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,
on at least three out of four weekends every month.
what is Sacred Harp music?
A rather longer and more technical explanation can be found
but essentially it is
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
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.
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)
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,
find that the music itself is both deeply moving and
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
Why is it called “Sacred
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
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
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,
by following the links.
There are now many
examples of Sacred Harp and Shapenote singing on YouTube,
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,
Matt and Erica Hinton,
singers and documentary filmmakers, completed
seven years of
production on the first feature length
about the Sacred Harp tradition. Visit the
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
more . .