Benjamin F. White and E.J. King published the Sacred Harp in 1844. Revised several times and still in print, it is the best known of hundreds of oblong shape note song books of the 19th century. Sacred Harp and other shape note styles are sung by singers facing each other across a hollow square. Tenors face altos and trebles (sopranos) face basses. Usually men and women sing tenor and treble, an octave apart, women sing alto and men sing bass.

Unlike modern choral music, the New England congregational roots of shape note music emphasized singing by typical voices. The melody was given to the tenor and the treble became a high harmony part.

Another striking practice is "singing the notes" prior to the words. Sacred Harp vocalizations are based on a 4-shape system, the octave running Fa-Sol-La-Fa-Sol-La-Mi-Fa. Other traditions use seven shapes.

Shape note words are often familiar texts by great hymn writers such as the Wesleys, Isaac Watts and others. Some tunes are based on folk melodies, while others are adaptations of existing melodies or new ones. One strand of shape note comes from the contrapuntal New England "fuging tune." Another draws on the fervid camp meeting and revival styles of the 19th century.

Once widespread, the Sacred Harp tradition had shrunk to parts of Georgia and Alabama by the early 20th century. A revival of interest has been apparent in the latter part of the 20th century and into the 21st among singers who may not have grown up in the tradition but are drawn to its musical integrity and spiritual power.

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