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Life in Nineteenth-Century Ohio
Temperance | Parlor Music | Minstrel Songs
The singing school was a common fixture in many American communities during the nineteenth century. In the singing school, rudimentary musical sight reading and the mechanics of singing were taught by a 'singing master.' These schools often became popular places for communities to socialize and a place where children could learn about music. The mostly sacred songs which they learned in these schools soon became the standards they would sing in their homes and churches.
Singing schools made use of tunebooks or printed manuals containing instructions, scales, etudes, and sacred choral music. As with their British precursors, American singing schools rose as an effort to reform congregational singing in Protestant churches. In New England the movement grew particularly quickly and resulted in the first school of American composers, and in the publication of hundreds of sacred tunebooks.
The propagation of singing schools was aided by the invention of the shape-note method. The shape-note system used four distinctive note heads to indicate four syllables corresponding to the musical scale tones mi, fa, sol, and la. Eventually, a seven-shape method was devised and popularized by Jesse B. Aikin in The Christian Minstrel (1846). Pupils taught shape-note singing were able to simply correlate shapes with scale degrees, and consequently memorization of key signatures was unnecessary. The methods were almost universally maligned by critics and formally-trained musicians, but the simplified notation caught on quickly, particularly in the South and West, and became standard notation for many sacred music publications.
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Long, Edwin. History of hymns. Philadelphia: Joseph Jaggers, 1875.
Whittle, D.W., ed. Memoirs of Philip P. Bliss, with contributions by E.P. Godwin, Ira D. Sanke, and Geo. F. Root; introd. by D.L. Moody. New York: A.S. Barnes, 1877.