What Are Shape Notes? Jeannette Sorrell of Apollo’s Fire Explains

By Candice Agree |

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"Star in the East" written using the shape note system

Among the musical traditions of Appalachia is the shape note hymn. Although shape notes were introduced in 18th-century England, this unique musical notation found popularity in the United States: first in New England and later in the American South. It’s recently experienced a renaissance of sorts among social singing groups and congregations.

We asked Jeannette Sorrell, harpsichordist, conductor, and founding director of Apollo’s Fire, to tell us a little bit about what shape notes are and how they became popular:

“Shape note singing was a tradition that developed around the 1840s, 1850s, 1860s in the rural areas of Appalachia and the South. It’s a slightly different type of musical notation where the note heads are like triangles or diamonds or squares, and this tells the singers what interval to sing. So it’s just a different type of musical notation, which they felt was easier for people to learn sight-singing. All these hymns were written that way and published that way, especially in two prominent books called The Sacred Harp and Southern Harmony

“Basically, the congregation would sing in full-voice, very loudly. It was originally in three-part harmony, so the melody was the middle voice, and then there was an upper [part] and a bass part below. And so it’s a very distinctive texture because the melody is not the top voice, it’s in the middle. Typically, the melody was sung in octaves by both men and women. The other parts might also be sung in octaves, but for sure, the melody was. It’s just a texture that, in a way sounds somewhat medieval — many open fifths and open fourths; things like that.”

Audio: Jeannette Sorrell conducts Apollo's Fire in the shape note hymn "Star in the East"

WFMT listeners have the opportunity to share in this tradition; we’ll feature Grammy-award winners Jeannette Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire in a special holiday program, Christmas on Sugarloaf Mountain.

Jeannette Sorrell (Photo: Apollo's Fire)

This celebration of the American immigrant experience shares the spirit and history of Appalachia’s Irish and Scottish roots through music. The 35-member ensemble includes the 10-voice children’s choir Apollo’s Musettes; they bring a joyous concert experience with the warmth of period instruments. Fiddlers, medieval harp, hammered dulcimer, bagpipes, singers, and children’s voices join together to evoke the Celtic roots of an Appalachian holiday. In this one-hour special, you’ll be transported from Christmas Eve in medieval Scotland to the folk carols and shape note hymns of Appalachia. Join Jeanette Sorrell and me for a toe‐tapping Christmas gathering in Virginia.