Singers and non-singers are invited to the annual North Carolina Sacred Harp singing convention. No experience or musical background is necessary to participate. The convention is open to anyone: people who want to sing or to just listen.
Festivities include a traditional “dinner on the grounds” potluck at noon, bookended by community singing sessions from 9:30 a.m. – 12 p.m. and from 1 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Also, members from Virginia’s Shenandoah Harmony singers will attend this year’s event, and there will be a half hour session in the afternoon at the convention during which they will present their new book, Shenandoah Harmony, and teach some songs from it.
The shape note singing tradition was born from colonial “singing schools,” whose purpose was to teach beginners to sing. Modern shape note groups continue to further this goal.
Sacred Harp “singings” are not performances. There are no rehearsals and no separate seats for an audience. Singers sit in a hollow square with one voice part – bass, alto, tenor, and treble – on each side, all facing inwards so singers can see and hear each other. Visitors are welcome to sit anywhere in the room and participate or listen.
Sacred Harp singing is the largest surviving branch of traditional American shape note singing. Singers in this tradition sing a cappella (without accompaniment) and take turns leading from the middle of the square. The leader of each song sets the tempo with a simple vertical arm movement, and singers sitting in the square often beat time with the leader.
Many songs feature three-part and four-part harmonies and rounds (same words, different start times). The music is marked with “shape notes,” a music notation designed to facilitate congregational and community singing. Shape note singing is based on four primary notes: Fa (represented by a triangle), So (circle), and La (square), with the occasional Mi (diamond).
The song leader sets the pitch for Fa and previews the song’s tune using the Fa-So-La-Mi notes in the pattern that fits the song, then the singing begins.
The notation, introduced in 1801, became a popular teaching device in American singing schools. Shapes were added to note heads in written music to help singers find pitches within major and minor scales without using more complex information found in key signatures on the staff.
Songs are sung from a tune book called The Sacred Harp, first published in 1844 and continuously updated since then. It includes more than 500 a cappella hymns, odes, and anthems. Copies of The Sacred Harp (1991 Denson Edition) will be available throughout the day – to borrow and to buy ($20).
As the name implies, Sacred Harp music is sacred music and originated as Protestant Christian music. Many of the songs in the book are hymns that use words, meters, and forms familiar from elsewhere in Protestant hymns.
While the origins of this music can be traced back to Renaissance England, the singing tradition reached a peak of development in early New England, as itinerant singing masters set words to hymns, ballads, and folk tunes and taught their songs in singing schools.
Shape note singing really took root in the American South, which is now home to many singing conventions, including some that date back more than 100 years!
The “better music” movement of the 19th century arose in opposition to this earlier style. It borrowed from the European classical tradition, but it wasn’t Bach, which is actually closer to a shape-note “fuging tune” than the mainstream church hymns that came out of the “better music” movement.