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U.S. a cappella singing style incorporating many folk hymns and utilizing a special musical notation. The seven-note scale used by some singers is sung not to the syllables do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti but to a four-syllable system brought to America by early English colonists: fa-sol-la-fa-sol-la-mi. The system reflects the fact that a series of three intervals repeats itself in the major scale. A differently shaped note head is used for each of the four syllables. The singer reads the music by following the shapes; singers unfamiliar with the system can read the notes according to their placement on the staff. The tradition started in New England and moved South and West as more sophisticated forms of music reached the U.S. Shape-note singing had largely died out except in rural areas by the 1880s, but it has experienced a revival in recent years. The traditional shape-note hymnal, The Sacred Harp, first published in 1844, remains in use today.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on shape-note singing, visit Britannica.com.
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