Shape Note or Sacred Harp singing is a tradition of sacred choral music that originated in Protestant churches of the American South of the United States. The name is derived from The Sacred Harp, a tunebook printed in shape notes. The work was first published in 1844 and has been revised and updated ever since.
Sacred Harp music is performed a cappella (voice only, without instruments).
Pitch is not absolute
In Sacred Harp singing, pitch is not absolute. The shapes and notes designate degrees of the scale, not particular pitches.
When Sacred Harp singers begin a song, they normally start by singing it with the appropriate syllable for each pitch, using the shapes to guide them. For those in the group not yet familiar with the song, the shapes help with the task of sight reading. The process of reading through the song with the shapes also helps fix the notes in memory. Once the shapes have been sung, the group then sings the verses of the song with their printed words.
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 stanzaic forms familiar from elsewhere in Protestant hymnody. However, Sacred Harp songs are quite different from "mainstream" Protestant hymns in their musical style: some tunes, known as fuguing tunes, contain sections that are polyphonic in texture, and the harmony tends to deemphasize the interval of the third in favor of fourths and fifths. In their melodies, the songs often use the pentatonic scale or similar "gapped" (fewer than seven-note) scales.
Three types of songs
In their musical form, Sacred Harp songs fall into three basic types. Many are ordinary hymn tunes, mostly composed in four-bar phrases and sung in multiple verses. Fuging tunes contain a prominent passage about 1/3 of the way through in which each of the four choral parts enters in succession, in a way resembling a fugue. Anthems are longer songs, less regular in form, that are sung through just once rather than in multiple verses.
For more information on Sacred Harp visit http://fasola.org/.
Listen to ABC's The Rhythm Divine for interviews and singing with the Sydney Shape Note Singers.
Awake, my Soul is an excellent documentary about Shape Note Singing with a wonderful soundtrack.
"... fierce and forceful and utterly transporting..."