Harpeth Valley Sacred Harp Singers

Old time music from the time when everyone was allowed to sing and enjoyed doing it


Buffalo River Review 2nd article

Posted on November 19, 2011 at 10:25 AM


  This is the second of two articles on the traditions and music of The Sacred Harp. Here is attempted a brief history of the notation which developed into shaped notes and, eventually, the system used in The Sacred Harp.

  Everybody knows the little song from The Sound of Music which begins, “Doe, a deer, a female deer. Ray, a drop of golden sun. Me, a name I call myself,...” And you can remember that as the song progresses, it becomes increasingly evident that it is not really speaking of a doe, but of do, the first note of the song, and re, the note a step higher than do, and so on. By the end of the song, it is not a surprise to sing do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do, as the names of the notes in a musical scale.

  The idea is that each of the seven different pitches which make up the musical scale are given a specific name to aid in accurately recalling and singing them. This can be taken a step further: if each note is given a different shape on paper, someone who knows the names of each pitch and how they sound, by relating those pitches to the respective shapes, can sing a piece of music he or she has never previously known. Generically known as solfege today, it is a simple concept, yet one with a long and complicated history.

  Its origins go back to the medieval era, to a certain monk named Guido (pronounced: gweedo) who lived in what is now Italy. He was responsible for teaching the choir boys and other church singers all the Gregorian chants in use at the time. One of the hymns contained these words:

  Ut queant laxis/resonare fibris,/Mira gestorum/famuli tuorum,/Solve pollute/labii reatum,/Sancte Iohannes.

  The distinguishing element that made this hymn so perfect as a means of learning music was the fact that every single line began on the next note of the scale. So, Guido's method? Teach the singers this hymn, then use the first syllable of each line as the name for that particular note. And so we end up with Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si. This is where all solfege methods began. Over time, the first note came to be named Do instead of Ut, and that is the name by which we know it today. Also, in America, Si is commonly known as Ti.

  Unlike most solfege systems, Sacred Harp uses only four names and shapes for the notes. It's complicated as to how it came to be that way but, in short, many people were experimenting and trying to come up with “better” ways of notating music, and in various parts of the world certain of these methods took root. The four names and shapes in The Sacred Harp are, in order, fa, so, la, fa, so, la, mi. As you can see, these four names are repeated in a pattern in order to make up the necessary seven pitches. As with Guido's names, these do help to identify the exact pitches of a scale, though not so clearly; however, there is something else that this particular pattern does. At the risk of becoming too technical, I will try to explain what it is.

  Every scale follows a basic pattern of distance between notes. Some are closer together while others have more space between them. For example: try singing two different notes. The first should be the lowest you can sing and the second as high as you can. There is a wide distance between the two. Now sing two more notes. But this time, make the first in the middle of your range where it is easy to make a sound and then, slowly, let your voice slide a little further up. These two notes are still very much distinct from each other in pitch, but now the distance is much smaller. With a bit of practice, you can make the distance smaller and smaller, while still being able to differentiate each pitch. Now back to the idea of a scale. The first three notes are the same distance higher than the last, but the fourth is a narrower space from the third. So we have a pattern: wide, wide, narrow. Now look back at the pattern of note-names. Fa, so, la are the first three notes, exactly the same distance apart. What follows is a narrow distance, and then the pattern begins all over again, only higher: fa, so, la. This gives us a total of six different pitches. We only need one more—mi. This one is special. Instead of being only a small space away, it is the larger distance up to mi, but from mi it is only the narrow leap up to the next fa.

  Thus, the distance relationship of the pitches, if written in words, would look like this:

Fa (wide space) So (wide space) La (narrow) Fa (wide space) So (wide space) La (wide space) Mi (narrow).... and so the pattern repeats ad infinitum.

  This follows the pattern set in the Bay Psalm Book which has the distinction of being the first book published in the New World. Thus, from the beginning, American's were familiar with this specific notation method, and a good many other song collections simply followed the pattern which was already set, including The Sacred Harp. Although in many respects it appears to be confusing or unorthodox, this was the system responsible for turning America into a singing nation. It can be learned very quickly, is simple, direct and basic, allowing “un-schooled” communities to gather together and read new music confidently, harmonize beautifully, and take pleasure in the experience. It has withstood the test of time in spite of the American penchant for constantly inventing “new and better” methods, of which there have been a great many. In recent years, it has experienced a revival and blossoming of fresh interest and appreciation.

  If you would like to experience the traditional gathering of shape-note singing, please join us this Sunday, November 20, 4:00pm, at the Lobelville Community Center, where the Nashville Sacred Harp singers will be presenting a program. This event is sponsored by Perry County Arts.

For a taste of shape note singing, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJCC4Nrvvw0.


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Reply ElmerArept
1:54 PM on January 20, 2017 
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