Abstract The meson spectrum is discussed in terms of the three-quark shell model with SU(6) ⊎ O(3) symmetry. Wave functions and mass operators are constructed. A fit to the experimental spectrum is performed for the N = 0 and 1 levels, and gives good agreement with the data. An acceptable fit to the N = 1 level is not possible with only spin-scalar and spin-vector operators, but the inclusion of a particular spin-tensor gives a good description of the spectrum and a successful prediction of mixing angles. The possibility that the low-lying 0 + states are (qq) ( q q ) bound states, as suggested in the bag model, requires a separate ( q q ) nonet at higher mass. The consequences of this view have been investigated by refitting the mass spectrum with the conventional 0 + states replaced by recently discovered higher mass mesons. In this case too, spin-tensor terms are needed to obtain a resonable fit to the data. Due to a lack of data no complete analysis for the N = 2 level can be made, but by exploiting a relation between reduced matrix-elements for different multiplets, the masses of several resonances are predicted.