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Lined-Out Hymnody

Today, we are revisiting the oldest form of Christian hymnody in North America, called Lined-Out Hymnody, and a later style called Shape Note (or Patent Notes) Singing,  introduced in 1801. What you hear today with the lined-out hymnody remains mostly an aural tradition. No instruments – only our God-given voices.

Shape Note Hymns appear in 4-part harmony and sometimes 3-part.  To get the most out of the shape note hymns, here are a few guidelines:

4-Part Shape Note Hymns:  With 4-part shape note hymns there are some liberties as to which line you can sing.  The Tenor Line (3rd line down) is always the melody.  It should be sung by higher men’s and women’s voices, in their own register.  The top line is the counter melody.  It is also sung by higher men’s and women’s voices.  The second line is for lower women’s voices, and the bottom line for the lower men’s voices.

With 3-part Shape Note Hymns,  the middle line is the melody, and should be sung by higher men’s and women’s voices.  The top line, also sung by higher men’s and women’s voices, is the counter melody.  The bottom line should be sung by lower men’s and women’s voices in their own register.

Lined Out Hymnody – This is a powerful call and response experience that feels timeless and thins the veil, so to speak.  We will find our way through the tunes as guided by the precentor.  There will be moments when some notes are held and others moved through for dramatic effect.  If you wish, simply listen to the first verse and hear how it is presented and sung back by the choir, then try the second time around.  However, I encourage you to simply jump in and let your voice resound.

~  John Cantrell, Director of Music

In the beginning were the Psalms… As the Reformation kicked into high gear in Europe, groups of radical Calvinist reformers in Geneva, France, the Netherlands, and England experimented with forms of worship to get back to what they considered to be biblically sanctioned worship practices.

Trying to expunge all elements from the church that they considered pagan or idolatrous in origin, these radical reformers attacked everything from stained glass, to incense, to saint worship, to celebrating Christmas, to steeples, and finally, instrumental music in church. Stripping Christian worship down what they considered the bare essentials of early apostolic purity, these reformers settled on a worship practice that included no holidays aside from keeping the weekly Sabbath all day long with preaching, praying, and congregational singing of metrically translated psalms of David from the Bible.

The resulting psalters were odd combinations of florid tunes taken from polyphonic renaissance music reprinted as stripped down unison melodies, paired with frequently artless and grim translations of the psalms of David. Nevertheless they became beloved artifacts of faith. But they were proclaimed illegal in almost every country they were published in, as all European states, including the newly proclaimed Protestant ones, cracked down on these extreme reformed practices.

In order to ensure complete and equal participation from all the congregation, these reformed Congregationalists settled on a form of singing the psalms called lining or precenting. A precentor would stand at the head of the congregation and read the psalm aloud to make sure even the illiterate could understand the words, and then go back and chant it out line by line, with the congregation responding with a well-known tune sung in unison for each line.

As Europe descended into the cataclysmic Thirty Years War of the 17th century, fought mainly over these religious differences, reformed Protestants of all nationalities became refugees and fled to North America bringing their stern Calvinistic music practices with them. And thus, the lining out or precenting of psalms became the earliest non-indigenous form of music in North America.

The first Great Awakening of the early 18th century mostly replaced the metrically translated psalm texts of the Bible with new fiery devotional hymn poetry of Isaac Watts, the Wesley brothers, and countless other “new light” authors. But the practice of congregational lining out of hymns persists to this day, in African-American, Native American, Appalachian, and Scottish worship practices.

~ Ben Bath, ethnomusicologist and tenor section leader

Click here for PDFs of this week’s sheet music:




Wondrous Love