Sacred Harp

I love going to Sacred Harp singings. I don't get to go a lot these days, what with young kids and a number of other things on my plate that I think deserve more attention, but when I do, I have a wonderful time. Here's what goes on at a singing:

When you go to a singing, you step into a large room with benches or chairs arranged into a square with an open area at the center — they call it "the hollow square". Each side of the square corresponds to a voice part; basses are men, most altos are women, and the remaining two parts, treble and tenor (or lead), are sung in octaves by men and women. Treble and tenor have about the same range, but tenor has the melody. You choose your part based on your voice range and personal preference; my voice is a little high for bass, and a little low for tenor, but I like the feel of the bass lines, so I sing bass. You sit where you choose; most beginners choose tenor.

Usually, your first time, you can borrow a book. They're not all that expensive, though, and if you have any taste at all, you'll probably want one of your own. The words are hymns, and many of the tunes are recognizable variants of common hymn tunes, but the music is not written like the hymnals you are likely to see in your average church, to the extent that your average church uses hymnals at all these days. Instead, they're written in open score, one voice part per staff, across pages that are broader than they are tall. Most disconcertingly, the notes aren't round, either; their shape differs based on what degree of the scale they are in the key of the tune in question. The major scale, then, looks like this, with the solfège symbols used to sing it:

The familiar tune, Old Hundred, looks like the below. Note that the tune is in the third line, the tenor — this is from the 1911 edition, but it's about the same now:

It sounds like this:

Music geekery to follow:


It seems confusing at first, but it's pretty straightforward once you get used to it. In a major scale, the whole-steps between degrees 1, 2, and 3 are sung to fa, sol, la; then there's a half-step up to the next fa, which begins a whole-step fa, sol, la sequence where you'd usually expect it, on 4, 5, and 6. Finally, there's another whole-step up to 7, which gets the syllable mi. Then the pattern starts over again for the next octave. The minor scale is the same, except it starts on the second la of the major scale. Accidentals are mostly ignored, to surprisingly good effect. (The whole system is, as I understand it, derived from the Lancashire fasola, a four-syllable solfège system simplified from the old English method of Playford and Morley.) To learn to read the music, all a person needs is to look at what shape the notes are, and whether the next note is higher or lower by a little, or a lot.

Once most people are settled in, someone may open with a prayer, depending on how formal a singing it is. (I'm always surprised by the number of non-religious people who love Sacred Harp singing, but they're of course heartily welcomed; Sacred Harp singings are open to anyone.) Then the singing starts. Someone will step into the open middle of the square and call out the page number of the tune they will lead. People will find it, someone skilled at setting the pitch for tunes will sing the starting pitches, and a wave of the leader's hand and a confident bellow starts things off.

The first time through a tune, we sing the shapes; that is, instead of the printed words, everyone sings the syllables of their part in a glorious mishmash of fasola. Then, we sing the words. First of all, you may notice that it's deafeningly loud, everyone singing at the top of their lungs. Next, you may notice that it's exhilarating!

After the tune ends, the leader will sit down, and the next person will do the same. Usually leading goes around the square, section by section, person by person. Even if you're brand new, you'll probably be asked to come to the center and lead. You could demur, but I wouldn't recommend it. Usually you can come to the center with a more experienced leader, and hear the sound from the best spot: the center of the square. (Leading isn't hard; watch how other people wave their hands, and you'll see the pattern.) If you thought it was exhilarating before, this will lift your hair off!

It goes on and on, you get hoarse and tired, and you're happy to stop for a break when that happens. Break is over when a few people sit down and someone starts leading a tune. You'll go home exhausted and with your throat sore, and probably want to do it again soon.

Here's one last tune, one of my favorites: William Billings' David's Lamentation:

Doesn't that sound like a good way to spend some time?