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Sacred Harp is... please click here to watch a video about Sacred Harp singing, where it comes from and what it sounds like.
This was the first music in America. Some of of these songs date back to the 18th century, well prior to the time of the American Revolution. The Sacred Harp is the title of a book of songs, a collection of over 500 venerable religious songs and folk tunes. It was first published in 1844 and has been in use continuously ever since.
As Sacred Harp singers we are not practicing for a performance. These are not rehearsals.
We gather to sing purely for the enjoyment of the music, for ourselves, for each other and to be uplifted.
All are welcome!
Sacred Harp singings are non-judgemental in spirit, open to the public and free of charge. You may join in the song or just listen, whatever suits you. Come and go as you please. It is not necessary to have had a musical or choral background to sing the Sacred Harp. All ages, all voices and any level of experience are welcome. All it takes is a desire to sing. A practice singing is two hours long with a break in the middle, usually with delicious snacks.
The songs are 4-part choral pieces for men's and women's voices: treble, alto, tenor and bass. They are sung completely a capella, or unaccompanied, and in full voice, or loud, although to sing loudly is never a requirement for participation. The music is printed in shaped notes. Sacred Harp uses the four-shape method (only 4) fa, sol, la and mi. The four shapes replace the normal round, or oval noteheads. Each shape represents a tonal interval, or note, on the scale.
The C major scale in shapes
(note: we will address the minor scales at a singing school)
The usual way a singer learns to read shapes is by going to Sacred Harp singings and learning songs. Beginner singers may learn the tune first and then add singing the shapes. With a little repetition and practice singers will see the shapes and sing them without thinking about it. It can be said that then the singer is reading music. For some singers this is the achievement of a lifetime, a dream come true. As an example of a simple song in shapes, sol sol la sol fa mi is the tune "happy birthday to you". And you thought you couldn't read shapes!
At a Sacred Harp singing the singers sit in a hollow square, each voice part occupying one side of the square and all facing the middle. The tenors are across from the altos and the trebles face the basses. A singer will call a song of their choosing then stand in the center of the square, the pitch will be given and the class will begin, singing the shapes first then the words. The leader sets the tempo for the song. When the song is finished, the next singer calls their song and stands in the hollow square.
To further illustrate what a Sacred Harp singing looks like, the link below is a good example of a song being led at the Sacred Harp Convention in Ireland in 2012. (To return to this page use your back button in YouTube.)
This type of singing is startlingly unadorned. It's true to say that Sacred Harp tunes are interesting, easily learned and are unique for their raw, haunting harmonies. They can become stuck in your head, sometimes for days.
A little background on the origin of Sacred Harp singing:
In the 1700's in colonial New England few pianos or organs were available to accompany singers during church services. Without some tonal assistance, the singing in churches left a lot to be desired, thus a market for singing schools was born. Itinerant singing instructors would roam the countryside teaching young and old alike to harmonize and read music using this 4-shape note method.
Before long, singing schools became a very popular social activity to which young people as well as their parents, friends and relatives would ride long distances on horseback to attend. Many new tunes were composed, numerous songbooks were published and then sold at the singing schools, a way for the singing school teachers to make a living from their craft.
B.F. White of Georgia along with his partner E.J. King compiled the most loved songs into an oblong songbook titled The Sacred Harp. Its longevity is a testament that singers in every corner of the country still love it today.