The Origins of Shape-Note Notation

Presentation by Annelise Ellars (Basel)

02.11.2023, 19 h

Klaus Linder-Saal, Musik-Akademie Basel, Leonhardsstr. 6, 4051 Basel

The Origins of Shape-Note Notation

What is Shape-Note? It is exactly what it sounds like: different shapes used on the staff to represent different notes. This notation documents a fascinating religious folk tradition unique to the United States. It began in the northeastern region of the country at the end of the 18th century, and has continued in various rural pockets until today. The compositional style is quite raw in its simplicity, and yet is written in a polyphonic choral setting using shaped note heads. This music, distinguished by its unique notation method, is a vital part of the early history of music in the United States, specifically the teaching of music to its parishioners.

In this Donnerstag-Akademie we will dive into the origins of the notational system known as Shape-Note, first published early in the 19th century, which lie in the earlier English four syllable solmization system popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. We will also explore the living tradition of Shape-Note singing through demonstration and experimentation, in the spirit of historical performance practice at its most practical.

Annelise Ellars is currently pursuing her second master’s degree at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in musical performance, with a main focus in medieval voice and harp.