American shaped notes tune books and the fasola tradition

When William Little and William Smith published The Easy Instructor (Philadelphia 1801), they started a spate of shaped notes tune books over the next half century or so. Perhaps the best known today is The Sacred Harp (1844). The traditional singing style associated with these books is known as the Sacred Harp style. The four shapes correspond to four syllables (fa, sol, la, mi) that form the theoretical underpinnings for the way these tunes have long been taught. Anyone who knows “Do, a deer” from The Sound of Music knows that there are seven syllables. Where did this fasola come from?

It’s easy to look at the chapters on rudiments of music in any of the shaped-notes tune books and see a primitive, rather naive approach to teaching music, inferior to the seven-syllable method. In fact, until fairly recently, music history textbooks bought into the idea that William Billings and other self-taught tunesmiths in colonial New England developed an entirely new style of singing out of sheer ignorance. That was certainly the opinion of Lowell Mason, whose “better way of singing” rejected fasola and promoted European classical music as a model for proper church music.

Actually, the fasola tradition has a long and honorable tradition, in England, anyway, centuries older than William Billings. The whole idea of learning to sing and read music using syllables started with Guido of Arezzo in about 1025, long before anyone figured how to write music down. He used six syllables: ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, starting on the notes we call C, F, and G. It was therefore necessary to know how to change “hexachords,” as he called these sequences of six notes, in order to sing melodies that used more notes.

By the sixteenth century, if not earlier, English teachers found it easier to teach the system if they used ut and re only for the lowest octave of each voice. In what we call a major scale, mi was needed only once, to indicate the half step below what we call the tonic. At about the same time, theorists on the continent were beginning to add a seventh syllable, si or ti, to the top of the standard hexachord. Ut somehow became do. That is simpler still, because it enables singers to sing all the notes in an octave without using the same syllable more than once.

But the fasola system became firmly entrenched in England. John Playford’s Introduction to the Skill of Musick (1655) became the basis for several important later books and proved especially helpful to parish clergy as they began to establish singing schools later in the century. In the eighteenth century, publishers issued plenty of books written by and for these largely rural clergy. None of them appear on anyone’s list of the important music books. The more urbanized English musicians had long since adopted French and Italian ideas. Playford’s rules still served as the basis of those promoted by such prolific rural authors as William Tans’ur.

Shaped note tune books

Amazing Grace in shaped notes

Amazing Grace in shaped notes. The tune is in the tenor.

The shaped notes system essentially overlaid the traditional fasola theory with staff notation. If people could read printed music, they could read the four shapes as easily as they could read the standard round notes. If they couldn’t read music, the shapes reminded them of the fasola syllables and let them see the contour of the melody. Several books using shaped notes appeared shortly. They mostly contained standard psalm tunes, hymns, and fuging tunes in the tradition of Billings’ generation.

In 1813, John Wyeth published his Repository of Sacred Music: Part Second in shaped notes, with an introduction to the rudiments based on fasola. It was the first tune book to introduce a substantial number of Anglo-American folk tunes. If I recall correctly, it also has a few “classical” tunes as well. The reform movement later led by Mason had already started. The rather insipid hymnody championed by Mason, who surely never encountered a Bach chorale or anything of similar harmonic sophistication, easily took over urban churches. It effectively silenced the more native fasola tradition all over New England. But not so quickly elsewhere.

Wyeth’s Repository, published in Pennsylvania, gained popularity not only in that state, but points south and west. Kentucky Harmony (1816), Southern Harmony (1835), and Sacred Harp (1844), among many other shaped notes song books, soon followed. The fasola tradition of singing that grew up in rural England flourished, with American notation and American tunes, all over rural America. Especially in the deep South.

A source: Fasola timeline
Image credit: Fasola notation: from White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands by George Pullen Jackson (1933)
Amazing Grace: from the Original Sacred Harp (1911)


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