Sacred Harp singing is a traditional English and Appalachian participatory form of Protestant a cappella music in which singers situate themselves according to the four parts of harmony, forming an inward-facing quadrangle known as the “hollow square.” Members of the community, whether new or experienced, take turns standing in the middle to lead songs – usually one per person until everyone who wants to lead has been called upon. Newcomers are never forced to lead, and may instead prefer to sit at first and absorb the distinctive grassroots sound produced by the group.
Since the tenor section typically sings the melody line, leaders will face that section during all or part of their time leading, and will find much support from the front-row tenors, who are often the most experienced and can help leaders begin correctly and stay on course. More confident song leaders often turn away from the tenors to bring in the other parts of harmony as they are called for in a song – such staggered movement of the music is known as “fuguing”.
While some singing schools and shape note song books may use separate shapes for all seven notes, Sacred Harp typically uses just four shapes for all seven notes, repeating them throughout a song depending upon the key in which each piece is written. Fa, Sol and La are whole steps, with Mi being a half-step. Other than having uniquely shaped note heads, Sacred Harp music is written in such a way as to be readable by anyone familiar with music.
At the beginning of each piece of music to be sung, a designated person known as the “Keyer” or “Pitcher” will key the piece using “relative pitch,” meaning that the music may be started at any place on the scale that is in a comfortable vocal range for all participants present. The Pitcher will sound out a chord with the starting note for each section of harmony, and each section will repeat its starting note back to the Pitcher, allowing him or her to re-key as necessary by adjusting either up or down on the scale.
Once singers have fixed upon their starting notes, the song begins as soon as the leader moves his or her hand. Leaders have broad discretion in choosing which verses will be sung, as well as the tempo and observation of fermatas and repeats, with local and regional tradition sometimes also playing a role in the way a song is interpreted by leaders. Only the shape syllables are sung the first time through (unless skipped on longer songs) with words being included the second time. Even experienced singers often slur their way through when singing the shapes, and no one notices or minds; however, singers do notice when someone accidentally sings on a rest! It is interesting to note, too, that some singers who are especially gifted mathematically, or who have been singing shape-notes for many years, are able to sing the unique set of shapes for many songs without even glancing at a song book.
With practice, the mechanics will eventually become fixed habit. Most importantly of all, though, is for newcomers to have fun with the music and take part in the singing community. In the end, for many singers the higher calling of Sacred Harp is not how flawless our technique, but how profoundly we experience the Divine Presence through the vocal harmonics, and how deeply we touch and are touched by one another on our shared musical journey.
Lori Cabirac has been singing Sacred Harp since the Keystone Convention of 2007, the same year that she began the Sadsbury All-Day Singing near Christiana, PA in cooperation with other singers from the region. She has sung in numerous locations in the Appalachians and beyond, and credits her music instructors Laura Densmore, Ted Stokes and Tom Tucker for teaching her much of the above information over the past several years.