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Shape-Note Singing Takes Shape

Public Invited for Historic Recording

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The symbols used to represent notes in shape-note music allow people without musical training to sing complex songs without much preparation.

By Julia Gavin

What would happen if Gregorian-style chants were blended with Bluegrass rhythms? The result might resemble the choral music created by “shape-note” singing; a style of community singing developed in the 17th century that is gaining popularity today. UMass Lowell will celebrate the style by hosting a community sing from 1 to 5 p.m. on Nov. 6 in Durgin Hall Room 113.

“This type of singing is how most young people learned to sing and harmonize right here in New England 200 years ago, but it nearly died out,” says UMass Lowell music Prof. Thomas B. Malone, who studied how shape-note music is taught by teachers in Georgia and Alabama. “Now it’s coming back as a type of choral music that emphasizes participation for all, which is very much in line with the values of community music education.” 

Malone believes that the shape-note system, in which each note receives a different shape, is a particularly efficient way to teach musical literacy. While its efficiency helps pull people to the music, Malone says that shape-note singing is most attractive because of its communal feeling.

“It’s really the act of making music with others that is the secret. There is nothing else like it,” says Malone, who teaches choral and world music.  “We don’t have many arenas where people can freely come and make music together in our culture, but this is an opportunity for people with and without musical training to join in.”

University Recording “Sing the Trumpet”

At the gathering, participants will sing songs from a recent issue of “The Trumpet,” an online digest of new composers writing in the style of “The Sacred Harp,” the shape-note book credited with keeping the style alive. This is the first time these new songs will be sung and recorded live. Bradford Swanson, a double major in sound recording technology and music education, will oversee the recording of this historic event. Copies of the music are available online and the public is encouraged to join.

“The sound-recording technology people here are so good, that we can blur the lines a little bit, and capture some of the informality that is central to shape-note singing, while still getting a high-quality recording,” says Malone.

Music to Build a Community

Malone hopes that this and other community sings will encourage more people in New England to rediscover the joy of shape-note singing as people in the South have in recent decades.
“What you will see down there is young children and the elderly singing and smiling together, reading the music, keeping the time, even directing the whole group. They will drive hours just to sing together,” says Malone. “I know some people around here, of every age and all walks of life, who have got the ‘bug’ too ? they’ll travel hours to sing this music. So you wonder, ‘What is the secret here?’ Can we get people this excited to sing choral music, and why not?”

For more information, contact or call 978-934-3829.