Singing School
November 17, 2005 9:16 AM   Subscribe

Sacred Harp singing uses a system of four shaped notes first introduced by Little and Smith in The Easy Instructor in 1801. The four shapes denote the four syllables (fa, so, la, mi) of the scale used in American Singing Schools. Of course, solfege has been codified since at least the 11th century, but the adoption of shape-notes dovetailed with the tradition of Sacred Harp singing in the United states. With it's emphasis on participation and instruction in the moment, Sacred Harp singing is in the midst (NPR story) of a renaissance. MP3s here and here. Here is an excellent set of resources, and here is set of essays on everything from history to how to organize a Sacred Harp sing. Here is an interactive index to the 1991 edition of the traditional hymn book called, you guessed it, The Sacred Harp. Here's a special link to Manhattan Sacred Harp resources for jonmc who mentioned Sacred Harp before in the blue.
posted by OmieWise (16 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Nice post, omie. Sacred Harp is something else, especially if you've never heard it. Good summary & link set.
posted by jonmc at 9:34 AM on November 17, 2005

I sing in a classical choir, and we occasionally perform shape note music for our concerts. (We have two pieces for our upcoming December performances.) We try to be authentic but it's really about as convincing as white people singing spirituals. Our conductor said that an authentic shape note sing includes large bowl of throat lozenges in the center to soothe ravaged vocal chords. (It's a very chesty, aggressive style of singing.) In shape note singing, the altos are called "kitchen altos" because they sing so loud, that's where you have to place them so they don't overwhelm the rest of the choir.
posted by DawnSimulator at 9:44 AM on November 17, 2005

Sweet Is the Day: A Sacred Harp Family Portrait realvideo 59 min .
posted by hortense at 10:07 AM on November 17, 2005

Sacred Harp music can give you chills. Amazing stuff. I have a close friend from Alabama. While growing up, his family went to annual Labor Day 'singing' that still goes on. Another nifty American tradition.

It's a very chesty, aggressive style of singing.

The other stylistic thing I enjoy about this stuff, at least in the field recordings I have, is that there is a strongly discernible hill-country accent in the pronunciation. A lot of musical styles tend to smooth accent out, but in shape-note you can still hear it in those loud, bright vowel sounds.

You know, this is the type of thing I know about but never post about. I should learn to recognize more of my occupational knowledge as potential FPP content more often.Thanks for the inspiration.
posted by Miko at 10:09 AM on November 17, 2005

I love this stuff, thank you.
posted by jann at 10:20 AM on November 17, 2005

thank you so much!
posted by mrs.pants at 10:29 AM on November 17, 2005

Great post.
posted by Ynoxas at 10:36 AM on November 17, 2005

Fantastic post. I saw Cold Mountain a few years ago and the scene with the shape note choir got me very interested in the genre.
posted by fancypants at 11:41 AM on November 17, 2005

I was actually planning a sacred harp post, but yours is far better than mine would've been. Bravo!
posted by Dr. Wu at 12:17 PM on November 17, 2005

posted by CynicalKnight at 1:12 PM on November 17, 2005

Now this is the stuff MeFi was made for!! My ska post doesn't hold a candle to this. Nice work.
posted by wheelieman at 1:23 PM on November 17, 2005

Also, from the link, here is a list of local singing groups if you want to try it out. I've been to 3 of the ones in the Manhattan/Brooklyn area. Really hard at first, but ultimately fun.
posted by unknowncommand at 2:01 PM on November 17, 2005

I learned solfeggio at a summer music clinic in high school-- it can really improve your sight-singing skills. The SF Bay Area's Sacred Harp community is fairly active and accommodating to newcomers. The experience of sitting in the middle of a singing square is a great and powerful thing to hear, so beginners are encouraged to try it.
posted by obloquy at 4:14 PM on November 17, 2005

Great post. I love Sacred Harp. It reaffirms my conviction that we are meant to be balls-to-the-wall singing creatures, when I've had it ground down by too much breathy pop or warbly opera singing.
posted by soyjoy at 7:48 PM on November 17, 2005

ground down by too much breathy pop or warbly opera singing

Soyjoy, I've been learning about early recording technology lately. Turns out that the breathy, croony, warbly style was basically unknown in Western music until the invention of the microphone. It was only by having the recording device right up close to the mouth that vocal music could take on this quieter, intimate delivery. Before that, singing was done in groups with projected volume, before an audience, or hollered into a sound-gathering trumpet at full volume. Interesting concept.

Also, in doing some radio recently, I was moved to reflect on why radio voices are so compelling to listen to. If you think about it, it's because the DJ's lips are just centimeters from the mike, and the mike is your surrogate ear. The vocal quality you hear when a radio announcer is speaking to you is the equivalent of what you hear when someone is murmuring right into your ear from inches away.

So, just ruminations on how electronics have changed what we think 'music' is supposed to sound like. I want to spend some more time learning about how the explosion of recorded music -- both for recording artists and listeners -- changed our musical perceptions forever.
posted by Miko at 8:23 PM on November 17, 2005 [1 favorite]

Miko, you should post more FPPs.

hortense, thanks for the link.

One thing I love about posting FPPs is that people post stuff that I have no knowledge of and I get to learn something new. So thanks for that, everyone.
posted by OmieWise at 5:45 PM on November 18, 2005

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