Today most people have had at least some exposure to music reading through public schools or private music lessons. But in the formative years of this nation, music education was a luxury enjoyed by a very few.
In the early 1800's two Philadelphians, William Little and William Smith, patented a music reading system that used various geometric shapes instead of circles for notes. A brilliant shortcut, these "shaped notes" made reading lines and spaces unnecessary.
As the "fad" caught on, tunebook compilers often developed their own shapes – touting them as easier to read than those in the books of their competitors. Business was booming! Some books were written using a four shape system of "fa sol la mi" and others were written in the seven shape system of "do re mi fa sol la si do." In fact today, if you sing shaped-notes you will often be asked if you do four, seven, or both.
Soon itinerate singing masters were visiting communities to teach the new system through singing schools. In the deep South the four-shaped system, most notably found in B. F. White’s The Sacred Harp, was especially popular, and that tradition also developed its own particular singing styles.
The Blue Ridge Mountains started with the four-shaped system as well, but due to books such as William Walker’s The Christian Harmony, Marcus Swan’s New Harp of Columbia, and Joseph Funk’s Harmonia Sacra (among others), the seven-shaped system took a strong foothold, and unique singing styles also became part of the region's tradition.
At the Quay Smathers Memorial Singing School, we use the seven-shaped system devised by William Walker and found in The Christian Harmony. Even if you have no musical experience, you will be able to sing many of the songs from the book at the end of the day by simply relying on the shaped-note reading system that brought music to the masses those many years ago!