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Early American tune books on display in the Music Library

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by Ray Heigemeir | Thursday, September 27, 2012
Detail showing shape notes used in four-syllable fasola solmization, in The Easy Instructor (Albany, NY, 1808)

“To please the taste of the public”

Early American Tune Books
(1761 – 1808)

Five early American tune books and one facsimile edition are on display in the Music Library through December 2012. Items include William Billings' The Singing Master's Assistant (Boston, 1781); Andrew Law's The Art of Singing(Cheshire, Conn., 1794); and, Jeremiah Ingalls' The Christian Harmony (Exeter, 1805).

Over the course of the 18th century, congregational singing in Protestant churches suffered a slow deterioration as colonists distanced themselves from European traditions and practices. The typical call-and-response hymn singing, in which the congregation mimicked lines sung by the preacher, had devolved into a cacophony due to the congregation’s lack of vocal skill and musical training, combined with increasingly individualized interpretations of traditional European tunes, poorly remembered. In order to strengthen participation in worship, a “new” way of singing from notes, as opposed to the “old” way of singing from memory, was needed.

Enter the singing master and the singing school. The singing master was an itinerant teacher who set up schools in communities where people desired to learn to sing from printed music. This was one of few avenues for a musician to make a living at that time. Singing schools, which charged modest fees and were open to both men and women, were the first form of public music education in the fledgling United States.

That the sexes could mingle in approved communal (supervised) surroundings was a bonus for many of the younger participants. Learning music through psalm singing was also a way to cultivate a young person’s talent while at the same time saving them from the negative moral influences suspected in Italianopera music, also popular at the time.

A market for tune books, which included rudimentary music instruction and 3- and 4- part hymns, anthems, and other tunes, quickly developed. Around the turn of the 19th century, over 300 editions representing 150 titles were in circulation. Music making had become a vital part of life in the new nation. These books also represented the first flowering of indigenous American composition, including many pieces by William Billings, Andrew Law, Samuel Holyoke, and Jeremiah Ingalls.

On display through December 2012.

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