About Sacred Harp

ABOUT THIS Page

This page provides an overview of Sacred Harp and answers some frequently asked questions about Sacred Harp singing. It owes a significant debt and apologies to the Sacred Harp Singers of Cork.

ABOUT SACRED HARP DETROIT

Sacred Harp Detroit held its first singing in September 2012. We gather together on the fourth Sunday of each month (most months – there are a few exceptions – please check the schedule page!) to sing American traditional music from The Sacred Harp, 1991. This four-part a cappella (i.e. voice only, without musical instruments) music is characterized by strange harmonies, raucous songs, serene hymns, fast fugues, and energetic anthems.

The Sacred Harp tradition is open and egalitarian. It is designed to be easy to learn for those with no prior musical background. All voices and levels of experience are welcome.

For a more detailed look at the Sacred Harp tradition, please read on . . .

WHAT IS SACRED HARP?

Sacred Harp music has been referred to as the Punk Rock or Heavy Metal Music of 19th Century America. It is a branch of American shape- or shaped-note singing. ‘Shape note’ refers to the manner in which the music is noted. Shape note music is written in standard musical notation with one difference – all the note heads are given different shapes and names, according to pitch. This is to make sight-singing easier for those not trained to read music.

Sacred Harp singing uses just four shapes: Fa, a triangle; Sol, a circle; La, a square; and Mi, a diamond. Think of the Do-Re-Mi song in The Sound of Music, less the Do, Re and  Ti. The scale in Sacred Harp singing for all major keys is sung using these shape-names, and ascends in the following order: Fa Sol La Fa Sol La Mi (Fa).

Sacred Harp songs are mostly Christian texts set to music and were originally developed as a form of sacred music in New England and migrated down the Appalachians as the mid-Atlantic and Southern back-countries were populated.

Sacred Harp and other schools of shape-note singing were spread by itinerant singing school masters. These traveling teachers went from town to town conducting singing schools and creating demand for songbooks; not unlike ‘Professor’ Harold Hill in The Music Man, but without the marching band, musical instruments, or the con.

While newer, more fashionable instrumental music with more conventional harmonies gradually displaced Sacred Harp, it was kept alive in parts of the rural South where musical instruments were expensive relative to income and there were Protestant denominations that forbade musical instruments, permitting only sung music.

Over the last fifty years or so Sacred Harp ‘missionaries’ from the South, fearing that the Sacred Harp tradition might fade away, re-evangelized the rest of the United States. Today the largest single Sacred Harp grouping is in New England, the Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Community. There are active Sacred Harp singing groups throughout the US, a number of dynamic and growing groups in Europe, and ones in Japan and Korea.

WHY IS IT CALLED “SACRED HARP”?

The term Sacred Harp means a number of things: it refers to the tunebook we sing from – the 1991 Denson edition of The Sacred Harp tunebook. The use of Harp in songbook titles was traditional in New England and has been traced to Bible verses (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16) commanding Christians to make music “singing and plucking the strings of the heart.” Sacred Harp has also been interpreted as reference to the human voice as the musical instrument provided by God to all – the Sacred Harp.

HOW IS SACRED HARP SUNG?

Sacred Harp music is sung a cappella by four sections – trebles, altos, tenors, and basses – who sit in a hollow square, each section a side of the square facing in.  With few exceptions, the songs in The Sacred Harp are written in four-part harmony meaning that each section has its own distinct part to sing. Singers take turns leading songs of their choice from the middle of the square. The singing school tradition still underlies many Sacred Harp terms – when someone leads a song, they are conducting a ‘lesson’ that is sung by the ‘class.’

WHAT does it sound like?

There is a great deal of Sacred Harp audio and video available on the internet. For audio, one of the best places to start is with the Sacred Harp Singers of Cork bandcamp page which has many days worth of quality singing! The Cork singers have an excellent youtube channel as well with quality video. Sacred Harp Bremen (Germany, not Georgia) also has an outstanding  youtube channel. There is wealth of material available out there – just google ‘Sacred Harp.’ You will be amazed!

WHere can I get additional information?

The Wikipedia article on Sacred Harp provides a detailed overview and is a good place to start. Excellent references for beginners include First time at a Sacred Harp Singing and What to Expect at a Sacred Harp Singing. The canonical websites for Sacred Harp are Sacred Harp and Shape Note Singing and Sacred Harp Singing. Our Sacred Harp Sampler page has a list of resources and singing groups.

WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR HANDS?

If you have looked at any Sacred Harp videos, this may be your next question. Many Sacred Harp singers beat time with their hands. Beating time helps to keep the group together since not everyone may see the leader. It does look a little strange at first, but you get used to it.

WHAT IF I CAN’T READ MUSIC AT ALL?

Then this is the music for you! The shape note system was designed for people who have never read music before; the shapes make it easier to recognize the intervals between notes on sight. Though they take a little getting used to, and can seem intimidating to begin with, once they “click” with you they rapidly become much, much easier!

DO I HAVE TO AUDITION?

Absolutely not, never! Sacred Harp singing is an open community – you show up, you sing. Look for someone who looks like they know what they are doing and ask them if they could tell you what’s going on.

IS THIS A CHRISTIAN GROUP?

No, this is an agnostic group in the sense that each individual’s particular beliefs are their own business. While many of the songs are based on Christian texts, everybody has their own history and beliefs. While some might regard their singing as a form of worship, others view Sacred Harp simply as a type of American folk music, and others may do it simply because they enjoy it and each other (and the food!) Diversity and inclusion are valued in the Sacred Harp community.

You are not obliged to, nor will you be expected to, take or express any particular religious (or for that matter philosophical, political, economic, or social … ) views in order to participate – you just have to want to sing.

IS IT ALL RIGHT TO DROP IN AND JUST LISTEN?

Yes, you are entirely welcome to come and listen. However, we would really just as soon that you sing, or at least give it a try. Sacred Harp wasn’t conceived to be performed and the best way to experience Sacred Harp is by singing it!

CAN I BRING FOOD AND DRINK* TO SINGINGS?

Yes.    Yes, you may!

*Non-alcoholic, alas . . .