Posted by: Marie | January 12, 2010

(224) Making a joyful noise

Post #224
[Private journal entry written on Monday, September 7, 2009]

One of my adult piano students invited me to attend a “Sacred Harp sing” tonight. It sounded like a lot of fun, so I went.

Sacred Harp singings are a gathering of people to sing for themselves. They do not perform for an audience. They sit in a square (facing each other) with each of the vocal parts (treble, alto, tenor and bass) assigned to one specific side of the square. The treble and tenor sections are usually of mixed gender with men and women singing the notes an octave apart.

Photo by Martin Chen

The singing is done a cappella and uses the purely American style of notation called “shape notes”. This notation style has been around since the birth of our country and was used primarily in the southern regions. The shapes of the notes (diamond, triangle, oval, rectangle) indicate which degree of the scale should be sung. This allows people who do not read music well to follow the music regardless of the key signature.

The group sings from a book titled “The Sacred Harp”, which was first published in 1844 by Benjamin Franklin White. It has been revised only four times: 1869, 1911, 1936 and 1991.

Late 18th-century New England composers used harmony that is basically tertian, that is, based on intervals of thirds. In contrast, the harmony used by the early 19th-century compilers of singing-school manuals (such as The Sacred Harp) is basically quartal, that is, based on intervals of fourths and their close relatives, fifths. In the early 20th century, alto parts were added to the three-part pieces of The Sacred Harp, resulting in a hybrid harmony, part quartal and part tertian.

Conventional harmony is homophonic. In other words, the melody is assigned to high voices, usually the sopranos, so that it will stand out. The other parts provide unobtrusive harmonic support. The arrangement style used in “The Sacred Harp” is polyphonic. In other words, no one part stands out. The melody is carried by the tenor part, but the other parts, ideally, are good melodies on their own, making all parts interesting.

The chord progressions in tertian harmony tend to be volatile. The underlying chords tend to change with every beat rather than with every bar or two. It makes for a very interesting mix of concords and discords.

Anyway . . . I won’t chatter on about it further. If you are interested in more information, you can check out these two websites:

Sacred Harp
Sacred Harp history

I had never heard of this type of music before (I was raised on the old English arrangements of traditional hymns) and found it very intriguing. The people in the group were lots of fun . . . the time commitment is minimal (one evening a month) . . . and the whole experience stirred my heart in an uplifting way. I arrived home feeling settled and peaceful.

I have had difficulty listening to or creating well-structured music because doing so causes me to feel deep emotions – emotions I don’t really like feeling. However, I found this setting to stir up joyful emotions. I think this could be a healing outlet for me.

I believe I’ll go back next month.


  1. Just reading about this made me love it. I enjoy any harp music. Not to sound a low note, but I’ve read that harp music is used in hospices and played when a person is about to die. The article states that harp music soothes the mind and relaxes the body and makes it peaceful. I believe it. I have several harp CDs and love the way it makes me feel. You are very fortunate to have this experience! I am envious… ;)

    • Hey, Ivory –

      I so agree that harp music is incredibly beautiful and soothing . . . it is one of my favorite instruments . . .

      However . . . this form of music has nothing to do with harps . . . we don’t use any instruments . . . just our voices. I have no idea why it is called “Sacred Harp” music . . . I guess because we are creating a “harp” effect with our voices . . . (at least on our good days, maybe . . . ??) LOL

      – Marie

  2. I do wonder why it is called Harp Music if it is a capella.

    • Good question . . . I don’t have the answer! LOL

  3. Very interested in ‘shape notes’. Could you point me to more info on this? Thanks.

    • Hey, Evan –

      Probably the best source of information would be Wikipedia . . .

      It is a pretty cool idea . . . shape notes are not used today (except for groups like the Sacred Harp group where historical traditions are honored). But, my mom originally learned to read music with shape notes in grammar school (late 1930’s & early 1940’s). She gave me one of her school music books from that time that uses the shape notes.

      – Marie

  4. Thanks

  5. The “sacred harp” is considered to be the instrument given to each of us at birth, the voice. There have been lots of other books of similar music, some of them with the “harp” idea in the title (New Harp of Columbia) some with “harmony” (Southern Harmony, Missouri Harmony) (or, of course, neither).

    Sometimes it’s called “fasola” singing, after the names of the shapes, and a good source for information is at It’s the clearinghouse for shapenote info, and will help you find out about local singings all over the country.


    • Wow . . what great information! I really appreciate the additional info . . it sounds like this is something you know a lot about! Thank you for sharing!

      – Marie

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