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The History of The Music
by Aaron Walden

The early Protestant settlers of the American colonies sang from songbooks called Psalters. In these Psalters there was musical notation. The music was learned by using certain syllables to represent each tone of the scale. The major diatonic scale was represented thus: fa, sol, la, fa, sol, la, mi, fa. As time went by the skill of sight reading was largely forgotten. During the first half of the 1700's, colonial ministers began promoting singing schools as a means of preserving a rich musical heritage. These schools were offered by local churches as brief courses in the rudiments of music. Oblong harmony books were produced for use in these schools.

In the 1790's a new method of printing the music was invented which printed a different shape of note head for each of the four syllables. Shape note singing was thus born.

During the first half of the 1800's shape note singing schools became popular in the frontier regions, especially the south and central states. Popular Nineteenth Century shape note books included: Southern Harmony, Sacred Harp, Missouri Harmony, and New Harp of Columbia. Of these, perhaps Southern Harmony had the most overall impact. It introduced, for the first time, such perpetual favorites as Bound for the Promised Land, Wondrous Love, and the present setting of Amazing Grace.

In the mid-1800's Akin introduced an updated form of shape notation that added shapes for do, re, and ti (or si). With the new notation, the Italian system, do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti (or si), do, was used. William Walker, publisher of Southern Harmony used a modified form of the seven-shape system for a new book, Christian Harmony, in the era immediately following the War Between the States. Those who preferred the old four-shape method, mostly used Sacred Harp, which to this day is still using the four-shape system. An interesting thing to note is that the first singing-convention was held by Sacred Harp publisher B. F. White in the mid-1800's.

In the post-war era, Dwight L. Moody began evangelizing across America and Britain. With his revivals came a new kind of hymnody. It wasn't really new, but it laid a stronger emphasis on major-key music, and had an evangelistic tone. From the shape-note tradition it inherited the chorus, repeated after each verse, and the themes of pilgrimage, and testimony. They had a popular series of hymnals entitled Gospel Hymns, therefore the style was known as Gospel music.

In the South, such publishers as Anthony J. Showalter and James Vaughan introduced Southern Gospel music. They utilized the shape note singing school method, publishing their books taller than wide, and their hymns on only two staffs (the older shape note books had been oblong with three parts written on three staffs). The new format facilitated the use of instruments, a practice of the D. L. Moody revivals. A good example of early shape note Southern Gospel music is Showalter's Leaning on the Everlasting Arms one of the world's most well-known hymns. Another example is the Gospel style arrangement of Bound For the Promised Land (which can be heard at the Cyber Hymnal, which has a link below). Compare this with the older minor-key arrangement found in the Southern Harmony (also linked below).

James Vaughan claimed to have invented the Gospel quartet in 1895. By the use of the quartets Southern Gospel publishers promoted their music to the people.

Sites Mentioned

Online Sothern Harmony
The Cyber Hymnal