Singing school

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O, tell me young friends, while the morning's fair and cool,
O where, tell me where, shall I find your singing school.
You'll find it under the tall oak where the leaves do shake and blow,
You'll find a half hundred a-singing faw, sol, [law].

from The Social Harp (1855)[1]

A singing school is a school in which students are taught to sightread vocal music. Singing schools are a long-standing cultural institution in the Southern United States.

Historically, singing schools have been strongly affiliated with Protestant Christianity. Some are held under the auspices of particular Protestant denominations that maintain a tradition of a cappella singing, such as the Church of Christ and the Primitive Baptists. Others are associated with Sacred Harp, Southern Gospel, and similar singing traditions, whose music is religious in character but is sung outside the context of church services.

Often the music taught in singing schools uses shape note notation, in which the notes are assigned particular shapes to indicate their pitch. There are two main varieties of shape note systems: the four-note, or fasola, system used in Sacred Harp music, and the seven-note system used in southern gospel music. Some churches, including some Baptist churches (though fewer and fewer), use hymnals printed in shape notes.

While some singing schools are offered for credit, most are informal programs.


Singing schools began in the Northeastern United States in the early days of American history. The New England colonies were founded by settlers seeking religious freedom; they believed in the importance of congregational singing of hymns in Christian worship and thus saw it as important to train each churchgoer to sing. William Billings was one of the earliest and most important of the New England singing school teachers. One of his singing schools was held in 1774 in Stoughton, Massachusetts. According to Hall, "The school taught by William Billings is the first and only one with all the pupils given." A few members of this singing school later helped organize the Stoughton Musical Society in 1786, now the oldest surviving choral society in the United States.

According to Eskew and McElrath, "The singing school arose as a reform movement in early eighteenth-century New England."[2] In some denominations, controversies existed on whether congregations should sing audibly, and whether singing should be limited to the Psalms of David. This New England controversy centered around "regular singing" versus the "usual way". The "usual way" consisted of the entire congregation singing in unison tunes passed on by oral tradition. "Regular singing" consisted of singing by note or rule.[3] Though intended for the entire congregation, "regular singing" sometimes divided the congregation into singers and non-singers. Massachusetts ministers John Tufts and Thomas Walter were among the leaders in this "reform movement". Tufts' An Introduction to the Singing of Psalm Tunes is generally considered the first singing school manual. By the middle of the 18th century, the arguments for "regular singing" had generally won the day. By the end of the 18th century, the singing school manuals had become standardized in an oblong-shaped tunebook, usually containing tunes with only one stanza of text.

New systems of music notation, including shape notes, were developed by singing school teachers as an aid in learning to sing by sight. Shape note systems included a four-shape "fasola" system prominent before the Civil War and surviving largely in the Sacred Harp, and various seven-shape systems which gained popularity in the postwar period and are still seen in some denominational hymnals and in Southern Gospel music.

Eventually, singing schools in the north faded to obscurity, while in the south and west they became a prominent social event for small-town Americans looking for something to do.

Singing schools were often taught by traveling singing masters who would stay in a location for a few weeks and teach a singing school. A singing school would be a large social event for a town; sometimes nearly everyone in the town would attend and people would come for miles. Many young men and women saw singing schools as important to their courtship traditions. Sometimes the entire life of a town would be put on hold as everyone came out to singing school. In this way, singing schools resembled tent revivals.

Laura Ingalls Wilder related attending a singing school as a young lady in These Happy Golden Years, one of the Little House books. Her husband, Almanzo Wilder, courted her there.[4]

One common tradition was the "singing school picture" taken of the teacher and students on the last day of school. Many old black and white photographs exist as records of these events from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; genealogical researchers often find these records useful. The pictures were often taken in front of a blackboard with the name of the teacher and date of the school. Some of these pictures show small classes, while others record very large schools.

Singing schools underwent many changes as cities grew and the population moved away from an agrarian lifestyle. One of the most notable changes was the length of schools; at one time it was common for schools to last four weeks. This was shortened over time, and today most of the larger singing schools last for two weeks, though the Gospel Singers of America School of Gospel Music still lasts for three weeks.

Singing schools began to hold less interest for the general public as time went on and could rarely get attendance from an entire town. Instead, schools were attended by interested students from a much larger region. In the case of Sacred Harp singing schools, students usually attended because of their interest in the Sacred Harp singing tradition; in other schools, students attended because of an interest in vocal church music, especially for those churches that maintain an all a capella music tradition.

Traveling singing school masters faded away in favor of annual schools in the same location. Primitive Baptists have established three permanently located singing schools in the state of Texas (Harmony Hill at Azle, Harmony Plains at Cone, and Melody Grove at Warren). There are several non-denominational seven-shape singing schools throughout the southern United States, including the North Georgia School of Gospel Music in Georgia and Ben Speer's Stamps-Baxter School of Music in Tennessee. Camp Fasola, which was founded in 2003, is an attempt by Sacred Harp enthusiasts to establish a permanent annual singing school.

Singing schools are also common in Missionary Baptist churches, as well as rural churches across the South. This includes Methodist, Church of God, Southern Baptist, and other denominations. Many of these churches still prefer to use shape note hymnals, as opposed to round note versions that many denominational publishing houses provide. In southern gospel singing schools, convention songbooks are used to teach sight-singing, music theory, and conducting. Some music publishing companies have also published music theory books for use in the schools.[5]


The basic subjects taught at singing schools are music theory and sight reading (the ability to sing a piece of music on first reading). Most religious schools also focus extensively on song leading, the ability to direct a group in vocal music. Song leading requires both music theory skills and public speaking skills. Most song leading classes are open to both genders, but some schools are associated with Christian religious traditions that allow only male leadership and therefore only offer such classes to males. In addition, many schools teach composition and ear training.

Sacred Harp singing schools use one or more of the 20th century editions of The Sacred Harp as curriculum. Some of these schools are one-day workshops held in conjunction with a singing convention. The emphasis is on teaching newcomers and advanced musicians the note system and traditions of Sacred Harp.

Many singing schools have published their own small textbooks on music theory, harmony, and song and lyric composition. These are often offered to students as part of the tuition charge of the school.[citation needed] At some schools students purchase a pitch pipe or tuning fork. Primitive Baptists commonly practice pitching by ear rather than with a pitch pipe. Southern gospel schools use the piano and/or organ as accompaniment and do not use pitch pipes.

It is common for students to continue to return to their singing school year after year, even after completing the entire curriculum the school offers, for additional practice as well as for the social opportunity the school represents. Many singing school students eventually become teachers. Though singing schools are not as prominent today as they were, for many people they are still an important yearly event.

List of singing masters[edit]

Ordered chronologically by date of birth.

Date needed:

List of singing schools[edit]


  1. ^ Sung to the tune of Bluebells of Scotland. The Social Harp was compiled by John Gordon McCurry in Georgia in 1855. This song is attributed to J. H. Moss. The last three syllables are the ordinary designations for the musical pitch of the last three notes in the song in four-shape systems of shape notes. Information from Art of the States: Singing School, which also offers a recorded performance.
  2. ^ Eskew, Harry; Hugh T. McElrath (n.d.). Sing with Understanding. ISBN 0-8054-6809-9. 
  3. ^ The word "regular" nowadays has multiple meanings; what was meant by "regular" at the time (Marini 2003, 75) was "according to rule", following the original Latin regula, meaning "rule". See Oxford English Dictionary, entry for "regular".
  4. ^ Wilder, Laura Ingalls (2003). These Happy Golden Years. HarperCollins. pp. 232–236. ISBN 0-06-052315-8. 
  5. ^ See Rudiments of Music and Understanding Harmony, published by jeffress/phillips music co.

External links[edit]


Web sites of singing schools[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Bandel, Betty (n.d.) Sing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land: the Life of Justin Morgan
  • Cheek, Curtis Leo (1968) The Singing School and Shaped-Note Tradition, by Curtis Leo Cheek (thesis in partial fulfillment of a Doctor of Musical Arts, University of Southern California)
  • Foote, Henry Wilder (n.d.) Three Centuries of American Hymnody
  • Goff, James R. (n.d.) Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel
  • Hall, Roger L. (1989) Music in Stoughton: A Brief Survey
  • Jones, Burt (n.d.) A Practical Handbook for Singing and Songleading
  • Marini, Stephen A. (2003) Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music, and Public Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Video Documentaries[edit]

  • Shearon, Stephen, and Mary Nichols, prod. (2010) "I'll Keep On Singing": The Southern Gospel Convention Tradition.
  • Hall, Roger, prod. (2010) "Land of Our Hearts": A New England Music Miscellany (William Billings Singing School).