The American Singing School Movement

The American Singing School movement began in New England around 1720. A group of Harvard-trained ministers became alarmed at the poor quality of singing among their congregations and resolved to do something about it. The result was an effort to train people how to sing by reading music. In 1721, one of these ministers (John Tufts) compiled a singing manual consisting of tunes and instructions on the "rudiments" (fundamentals) of music. Entitled, An Introduction to the Singing of Psalm Tunes, this collection became very popular and eventually went through eleven editions by 1744 [SWU, p. 178].

The type and quality of singing common to New England Protestant churches before 1720 was that associated with the singing of Psalms. Such collections as The Bay Psalm Book (musical edition, 1698) and Ravenscroft's Psalter (1621, a musical edition of Sternhold and Hopkins -- The "Old Version") contained metrical versions of the Psalms versified in a few meters, particularly common meter (CM), short meter (SM), and long meter (LM). Consequently, the entire Psalter could be sung with just a handfull of tunes. The technique of singing the Psalms was called lining out. A songleader or the Clerk ("Clark") would read or "intone" a line of the Psalm and the congregation would respond by singing. The Clerk would then intone the next line, and so on until the Psalm was finished. The technique of lining out the Psalm was developed in England in the 1600's for people to sing the Psalm who either could not read or did not have Psalm books. As in the process which happens with folk music, over a period of time the original tunes become altered to the extent that different versions of the same tune were sung in different areas. Also, because of the similarity of the Psalm tunes, it was very easy to become confused. Consequently, one could start singing one tune and by the finish of the Psalm, end up singing a completely different tune.

See Hymns: Sing & Shout (University of Virginia Library)

Harvard-educated New England ministers had studied music and were motivated to improve the singing quality of their congregations. The Singing School movement was extremely successful and by 1820 had spread throughout New England and into the South. Despite the success of Singing Schools and this new technique of singing with notes called "Regular Singing", the old way of singing ("lining out" ) continued to be used and still survives today in some Primitive Baptist churches (particularly in Eastern Kentucky) and Afro-American Baptist churches [SWU, p. 222].

By the time of the Revolutionary War (1776), many tunebooks (Singing School manuals) had been published. Perhaps the most successful compiler and composer of Singing School manuals was William Billings (1746-1800). Only one of Billings' tunes survive in modern hymnals:

When Jesus Wept, the falling tear
in mercy flowed beyond all bound;
When Jesus groaned a trembling fear
seized all the guilty world around.

[Episcopal Hymnal, 1982, #715
Presbyterian Hymnal, 1990, #312
Chalice Hymnal, #199
New Century Hymnal, #192]

See William Billings. Listen to the mp3 file if it is available.

Also see The Yankee Tunesmiths

Another important composer and compiler of tunebooks was Oliver Holden (1765-1844). His tune, CORONATION ("All hail the power of Jesus' Name, MH #154) is the earliest American hymn tune still in use today. A key feature of this tune as it originally appeared is an ending section with rests in the inner parts. This is reminiscent what later became known as a fuging tune. [SWU, p. 179]

By the time Billings was producing his tune collections in the 1780's, fuging tunes had become a key feature in all collections. An example of a fuging tune which appears in a modern hymnal is LENNOX (MH # 379). This modern rendition does not have the actual "fuge." Please see SWU, p. 180 for a facsimile of the original.

Singing schools were usually organized by the ministers who supported them. Consequently, they were usually held in the church. Later, as they became more of a social rather than a religious opportunity, it was not uncommon for them to be held in the local tavern, or indeed anywhere there was room available. One of the reasons for the success of the singing school was because of the social opportunity it afforded, particularly for young people. For example, here's an excerpt from a letter written by a singing school attendant:

... at present I have no inclination for anything, for I am almost sick of the world & were it not for the hopes of going to singing-meeting tonight and indulging myself a little in some of the carnal delights of the flesh, such as kissing, squeezing &c. &c. I should willingly leave it now, before 10 o'clock & exchange it for a better [Irving Lowens, Music and Musicians in Early America, p. 282].

Singing schools and the new technique of singing with notes were not accepted by everyone. The older singing proponents were decidedly against it and viewed the singing school as an example of worldliness which had invaded the church. Also, because the singing schools had taken on a more social function, the music associated with them, particularly the fuging tunes, were seen as insidious, rhythmical, sensuous, worldly and consequently had no place in the true worship of God. A pamphlet was circulated in 1722 which summarized the objections:

1. It is a new way, an unknown tongue.
2. It is not so melodious as the usual way.
3. There are so many tunes we shall never have done learning them.
4. The practice creates disturbances and causes people to behave indecently and disorderly.
5. It is Quakerish and Popish and introductive on instrumental music.
6. The names given to the notes are bawdy, yea blasphemous (i.e., fa-sol-la-mi, etc.)
7. It is a needless way, since our fathers got to heaven without it.
8. It is a contrivance to get money.
9. People spend too much time learning it, they tarry out nights disorderly.
10. They are a company of young upstarts that fall in with this way, and some of them are lewd and loose persons.

[Leonard Ellenwood, The History of American Church Music, p. 20]

By 1830, singing schools were well established throughout America and a new type of criticism began to be leveled against them. On a trip to Cincinnati around 1830, Lowell Mason noted that every where he went, people were singing the "fugueing songs" of "Billings and Company" :

The most mortifying feature and grand cause of the low estate of scientific music among us... is the presence of common Yankee singing schools, so called. We of course can have no allusions to the educated professors of vocal music, from New England, but to the genuine Yankee singing masters, who profess to make an accomplished amateur in one month, and a regular professor of music (not in seven years but) in one quarter, and at the expense, to the initiated person, usually one dollar. Hundreds of country idlers, too lazy or too stupid for farmers or mechanics, 'go to singing school for a spell,' get diplomas from scarcely better qualified than themselves, and then with their brethren, the far famed 'Yankee Peddlers,' iterate to all parts of the land, to corrupt the taste and pervert the judgment of the unfortunate people who, for want of better, have to put up with them. We have heard of one of these cute geniuses, who 'set up' in a town way down east as cobbler! On his sign, under the announcement of his profession, as a provider for the wants of the bodily understanding, was the following choice couplet, setting forth, as a musician, he did not neglect to provide also for the wants of the mental.

Delightful task! to mend the tender boot,
And teach the young idea how to flute.

Cobbling and music! We just ask how any musical nerve can stand that?

[George Pullen Jackson, White Spirituals from the Southern Uplands, pp. 19-20]

Lowell Mason, along with Thomas Hastings, went on to establish public school music education in Boston, which became the model for all American school music education. In addition Mason and Hastings established a music publishing company in Boston and started to produce a more "learned" type of hymn tune modeled after the "correct" harmonies of European (particularly German) music theory. The success of Mason and Hastings in New England proved the downfall of the Singing School movement in that part of the country. However, Singing Schools continued to thrive in the South and a new type of tune book was created in 1802 by William Little and William Smith: the Shaped-note tunebook (The Easy Instructor, Albany, New York, 1802). See Shaped-note Hymnody.

[Thanks to Justin Thomas, MCM student, Belmont University for the organization of this material.]

See Singing Schools.
See Singers Glen, VA
See Ananias Davisson


William Billings


© 2001 Smith Creek Music

Site last updated: March 1, 2014