What is "Sacred Harp" singing?!
Sacred Harp singing is four-part a cappella music sung from . . . the "Sacred Harp." "Sacred Harp" also refers to using the human voice and the vocal cords . . . the sacred harp.
The Sacred Harp is one of many songbooks published and promoted over the past two hundred years that use "shape note" music notation. It now is the songbook most frequently used in the United States, though different parts of the country favor different songbooks. Each singing part (soprano or treble, alto, tenor or lead, and bass) has its own staff. The musical notes are printed on the staves using conventional notation (time signature, quarter-notes, half-notes, etc.).
More deeply, Sacred Harp is music created in the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States by home-grown composers. The music is intensely religious, moving, powerful. It is sung with exuberance and enthusiasm -- loudly, with few dynamics and no vibrato. It is not "pretty" music. Singers come from all and no faiths. Singing from the Sacred Harp can be a very moving or fulfilling experience, but it is not a group religious service nor a performance.
Also, there is no conductor or leader. There are no auditions, seating arrangements or concern for vocal balance. All singers are welcome, and encouraged, to select and lead songs. We sit in a hollow square, facing and singing to and with each other.
How is it different? The heads of the notes are geometric shapes rather than ovals used in modern musical notation. In the Sacred Harp there are four shape: a triangle, a square, a circle and a diamond. You can see the shapes on the background of this page. Here is a major scale:
Sacred Harp is sung throughout the United States and in many foreign countries. People gather weekly, monthly and annually to sing from the Sacred Harp. Sings can last a few hours, a day, a couple of days, or even a week. That's a lot of singing!
Come join us in song!
These shapes are pronounced fa, so, la and mi. These shapes are associated with specific steps in the major and minor scales. The shapes serve several purposes. When learning a song, it lets singers sing the shapes and learn the notes and melodies without worrying about also reading the lyrics. Perhaps more important, the shapes give musical guidance to the correct relationship between the notes. Whenever a singer sees a triangle (fa) in a major scale song, he or she knows it is either the tonic (or octave) of the song's key, or the 4th. With some time and practice, singing the shapes makes singing easier. Check out this page for an illustration of a song.