Sing the Shapes

I wrote a bit about sacred harp singing for a few months about a year ago, when I was really starting to get into it, and then I mostly stopped. I've had a few singing related experiences recently that I think are worth recounting, even if they're a bit disjointed. So I'll just hop in and hope that it adds up to something in the end. Also, if you're not familiar with Sacred Harp Singing, I'm sorry if there isn't a lot of sub tittling. Thanks for reading!


I was hanging out with R.F. and we were flipping through my copy of the sacred harp, and he was trying to get how the relative pitching thing works (having more formal experience singing with choirs and what not, and a sense of pitch that's way more closely tied to a piano than mine.) and he said something like "so this one would start 'here?'" I think it was 300, and I have no clue how "right," I was or what inspired this, but his pitch was about a step and a half (I think,) high, and so I gave something that was more or less where I thought the song was supposed to sit. We sang through a little bit of it, and it seemed to work.

I've never really had a lot of interest in being able to offer pitches to a class of Sacred Harp singers, beyond the very selfish ability to lead signings without needing to make sure that someone who can offer keys in attendance.


I'm working on memorizing the book--strategically, of course-- as I can. This makes signings more fun because you can look at people, while singing rather than having your nose in a book the whole time. While there aren't songs that I can safely leave the book closed for the shapes, I know the tunes (mostly bass parts) and words to most of the common ones (e.g. 178, 155, 89, 312b, 355, 300, 146, 148, 153, 112, 422, 209, 189, 186,) save a few middle verses that are sung rarely. I don't think of my memory as being particularly good for this kind of information, but it's nice to have reality prove you wrong.


One of the things that made Sacred Harp "click" for me when I really started to get into it was that I had the good sense to sing bass. My voice is pretty low, so this seems to fit, and I think staying in one section for a long time helped solidity my sense of the music.

Since March/April, or thereabouts, I've started singing tenor (the lead/melody) a bit. It's a stretch for my voice, and I'm slightly more prone to loosing track of the key when singing higher notes (a not uncommon problem,) but it's good for my brain, and I think it makes me a better singer and leader. I've mostly done this at local singings, and smaller signings when there are enough basses, or for a few songs at a bigger singing when the mood strikes.

I'm thinking of doing this more often, and at more singings, as part of an effort to become a better singer.


I think it's easy (at least for me) particularly in accounts like this to focus on the singing, the technical aspects of the music, and the texts used. And all of these components contribute to what makes singing so great: its a gestalt experience, but I think its easy to gloss over the best part of being a singer. Which is, of course, all the other singers.

Being a "community guy," I think it might be easy for me to wax poetic about how great sacred harp singings are--and they are--but I think there's something deeper and specific about singing communities that make them more accepting, more engaged, more inclusive than other communities (dancing, writing, professional,) that I've been involved in

Maybe it's that singing is a more transcendent experience that the focal points of other communities to begin with so people are willing to connect a bit more. Maybe the fact that singings are sometimes (often?) held in people's homes is a factor. Maybe the extreme inclusiveness combined with the somewhat substantial learning curve creates the right environment to foster a strong and self selecting community. Perhaps all of the travel to all day singings and conventions, combined with the effort to arrange socials, unifies the community.

I'm not sure, but I've met a bunch of great people singing, and people with whom I share more than just sufficient common interest in a shared activity. I'm not sure every singing community is like this, but the conversations and connections I've had with other singers have been depthy, interesting, and have expanded beyond singing.

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