Test your knowledge of the Sacred Harp

By Ginnie Ely (September 2003)

(Circle one answer in each of the first four questions.)

  1. We know this music as "Sacred Harp" music today, but that wasn't always so. Do you know when and where this music began to be called "Sacred Harp" music?
    1. With William Billings in the 1780s in New England.
    2. After The Sacred Harp was published in 1844 in Georgia.
    3. No idea.
    Answer: B is correct. With the publication and popular acceptance of the Sacred Harp in 1844, people began to refer to this music as "Sacred Harp" music. Before that it was known as "shape-note" music, or "Fa Sol La" music.
  2. Where and when was the four syllable Fa Sol La Mi system used to teach singing?
    1. Italy in the 11th century
    2. England in the 1500s
    3. New England in the 1790s
    4. The South after 1844
    5. No idea
    Answer: B is correct. The system of using four syllables to teach singing developed in England. The singing of syllables (solmization) to teach students scales & intervals is usually credited to Guido d' Arezzo (11th century, a six syllable system ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la). In England, by Elizabethan times, this system became simplified to four syllables fa, sol, la, and mi. See Ishmael's shape note history.
  3. Where and when was the "shape-note" system first used to teach singing?
    1. Italy in the middle ages
    2. England in the 1600s
    3. Philadelphia in the 1790s
    4. The South after 1844
    5. No idea
    Answer: C is correct. Wm. Smith and Wm. Little published the "Easy Instructor" in 1801 in Philadelphia using shaped note-heads developed in the previous decade to represent the four syllables that we know today. Their objective was to provide a visual cue to the 4 syllable system people had already learned by ear, so that they might also learn how to read written music.
  1. What are the primary characteristics, other than singing this music from The Sacred Harp, which make this tradition unique? (True-false. Circle all that apply in the remaining questions.)

    General structure

    1. The 4 parts are called tenor, bass, alto, and treble.
    2. The 4 parts are seated in a square facing in, with the tenors facing the altos and the basses (to the left of the tenors) facing the trebles.
    3. Both tenor and treble are sung by both men and women in both high and low vocal ranges.
    4. The parts are SATB.
    5. The notes (shape names) are sung before the words are sung.
      Answer: A, b, c and e are true.

    Leading and keying music

    1. People take turns leading their own choice of tunes, either democratically or using a leader list.
    2. The leader stands in the center and always faces the tenors,
    3. People sit in a circle and no one leads.
    4. One person does the leading.
    5. Usually one person is designated to set the beginning notes of a tune for each segment of a convention. This person is known as the "keyer" or "pitcher."
      Answer: F, g and j are true.


    1. At a convention there will be opening and closing prayer, and prayer before each meal,
    2. At a convention there will be a Memorial Lesson honoring singers, family and friends who have died during the past year and those who are sick and home-bound.
      Answer: K and l are true.


    1. There is a dress code at traditional conventions and blue jeans or other sloppy clothing should not be worn,
    2. Wearing grungy clothing is acceptable,
    3. People of all ages attend and sing, great grandparents, parents, and children,
    4. Allowing children to run around and make noise in the singing room is acceptable.
      Answer: M and o are true. Conforming to the square setting, with the leader facing the tenors and interacting with the front bench, men and women on both treble and tenor, prayer and the Memorial lesson, singing the notes (shape names), and the dress code are all important. Children are welcome to sit and sing and to lead alone or with their parents, but must not run around in the singing room and be disruptive. Please read A Plea for Participation In the Sacred Harp Tradition.
  2. What is the role of the front-bench tenors? (circle all that apply)
    1. To assist the leader.
    2. To help keep the class together.
    3. To provide visible beat-keeping for the altos and others with bad sight-lines.
    4. To sit with their heads in their books and ignore the leader.
    5. To speed up and ignore the tempo set by the leader.
      Answer: A, b, and c are all true. The role of the front bench tenors is very important. Please read the Front-bench Tenor At Sacred Harp Conventions.
  3. What are the important points of good leading style? (circle all that apply)
    1. Leading style in the Sacred Harp tradition is simple, the arm kept in front of the body, with the elbow tucked at the side, or with the arm elevated, and the hand and forearm move in one piece with no flourishes.
    2. Traditional leading is a down-up on all duple and compound (4/4 2/4 2/2 6/8 6/4) music and down-down-up on all triple ( and 3/2) music,
    3. The leader faces any direction they want to and ignores the front-bench tenors.
    4. The leader does a straight-arm swing, the arm swinging behind their back, which makes it hard to see the end of the beat and threatens to hit the altos in the face.
    5. The leader conducts like a choral director.
      Answer: A and b are true. Avoiding the full arm swing is important in order for your tempo to be correctly understood. Please read the Guide to Leading Music in the Sacred Harp Tradition.
    Ginnie Ely (ginnieely@gmail.com)

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