Shaping Sounds

by pieces of moments


Confession: I really, really, really, want to sing Sacred Harp (or “Shape Note”) one day. One of my friends and I went as far as finding an old Sacred Harp book one day in grad school, but you know how it goes – there’s barely enough time to finish your assigned work let alone take on too many other tasks.

Still, one of these days I want to sit and sing with Sacred Harp singers. It’s such a haunting sound. It seems like the kind of thing that would just get into your very bones sitting there in the square of swirling sound waves, keeping time with the rhythmic raising and lowering of your arm. I mean, there are singings everywhere.

Besides the sheer beauty of it, as a musicologist it’s absolutely fascinating to see how much closer Sacred Harp singing is to the old (okay, really old, like, Middle Ages old) school hexachord system. I won’t get to into all that here, but if you want to read more, just hit that hyperlink back there. Then, read the beginner sheet available on the Wiki article on Sacred Harp Singing website (from whence comes that lovely photo up there of a score).

Oh, but I do want to add another funny parallel: the melody is in the tenor voice, just like in the Middle  Ages and the Renaissance. Tenor comes from the Latin tenere, which means, “to hold.” So, back in the day (again, waaaaaaaaaaaaay back) pieces of music were often built around a melody that already existed. The melody was layered with various harmonies (welcome to polyphony), which basically personalized the composition. The melody was “held” by the tenor. So, as you see, in a lot of ways, Sacred Harp is a throw back with a Southern United States flavor.

Intriguing, no?

If you saw the movie Cold Mountain, you heard it (and, if that movie disturbed you as much as it did me, you didn’t sleep for a while, either).

I also really want to see this documentary (the website streams music if you’re looking for more examples of Sacred Harp singing).