United Kingdom Sacred Harp & Shapenote Singing

Front row altosFront row treblesHugh McGraw with the tenor line at DerbySophie MacDougall at Letchworth 2004Front row tenorsFront row basses and altos


Welcome to Sacred Harp and Shapenote
Singing in the United Kingdom

Sacred Harp Singing

Sacred Harp Singing in the United Kingdom has increased considerably in the past few years, to the extent that there are now numerous monthly Local House Groups, and All-day Singings on at least three out of four weekends every month.

But first, what is Sacred Harp music
A rather longer and more technical explanation can be found here, but essentially it is Shapenote music, an American choral tradition of singing unaccompanied four-part harmony, sometimes referred to as 'sacred folksong' or 'White Gospel' music.

Because Sacred Harp “singings” are open to anyone to attend, they are not performances, and there are no preliminary rehearsals or practices unless the singing has been advertised as a workshop, or contains a 'singing school' where instruction is given. Singers sit in a hollow square formation with one voice part on each side, all facing inwards so they can see and hear each other. There is therefore no formal audience, and each event tends to have a different group of participants. Having said that, many people know each other well, as they tend to meet up and down the country to sing with each other time and again, thus creating firm bonds of friendship between people with similar enthusiasm and tastes in music.

Beginners and newcomers to any form of community or communal singing are always welcome. Because there has been such increased coverage in the UK press, and in such films as 'Cold Mountain' and 'Lawless', many come to simply to listen to the music. Visitors, whether participants or simply listeners, are always welcome to sit anywhere in the room, but eventually may well be drawn to sing with any one of the four parts - treble, alto, tenor (which is the tune or air) or bass.

Although the words set to the songs are mainly from religious backgrounds, there is no requirement for participants to belong to any church or denomination whatever. Many, however, will find that the music itself is both deeply moving and spiritual.

Nor is musical experience required — the music is written in the same way as it was over 200 years ago in America, where itinerant singing masters taught complete beginners to sing using techniques first conceived in England.

Why is it called “Sacred Harp”?
Because the musical notation uses note heads in 4 distinct shapes to aid in sight-reading, this style of singing is technically called 'shapenote' singing. However, it is often called “Sacred Harp” singing because the book that most singers use today is called The Sacred Harp. This name also refers to the human voice; no other instruments are used in this à cappella singing.

The Sacred Harp was just one of more than 100 oblong hymn books published in America. Since 1844 it has been continuously updated, with the present version being the 'Denson' revision of 1991. This book contains over 500 tunes, being hymns, psalms, odes and anthems.

Whilst many of these hark back to the 18th and 19th centuries, there are many living composers still actively writing new tunes within the traditional styles and shape note format. Other shape note books still in use today include Christian Harmony (using a 7-shape notation), New Harp of Columbia, plus several others, including some entirely new collections such as Northern Harmony, Norumbega Harmony, Missouri Harmony, and most recently The Shenandoah Harmony.

What does this music sound like?
The best way to learn about Sacred Harp singing is to sing it yourself by attending annual or local singings. See details of monthly Local House Groups, and All-day Singings by following the links.

There are now many examples of Sacred Harp and Shapenote singing on YouTube, try this link for starters, it leads to pages of such examples, of varying quality!. 

Where can I learn more?

Try the following links to other web pages:

Documentary Film — Awake, My Soul

Matt and Erica Hinton, singers and documentary  filmmakers, completed seven years of production on the first feature length documentary about the Sacred Harp tradition. Visit the film’s web site at http://awakemysoul.com for trailers, ordering information, previews, photo gallery, and excellent portraits of many long-time singers.

I Belong to This Band: 85 Years of Sacred Harp Recordings
A Companion CD to Awake, My Soul

Read more . . .

Calendar Update and
 latest information
Follow Us on FacebookFollow UK Sacred Harp
and Shapenote Singing

Latest news
Three new Sacred Harp workshops with Cath and Phil Tyler for April, May and October. Full details here.
Bristol Sacred Harp extended events over weekend 8-10 May. Full details here.
Sacred Harp back at the Southbank Chorus Festival on Saturday 4 April. Full details here.
Saturday 17 October 2015 New Compositions singing day in London. More details here.

March and April Singings
Saturday 28 March 2015
Holmfirth Sacred Harp Singing Day

Wooldale Community Centre, Robert Lane, Wooldale, Holmfirth, HD9 1XZ
10:30 am - 4.00 pm  Pot luck lunch
Contact: Cath Ingham Tel: 01484 687227 
Sunday 29 March 2015
Palm Sunday Singing Day
Cumnor Village Hall, Leys Road, Cumnor, Oxford OX2 9QF
10.30 am - 4.00 pm  Pot luck lunch
Directions and map here
Contact: Mandy Townsend Tel: 01865 714778 
Saturday 4 April 2015
Sacred Harp at the
Southbank Chorus Festival
Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX
1.00 - 1.30 pm and 3.00 - 4.400  pm
Contact: Werner Ullah Email Full details here
Saturday 4 April 2015
Sacred Harp Singing School Maidstone, Kent
With Cath and Phil Tyler
The Bowerhouse, Warwick Place,
ME16 8SG
10.00 am - 2.00 pm
Contact: Cath and Phil Tyler
Tel:  0191 215 0138
  Email  Website
Saturday 11 April 2015
Oxted Sacred Harp Singing Day (also using Cooper Book)
Oxted United Reformed Church, 21 Bluehouse Lane, Oxted, Surrey, RH8 0AA
10.30 am - 4.30 pm  Bring and share lunch
Contact: Martin Williams Tel: 07721 451406 Email
Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 April 2015
East Midlands Sacred Harp Convention
(also using 1992/2000 Cooper Books)
Kegworth Village Hall, Kegworth, Leicestershire, DE74 2FH.
Singing from 10.00 am and pot luck lunch both days
Contact: Ian West Tel: 01952 882448 Email  Flyer

Other dates and information
United Kingdom Annual Sacred Harp Convention 2015
The 20th Annual United Kingdom Sacred Harp
Convention will be held in at the Henry Wood Hall, Borough, London SE1 4HU on 19 and 20 September 2015. Henry Wood Hall website here. Convention website here.

East Midlands Sacred Harp Convention 2015
The East Midlands Sacred Harp Convention, a two book singing from the Denson and Cooper Books, will be held at Kegworth on Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 April 2015.

Other pages:


This Web Site has been set up for the United Kingdom Sacred Harp and Shapenote Community to provide a resource centre for singing in the United Kingdom. 

Any correspondence, helpful suggestions and contributions as to content, amendments, additions and new web links should be sent to Edwin and Sheila Macadam at .  All material copyright © 2000-2015.


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