Shapes and notes
In shape-note music, notes are printed in shapes that help the reader identify them and their relationship to each other. In the four-shape system used in The Sacred Harp, each of the four shapes is connected to a particular syllable, fa, sol, la, or mi, and these syllables are employed in singing the notes, just as in the more familiar system that uses do, re, mi, etc. The four-shape system is able to cover the full musical scale because each syllable-shape combination other than mi is assigned to two distinct notes of the scale. For example, the C major scale would be notated and sung as follows:
This 35 minute video is a recording of the first part of a singing school run by Hugh McGraw in 2009. It’s an excellent introduction to the rudiments or basics underpinning the music. It uses the tunes 49t Old Hundred, 49b Mear , 64 Nashville, 155 Northfield.
The pitch at which the music is sung is relative; there is no instrument to give the singers a starting point. The leader, or a singer assigned to the task, finds a good pitch with which to begin and intones it to the group (see: Pitching Sacred Harp music). The singers reply with the opening notes of their own parts, and then the song begins.
Sacred Harp groups sing a cappella. The singers arrange themselves in a hollow square, with rows of chairs or pews on each side assigned to each of the four parts: treble, alto, tenor, and bass. The treble and tenor sections are usually mixed, with men and women singing the notes an octave apart.
Sacred Harp is a participatory tradition. We gather to sing for ourselves and for each other, and not for an audience. Non-singers are always welcome to attend a singing, but typically they sit among the singers in the back rows of the tenor section, rather than in any particular designated audience location.
There is no single leader or conductor; rather, the participants take turns in leading. The leader selects a song from the song book, and “calls” it by its page number.
The singers use downward and upward motions of one hand to keep everyone together in time.
The Pacific North West Sacred Harp Singers have produced a A Primer on How To Lead (and beat time).