Category Archives: Shape-Note Music

Thoughts on Tune Families

In many early American churches—and some churches today—congregational singing consisted of either a preacher lining out a melody, with the congregation responding, or a cappella singing using words-only hymnals.  In either case, most folks learned the melody by ear.  Over generations and in the absence of notated music, each local church community would develop its own version of a hymn tune.  These versions form a tune family—that is, a collection of tunes that are regional or denominational variants of the same melody.  Unless we know the original melody, however, it is not always clear which tunes belong in the same family.  Another wrinkle in the story is that melodies can vary through oral transmission and also by the conscious act of an arranger or editor.  In the American folk hymn tradition, the tune and the text are rarely “married” to one another; one text can be substituted for another when they share the same poetic meter.  Therefore, I will disregard the text for the moment.

BOURBON (page 13t) and its variants CONFLICT (260t), DISMISSION, MEDITATION, etc. belong to the same tune family.  In my discussion of BOURBON, I mentioned that I consider it to be more distantly related to THO’ DARK BE MY WAY (305), which Hauser originally titled BEGONE UNBELIEF.

Here are my questions on tune families…

  1. I’ve described a tune family as a collection of tunes that “seem to be” variations of a single, original melody, which may be unknown.  Can we make this more precise?  How different can two melodies be, while belonging to the same tune family?
  2. Can we quantify some sort of “melodic distance” so that any two melodies that are in the same tune family are “close” according to this distance?
  3. Supposing we have a way of calculating distance between two melodies.  Can we use that to identify melodies that are more distantly related, but still descended from a common ancestor—that is, to find melodic cousins, in addition to siblings.
  4. Can we make a “tune family tree” and recover the original, ancestral melody?

I’m certainly not the first person to ask these questions.  Question 1 is difficult to answer. Students of American folk hymns such as George Pullen Jackson and Nikos Pappas have relied on their own intuitions—good though those intuitions are—rather than giving precise instructions for identifying a tune family.  Question 2 interests me greatly, and may help us answer Question 1.  There have been several theoretical measures of melodic similarity developed that seem reasonable in this context and have withstood empirical testing.  However, I think we can do better, in this case, because the category of American folk hymns is quite narrow.  In this repertoire, we have extra information—the poetic meter of the hymn text—that parses each melody into phrases (most commonly, into four or eight phrases).  The poetic meter also tells us which musical notes correspond to accented syllables in the text.  Question 3 is especially relevant to large databases of hymn tunes such as Temperley’s Hymn Tune Index and Pappas’ SWASMIS.  At the moment, these are searchable by exact melodic matches, but not by near matches.  The answer to Question 4 is probably “no,” but why not try?  There are some tunes, like Billings’ SAVANNAH, that crossed into the folk hymn repertoire, so we can even get a sense of how fast melodies “mutate”—perhaps we can tell how old a tune family is by the amount of variation it has?

Here are some thoughts on identifying tune families and quantifying musical distance in general.  Please understand that I am not claiming that any of these songs are “the same,” any more than I would think that two siblings are the same person.  Moreover, my concept of relatedness is based on notes of the melody, and ignores aspects such as text, harmonization, history, etc.

CONTOUR SIMILARITY.  I’m going to start with a simplified case: suppose we have a four-line hymn, where there are four iambic feet per line.  Poetry that follows this pattern, including all the texts for the BOURBON tune family, is said to be in long meter (L. M.).  Common meter (C. M.) songs like “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound” have four lines, alternating four and three iambs per line.

My first thought is to reduce each tune to a “skeleton” representing the notes that fall on syllables of poetry.  Here’s a reduction of Lewis’ BOURBON, using open notes for accented syllables and filled notes for unaccented syllables.  The small notes to the left of the key signature are the ambitus, representing the span of the highest and lowest notes in the song.


This reduction has the advantage that we no longer have to worry about the rhythmic irregularities of a particular setting of the song (those are interesting, but we’re doing a reduction here).  So the fact that Davisson added rests in the middle of his setting from c.1822 doesn’t change the basic skeleton of the melody.

Here’s DISMISSION.  You can see how similar they are at this level.


George Pullen Jackson indexed songs by their first few notes, as he explained on page 132 of his White Spirituals of the Southern Uplands (1933).  Among his “eighty most popular tunes, ” pages 133-150, he lists SUPPLICATION, BOURBON, and CONSOLATION as one tune and  DISMISSION as another.  For reference, here is SUPPLICATION


and here’s CONSOLATIONconsolation_reduction

A good case can be made that these two tunes are closely related to each other, though SUPPLICATION is long meter and CONSOLATION is common meter.  Note the similar ambitus and contour.  Clearly, though, BOURBON is closer to DISMISSION than it is to either of these.  To be fair, Jackson comments,  ”Tune indexing is still an infant endeavor,” (page 132) and he remarks elsewhere on the similarity of BOURBON and DISMISSION.

Let’s revisit BEGONE UNBELIEF (305) and also look at RESTORATION (312b or 268t in The Sacred Harp, depending on which revision you use).  Although neither song is in long meter, both consist of four lines with four accented syllables each.  RESTORATION is in the “8s & 7s” meter, meaning alternating eight- and seven-syllable lines, usually with this accent pattern:


COME thou FOUNT of EVE-ry BLESS-ing

There are exotic meters, like 10s, 11s, or even 12s, that follow the same pattern of four accented syllables per line.

BEGONE UNBELIEF.  10, 10, 11, 11.

Be-GONE un-be-LIEF my SAV-ior is NEAR …
By PRAY’R let me WREST-le and HE will per-FORM

In these cases, it’s harder to “map” one tune to another because the unaccented syllables are associated with the accented ones in different ways.  A naive fix for this would be to just look at accented syllables.  Here are BOURBON, DISMISSION, BEGONE UNBELIEF, and RESTORATION.

BOURBON. L. M.  (ShH 13t)

DISMISSION. L. M. (MH 145)Dismission_reduction

BEGONE UNBELIEF.  10, 10, 11, 11.  (ShH 305)
Tho’ Dark Be My WayBegoneUnbelief_reduction

RESTORATION.  8, 7. (SH 312b, CB 268t)Restoration_reduction

The resemblance is not nearly as close as between BOURBON and DISMISSION, but there does seem to be a relationship, and it also seems reasonable to attempt to quantify how close the skeletal melodies are to each other.  The simplest measure is to count the number of places where the melodic reductions differ, so that the “distance” between BOURBON and DISMISSION is 2, while the distance between BEGONE UNBELIEF and RESTORATION is 8—half the maximum distance of 16.  A natural refinement is to count the number of scale-steps difference, rather than just treating any difference equally.  This approach favors similarities of contour without requiring actual pitch matching.  Of course, we can throw  other information into our calculations–the ambitus, perhaps.

Here is another group of tunes that have similar melodic contours, this time alternating 4 and 3 accented syllables per line.

NEW BRITAIN / HARMONY GROVE.  C. M. (SH 45t, ShH 300t)NewBritain_reduction

PRIMROSE.  C. M. (SH 47t)

YE OBJECTS OF SENSE.  11, 8.  (ShH 444t)YeObjects_reduction

CARRADOC PLAINS.  11, 8. (Olive Leaf; also arr. J.P. Karlsberg)

OTHER SIMILARITIES. Contour seems, to me, the most promising way to study tune similarities.  However, there are other approaches.  For example, notice that all the members of the BOURBON family end with “fa-sol-la” (3-4-5) at the end of the second phrase of the melody.  Is it possible that all or most tunes with this motif are related?   IDUMEA (SH 47b) is an example, as is TENDER THOUGHT (ShH 21) and HUMBLE PENITENT (ShH 399).  Another consideration is phrase structure—see the comments here.

If contour is the main marker of tune family, perhaps a tune family can contain both minor and major melodies…. Here’s a thought—does anyone else think of IDUMEA (SH 47b) and PSALM 30 (ShH 22b) as variants of each other?  Of course, the fact that they share a text helps.  Again, phrase structure is telling.  I would describe both songs as ABB-A, where B- is a prolongation of the B phrase.

MORE COMMENTS.  I’ve received several thoughtful responses to this post on fasola-discussions and Facebook.  Jason’s comment about developing a generative theory of hymn tune melodies reminded me of George Pullen Jackson’s overlay of the melodies of PISGAH (SH 58) with Ruth Crawford Seeger’s transcription of the singing of Jesse Allison and his group, recorded here.*  Here’s a reduction of PISGAH as in the Sacred Harp, plus my reduction of the Allison recording.  I’ve kept in the unaccented syllables, but of course you can ignore them.

PISGAH.  C. M. (SH 58)Pisgah_reduction

AMAZING GRACE.  C. M. (transcr. R. C. Seeger from Jesse Allison)AmazingGrace_Allison

*George Pullen Jackson, White and Negro Spirituals, New York: J. J. Augustin, 1943, p. 350-1.

Friendship (to every willing mind)

221b FRIENDSHIP is one of the few folk melodies in A Supplement to the Kentucky Harmony that has a well known, secular source—it was written by George Frederick Handel for his 1736 opera Atalanta.  Sometime in the sixty years after its first performance, the melody acquired English words that are attributed to a “Mr. Bidwell, of Connecticut” in the American Musical Miscellany (1789).  As far as I know, the tune was first published with this text under the title THE BRITISH MUSE in a two-part arrangement in the Select Songster (1786).  Here are a few different versions I’ve collected:

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Chorus “Viva la face, viva l’amor!” from Atalanta, 1736.  This is probably the most interesting arrangement to sing because it’s so different from the style of the subsequent “folk” versions. I’ve transposed it down from the original key of D major and set it in shape notes, but kept the melody in the top part—a true soprano.


PDF (4 shapes)

PDF (7 shapes)





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click to enlarge

American Musical Miscellany, 1789.  The version of FRIENDSHIP in this small book of mostly secular songs and melodies inspired the arrangement on 221b of the Shenandoah.  I changed the bass slightly and wrote an alto and treble part.





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A Supplement to the Kentucky Harmony, 1820.  This four-part arrangement is attributed to Cook.  Yes, the alto ends the song on the sixth degree (la) of the scale!  I’m guessing this was a printer’s mistake, especially since the corresponding phrase ends with the fifth degree (sol) earlier in the song.







The Southern and Western Pocket Harmonist, 1846 (based on the arrangement in Wyeth’s Repository, Part II, 1813).  The bass in this setting is almost identical to Wyeth’s; the treble is a simplification of the Wyeth’s treble, which had some difficult leaps. This arrangement is also in the Christian Harmony, with an added alto.

Link to facsimile:

200 Years of Bourbon

One of the joys—and sometimes frustrations—of choosing songs for The Shenandoah Harmony   was the often overwhelming number of different shape-note arrangements available for the same song.  BOURBON (13t), which has been in print since 1814, is a classic example.  We  chose two different settings of the melody (13t BOURBON and 260t CONFLICT) plus two closely related melodies (7t SUPPLICATION and 305 THO’ DARK BE MY WAY).

I’ve been fascinated by the difference in harmony between BOURBON and CONFLICT for a long time.  The song goes under several other titles, including MEDITATION, DISMISSION, and BRETHREN, PRAY. I started collecting different versions.  With the help of Nikos Pappas, I have found twelve harmonizations from the years 1814-1911 that are substantially different from each other, plus a handful that differ from these in a minor way.

This post is a sketch for a much longer academic article I’m writing about the BOURBON tune family.  The story is a fascinating one, covering not only the history of this particular tune, but also the process of tunebook compilation and editing, the shift away from “ancient-style” harmony and towards “scientific” functional harmony that occurred over the course of the nineteenth century, the change in attitudes towards the minor mode and modal music in general, and the transformation of the physical form and function of American hymn and tune books in this period.

Although there are more arrangements than these, I’ll look at a few of the most interesting and influential prototypes:

  • BOURBON, The Beauties of Harmony, 1814.
  • DISMISSION, The Missouri Harmony, 1820.
  • MEDITATION, The Southern Harmony, 1835.
  • BRETHREN, PRAY, The American Vocalist, 1848.
  • CONFLICT, Hymn and Tune Book, for use in Old School or Primitive Baptist Churches, 1886.

Please note that you can click on any score to see a larger version.  Also there are MIDI files available for all the music on this page—just look for the link that says MIDI and click on it.


Below is the first published version of the song, from Freeman Lewis’ Beauties of Harmony   (1814).  Notice the alto clef and the archaic time signature (the backwards “C” meant 4/4 measure at a moderate tempo, led in two beats per measure).  I wonder how the clash between the sharp 7 (sol) in the tenor and the natural 7 in the other parts was supposed to resolve.  Modern Sacred Harp singers would probably ignore the sharp, but we don’t know what Lewis expected from his students.

MIDI – Lewis’ Bourbon


Tunebook compilers often changed or “corrected” songs they selected from other books.  In the first edition of A Supplement to the Kentucky Harmony (1820), Ananias Davisson prints the Beauties of Harmony arrangement, with the accidentals omitted (Davisson didn’t believe in accidentals) and with the alto in the treble clef.

Here’s what appears in the second edition (c.1822):


Oops! Davisson meant to vary the rhythm of the song, halving the long held notes after phrases one and three and adding more time in the middle.  However, he forgot to change the treble and alto.  He corrects his mistake in the third edition (1826):

MIDI – Davisson’s Bourbon


This type of change to rhythms or individual notes was quite common.  Lewis’ (or Davisson’s) arrangement appears in several subsequent books; sometimes the alto is omitted.


Both this song, DISMISSION, and Davisson’s version of BOURBON appear in the first edition of The Missouri Harmony (1820).  Identical or similar versions of DISMISSION are in several other books.  William Caldwell added an alto in his Union Harmony (1837).

MIDI – Dismission



The arrangement of MEDITATION that Walker selects for The Southern Harmony   seems loosely based on DISMISSION—look at the treble in particular.  If we define dissonances to be seconds, in any octave (so that sevenths and ninths also count as dissonances), this one definitely wins the award for the most of them.  I’ve highlighted all the dissonances in red.

MIDI – Meditation, Southern Harmony


In 1866, Walker added an alto, revised the treble and bass, and adopted the more modern seven-shape notation.  As Karen Willard pointed out, in a thought-provoking thread on fasola-discussions that she titled “evolution in harmonic tastes,” William Walker commented, “The harmony of this tune has been corrected and improved expressly for this work.”  You can see that there are now only three dissonances, despite the added fourth part.  The phrase bars indicate the end of each line of poetry.

MIDI – Meditation, Christian Harmony


The Deason-Parris revision of The Christian Harmony   (1958) has still more changes.  The number of dissonances is the same, but they appear in different places.  In addition, the alto moves up to “si” right before the repeat sign, completing a minor triad rather than doubling the treble and leaving an ambiguous dyad.  This version is also in The Christian Harmony, 2010.

MIDI – Meditation, Christian Harmony 1958



While ancient-style part writing places the melody in the tenor and gives each voice part a melodic line to sing, scientific or reformed harmony often locates the melody in the soprano and employs chord progressions, rather than individual melodic motion in the supporting voices, to give the piece forward momentum.  Although Mansfield’s round-note American Vocalist   was published before The Christian Harmony, it contained a mix of ancient and reformed styles.  The melody is still in the tenor, but in other ways this setting is much more “scientific” than any we have seen yet, using standard chord progressions like iv-V-i.  Mansfield also “corrects” the rhythm by setting the song in 3/4.

MIDI – Brethren, Pray, American Vocalist, 1848



Quite possibly the strangest old arrangement of any shape-note song appears in the Primitive Baptist Hymn and Tune Book   by Durand & Lester, 1886.  By the 1880s, minor songs were completely out of fashion, partly due to the notion that they couldn’t be harmonized “scientifically.”  So…  The song is recast in a major key, with the melody ending on the sixth degree of the scale.  Wow.

Note the upright format of the pages—oblong books were expensive to produce, and these condensed scores, with the melody on top, were easier to read on the piano or organ.

MIDI – Conflict, Durand & Lester, 1886


Daily’s Primitive Baptist Hymn and Tune Book preserves some of the strengths of the Durand & Lester setting without the awkward ending.  After firmly establishing the major key (Bb) by the end of the first line, it modulates to G minor in the last few bars.  There’s even a German sixth chord in the last complete measure!

MIDI – Conflict, Daily, 1911PBH206_Conflict_orig

Very similar settings appear in the Old School Hymnal and The Shenandoah Harmony. Daily wasn’t the first shape-note arranger to make this sort of modulation—check out Hauser’s BEGONE UNBELIEF (MIDI), which is the basis for my arrangement of THO DARK BE MY WAY.  It’s amazing that Hauser, in 1848, anticipated this early 20th century setting.

There are several new arrangements of the BOURBON tune family in modern hymnals.  I particularly like Louise McAllister’s 1958 setting in The Worshiping Church (1990), which retains the modal character of the original. Here’s a MIDI.


Some readers were so fascinated by Durand & Lester’s setting that I posted a bunch of scans here: Selections_from_Durand_and_Lester.  I also transcribed O LAND OF REST (PDF) and you can hear the MIDI, too!  This one, I want to sing. It’s attributed to Caldwell, but that’s just the melody – his setting, called New-Market, was harmonized in the minor mode, with the ending note as the tonic (E minor).