About Sacred Harp

Copyright Laura Densmore 2009

“What to Expect at a Sacred Harp Singing” was written by Debora Grosse and appears on the Georgia State Sacred Harp website. It is used here with minor alterations with the kind permission of Debra.

What to Expect at a Sacred Harp Singing: 

What is it like? How Do I Get Involved?

Anybody is welcome to walk in, find a seat, and try singing. You will be gently encouraged to participate, regardless of whether you think you are a good singer. If you prefer, you can just listen. There is no boundary between listeners and singers. The atmosphere will be relaxed. There will be plenty of food, so stay for dinner. While some shape note books include old-fashioned gospel hymns, the music in the most widely used book, the 1991 Sacred Harp, has an unfamiliar older sound.

Your religious or political affiliation doesn’t matter at a singing. Sacred Harp singing has been interdenominational since it began. Anyone is welcome who can enjoy these tunes and their 18th and 19th century lyrics: “And let this feeble body fail, And let it faint or die; My soul shall quit this mournful vale, And soar to worlds on high.”

What is shape note music like?

The basics of shape note singing are covered in an excellent handout for beginners (PDF) by Lisa Grayson. The note heads are shaped according to their position on the scale: fa, sol, la, and mi. It is customary to sing the shapes before singing the words of the song. ” The Sacred Harp uses just these four shapes. In the late 19th century some publishers introduced 7-shape notation to represent the familiar do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do system.

Each of the four voice parts – treble, alto, tenor, and bass – is printed on a different line. The verses are printed wherever they fit. The melody is on the third line, which is sung by the tenors. Though this melody is familiar, the harmony sounds very different from the version used in modern church hymnals. With the exception of the alto part, which was added later, the arrangement in The Sacred Harp is the original version of our “Amazing Grace”, from William Walker’s 1835 shape note book Southern Harmony. The title printed above the song is not “Amazing Grace” but “New Britain”. In shape note hymnals, the song is headed by the name of the tune, which often has nothing to do with the words. Nobody knows why this one was called “New Britain,” but many other tunes bear the names of places, from “Big Creek” to “Africa.”

You can get an idea of the style from this song “Panting for Heaven”, recorded at the 150th annual Chattahoochee Convention. (It’s on June Melton’s Pilgrim Productions site.) However, MP3 files can only hint at the sound you experience at a singing. The best place to hear Sacred Harp is in the middle of the square of singers, preferably in a room with the acoustics of a wood-panelled country church.

How do I get involved?
To plunge right in and to hear the most spirited sound, go to an all-day singing. It is OK to come late or leave early. Just come. None of the following are required for participation, especially when you’re new, but people typically bring the following to singings:

  • Songbook if you have one; otherwise you can use a loaner or share one
  • A dish to share for the potluck dinner
  • A water bottle if you like
  • A few dollars to contribute for expenses
  • Extra money in case music or books might be available for sale
  • Comfortable clothing. The building might not be air conditioned, and dinner is often outdoors “on the grounds.”

At Sunday singings, people tend to wear clothing that would be appropriate at an informal church service.

Lisa Grayson’s beginners’ sheet (PDF) explains where to find the section for your voice part. Wherever you sit, do not sit shyly in the back by yourself. Sit next to an experienced singer so you can follow along. No one will mind when you make mistakes.

For a little instruction, try attending a local or all day singing. New singers are always welcome, loaner and sale books are available.

“What to Expect at a Sacred Harp Singing” was written by Debora Grosse and appears on the Georgia State Sacred Harp website. It is used here with minor alterations with the kind permission of Debra.