tunebooks are Northern Harmony featuring works of traditional New England composers, The Norumbega Harmony Sampler, a preview of our forthcoming tunebook; The Sacred Harper's Companion devoted to work of contemporary composers in the traditional style; and Northampton Harmony, containing both old and new works.

Boston Area Open Sings

Persons in the Boston area desiring to acquaint themselves with this sort of music can attend the monthly open sings sponsored by Norumbega Harmony every second Monday of the month starting at 7:45 PM - see flyer for dates, location, and contact info.


Throughout the year, in various areas, there are conventions where folk travel to join together in song, a hundred voices per part at times. More information on the New England and other area Sacred Harp Singing Conventions is available here.

Other WWW Shapenote servers

Keith Willard at the University of Minnesota has put up a set of Fasola pages that include access to the Resources list mentioned below, archives of the fasola mailing list, and many other items of interest to the shape-note singing community.
See also Warren Steel's Sacred Harp page. Dr. Steel has been singing and studying this music for many years and is a contributor to the 1991 Denson revision of The Sacred Harp.
West Gallery Music is the English analog to the New England Singing School tunes of the late 18th century.


A directory of recordings, tunebooks, and other information about shape-note singing is available as the Sacred Harp and Shape-Note Resource Guide

For those who want to keep up to date with the shape-note singing community online, there is a shape-note mailing list and archive server; information available at

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Original mid 1994
Last Modified: Mar 4 09:39 EST 2003 / Ishmael the Fiddler