When Almanzo Wilder took Laura Ingalls to singing school in a tiny South Dakota town in 1884, they sang rounds, practiced scales and learned to harmonize. It turned out they harmonized pretty well in other ways, too. The short stint in singing school was part of the couple’s prairie courtship, and they married soon after. The author of the Little House on the Prairie series wasn’t the only one to study music—or fall in love—at a singing school. Long before school choirs were a thing, singing schools offered a crash course in harmony, musical theory and, for some, romance.
Singing schools are obsolete now, but for 19th century participants like Laura, they provided a rare chance to loosen up, socialize and learn something about music. But they didn’t start out that way—instead, they began in the American colonies’ most austere churches.
18th-century New England had many strict Calvinist churches. And the churches had a big problem: terrible music. Though Protestants could actually participate in church services instead of watching in silence, they didn’t strike a sweet note when they did.
Part of the problem was the lack of choirs, musical instruments and hymnals. Instead of singing songs all the way through, congregants followed a song leader. The leader would sing one a capella line—often from a primitive hymnal like the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in America—and the congregation would sing it back.
But the practice, known as “lining out,” resulted in abysmal singing. Discontented ministers compared the music to howling. “Without an instrument to set and keep a tune, or a choir to give vocal support,” writes music historian David W. Music, “the tempo…became slower and slower.” Clearly, churches needed some livening up—and some formal music education.
They found their musical salvation in the form of young university graduates with musical training. Disgusted by the racket, they schooled their own congregations on alternative melodies for hymns. Then they started to travel from town to town, teaching neighboring congregations how to sing.
Over time, the concept evolved out of the church and into secular spaces like schools and taverns. Singing schools became beloved social institutions. The concept was simple: Over a two-to-four-week period, traveling singing masters would sort singers out into soprano, alto, tenor and bass and teach them the basics of musical theory and sight singing. Instead of naming notes with letters like C and F, students used solfege—the practice of giving notes names like sol and la. Teachers also used the shape note system, which assigns each note a distinct shape.
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As musical notation became more complicated, so did the music sung by budding singers. Singing schools developed their own distinctive song types called fuging tunes. These four-part hymns were advertised as more wholesome than popular music. But other singing masters ingeniously paired popular melodies with sacred texts, creating songs that were both religious and pleasing to the ear.
Not everyone loved the new singing style. Fuging tunes were looked down on by social elites, especially as singing schools spread into the American South. An 1845 magazine editorial mocked singing schools as “the most mortifying feature and grand cause of the low state of scientific music among us.” But for people in rural and poor areas, singing school was the only chance to study music theory, education, and performance.
There was another reason to look forward to singing school—it was a great place to go courting.
Few spaces where men and women could openly mix existed at the time, and young people treasured the chance to get to know one another in public. As the practice grew, singing schools became known as a place where romance could bloom—and people like Laura Ingalls Wilder took full advantage of the rare chance to enjoy a night of flirtation, music and fun.
Entertaining and educational, singing schools spread across the South. Today, singing schools are primarily a Southern institution, thanks in part to The Southern Harmony, a wildly popular singing school book published in 1835. The book was the first to pair the words to “Amazing Grace” with its most popular tune, creating a kind of musical shorthand that is still part of Southern identity today.
So are singing schools. After decades, they moved back into religious traditions and can still be found in Primitive Baptist and other churches today. The format has changed slightly—singing schools now take the form of workshops or are held in free-standing buildings—but the curriculum is largely the same.
Singing schools have another legacy: public music education. As Lowell Mason, one of the most popular singing school instructors of the 19th century, traveled the country teaching singing, he became convinced that America’s nascent school system should include music. After years teaching music in the South, he returned his native New England. In 1838, he successfully lobbied for the Boston Public Schools to incorporate vocal music into their curriculum. Mason spent the rest of his life instructing music teachers, and by his death in 1872, music had been integrated into many schools.