Singing school

From Academic Kids

A singing school is a school for teaching vocal music. Singing schools form an interesting cultural tradition in the Southern United States. While some singing schools are offered for credit, most are informal programs. Many singing schools are religious in nature, associated with one or more Christian traditions. Singing schools are often associated with churches that have an a cappella tradition, such as the Church of Christ and Primitive Baptists. Singing schools are also common in connection with the Sacred Harp shaped note singing tradition.



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.

According to Eskew and McElrath, "The singing school arose as a reform movement in early eighteenth-century New England." 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. 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.

A shaped note system of music notation was developed to aid amateurs in singing songs from notation, and this tradition was incorporated into singing schools. In time divergent shaped note systems arose, including Sacred Harp, which had four different shapes, and a seven-shape note system. With these systems, it was possible to teach nearly any interested person to read 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 travelling 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.

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. Then this was shortened to two weeks, and finally it became the norm for a singing school to last one week. Singing schools held less interest for the general public and could rarely get attendance from an entire town. Instead the schools would be 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.

Travelling 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, Melody Grove at Warren). The Cumberland Valley School of Gospel Music (org. 1983), a popular non-denominational seven-shape note singing school, meets annually in Pulaski, Tennessee. Camp Fasola represents a new venture (org. 2003) by Sacred Harp enthusiasts into a permanent annual singing school.

Laura Ingalls Wilder related attending a singing school as a young lady in Little Town on the Prairie, one of the Little House Books. Her husband, Almanzo Wilder, proposed to her there.


The basic subject taught at a singing school is music theory and sight reading, the ability to sing a piece of music by reading the music notation. The basic knowledge required to do this can usually be taught in one week, but a couple of years of practice are usually required to become proficient. 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 religious schools are associated with Christian religious traditions that allow only male leadership; thus, many schools offer song leading classes only for men and boys. ('See Christian views of women'.) Other schools allow women to attend song leading classes and practice the skills, but not lead, while still others teach men and women alike in the exact same program.

In addition, many schools teach harmony, the art of writing multiple parts of music for a song, and lyric writing, the art of composing words for a song.

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. Students are also generally obliged to purchase a pitchpipe, a small instrument that sounds a single note. Those students that learn song leading are taught to use the pitchpipe to establish the key and starting note of a song.

It is common for students to continue to return to their singing school year after year, even after completing all the 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 do not have the prominence they once did, for many people they are an important event to look forward to year-round.

Sacred Harp singing schools use one or more of the 20th century editions of The Sacred Harp as curriculum. Some of these 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.

List of Singing masters

External links



  • Musical samples ( - from a shape note singing school in Union, Mississippi

Singing schools


  • A Practical Handbook for Singing and Songleading, by Burt Jones
  • Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel, by James R. Goff Jr.
  • Sing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land: the Life of Justin Morgan, by Betty Bandel
  • Sing with Understanding, by Harry Eskew and Hugh T. McElrath ISBN 0805468099
  • 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, 1968)
  • Three Centuries of American Hymnody, by Henry Wilder Foote

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