Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sacred Harp: An Introduction

By Rachel Beth Rudi

Editor's Note: Today we're happy to feature more work from our intern and contributor Rachel Beth Rudi. A seasoned Sacred Harp singer, we asked her to help introduce this art form to readers.

People I meet seem to either be pretty familiar with Sacred Harp singing or entirely baffled by it. I began singing the a capella hymns in Georgia and Alabama when I came to North Carolina four years ago. There are many informational resources on the Sacred Harp, both printed and electronic, but one of the best places to explore first is, a website that lists singings around the world, catalogues songs and recordings, and gives an excellently succinct introduction to the music. From their Welcome page:
What is Sacred Harp singing? Sacred Harp is a uniquely American tradition that brings communities together to sing four-part hymns and anthems. It is a proudly inclusive and democratic part of our shared cultural heritage.

Participants are not concerned with re-creating or re-enacting historical events. Our tradition is a living, breathing, ongoing practice passed directly to us by generations of singers, many gone on before and many still living.All events welcome beginners and newcomers, with no musical experience or religious affiliation required — in fact, the tradition was born from colonial “singing schools” whose purpose was to teach beginners to sing and our methods continue to reflect this goal. Though Sacred Harp is not affiliated with any denomination, it is a deeply spiritual experience for all involved, and functions as a religious observance for many singers.Sacred Harp “singings” are not performances. There are no rehearsals and no separate seats for an audience. Every singing is a unique and self-sufficient event with a different group of assembled participants. The singers sit in a hollow square formation with one voice part on each side, all facing inwards so we can see and hear each other. However, visitors are always welcome to sit anywhere in the room and participate as listeners.

The term “shape note” is often applied to this style, but is technically a misnomer if used to specify Sacred Harp singing; it is rather an aspect of various genres, not a genre itself. Shape note is an umbrella term for any musical system where standard Western “round notes” – circles on a lined staff, visual representations of pitch – are replaced with common shapes. Each shape has a coordinating syllable – “fa,” triangle; “sol,” circle; “la,” square; “mi,” diamond – and, through repetition, the “singing of the shapes” quickly teaches a layperson how to read potentially complex music. Shape note tunebooks have been published for centuries. Some use seven-shape systems, where each pitch on a scale has its own shape, and others, like the Sacred Harp, use only four, with several shapes repeated:

Again, from
Why is it called “Sacred Harp”? Technically, our style of singing is “shape note singing” because the musical notation uses note heads in 4 distinct shapes to aid in sight-reading, but it is often called “Sacred Harp” singing because the books that most singers use today are called “The Sacred Harp,” with the most prominent of these being the 1991 Denson edition. The term “sacred harp” refers to the human voice — that is, the musical instrument you were given at birth.In 1844, The Sacred Harp was just one of more than 100 oblong hymn books published in the U.S. It has been continuously updated ever since. Along with other hymn books from the era, a handful of which are also still published and used, its repertoire of over 500 4-part a cappella hymns, odes, and anthems is part of the foundation of our vibrant oral tradition. There are dozens of living composers still actively writing new tunes within the traditional styles and shape note format. Other shape note books still in use today include Christian Harmony (using a 7-shape notation), New Harp of Columbia, plus several others, including some entirely new collections such as Northern Harmony.
Sacred Harp is much more than a music; it is a lifestyle. Not only do singers understand a complex system of musical notation, but they form a community, becoming part of its culture, history and fellowship. It is not uncommon for devoted singers to schedule their lives so that, come the weekend, they can be found singing in a church, or come the evening, making music on the porch.