Sacred Harp Singing FAQ

(Frequently Asked Questions)

The following is a work in progress. Additional questions and answers will be added, and the file will be divided into sections. I have received many helpful suggestions from members of the Fasola Mailing List, to whom I sent an earlier draft in 1997, but any errors in the current version are my own.

Warren Steel

Part I

  1. What is Sacred Harp singing?
  2. What is The Sacred Harp? is it a hymnal?
  3. Why is it called "Sacred Harp"? are the songs accompanied by harps?
  4. What kind of songs are in The Sacred Harp?
  5. Is it church music? are they hymns?
  6. Is it folk music? why do they use a book?
  7. Is The Sacred Harp the only book used?
  8. Who wrote these sings? where do they come from?
  9. Is it "old English music"? do they have Sacred Harp singing in England and other countries?

Part II

  1. What are shape-notes? is Sacred Harp singing the same as "shape-note singing"?
  2. What does fasola mean?
  3. Why are there only four syllables, instead of seven?
  4. Why is there such a long introduction to the book?
  5. Is it a "sing" or a "singing"?
  6. If I go to a singing, do I have to sing?
  7. Why do the singers sit in a "hollow square"?


What is Sacred Harp singing?

Sacred Harp singing is a community musical and social event, emphasizing participation, not performance, where people sing songs from a tunebook called The Sacred Harp.

What is The Sacred Harp? Is it a hymnal?

The Sacred Harp is an oblong tunebook first published in 1844 by B.F. White and E. J. King. The book was printed in Philadelphia, but White and King lived in western Georgia, as did many other composers represented in the book. The original title reads:

The Sacred Harp, a collection of psalm and hymn tunes, odes, and anthems; selected from the most eminent authors, together with nearly one hundred pieces never before published. Suited to most metres, and well adapted to churches of every denomination, singing schools, and private societies. With plain rules for learners.

Although many of the poems are hymns, the Sacred Harp has rarely been used at religious services. In the nineteenth century, hymnbooks and tunebooks were often separate. Hymnbooks were organized by subject matter, and contained complete poems; they might or might not contain music, but the focus was on the words. Tunebooks contained musical compositions called tunes, known by titles (e.g. Sherburne or Restoration). A given tune could be used to sing any hymn or psalm text of the same "meter" or poetic pattern. A tunebook might have one or more verses of a suggested text printed with the music, but it rarely contained all the verses of a poem.

Why is it called Sacred Harp? Are the songs accompanied by harps?

The titles of tunebooks are often fanciful, and refer to musical and religious symbolism. Many titles refer to musical instruments; stringed instruments are especially prominent because they are mentioned in the Psalms and other scriptures, and because they are associated with David, the royal psalmist. Some present-day singers interpret the term "sacred harp" to refer to the human voice in general, or the vocal cords in particular. At least two books entitled The Sacred Harp were published before 1844.

Sacred Harp singing is not accompanied by harps or any other instruments.

What kind of songs are in The Sacred Harp?

The Sacred Harp is an eclectic tunebook, containing examples of several different forms, genres, and styles. These include (1) psalm tunes from English and European sources, 1550-1850; (2) tunes by the first American composers, mainly New Englanders, 1770-1810; (3) tunes composed or arranged by Southern composers, 1810-1900, including many adaptations of popular or traditional songs, marches, dance tunes, and camp-meeting spiritual songs; (4) tunes composed by twentieth-century composers in styles closely related to the earlier repertories.

Regardless of their origin, most of the pieces fall into the following categories:

  1. Strophic psalm and hymn tunes. These tunes are designed for multi-stanza poetry: the same music is repeated for subsequent stanzas. Many of these tunes are simple, and composed of block chords—everyone sings the same words at the same time (e.g. New Britain, King of Peace). Tunes "with extension" usually have some repetition of text in one or more parts (e.g., Coronation, Ortonville); "fuging-tunes" have a section where the parts enter one or two at a time, usually in melodic imitation (Ballstown); in fuging-tunes the words are not uttered by all the parts at the same time. Some psalm and hymn tunes (called "doubles") contain enough music for two successive stanzas of text (Westford, New Jordan).
  2. Revival "choruses," or songs with refrains. In these songs, the stanzas are followed by a constant refrain (e.g., Ecstacy). Sometimes there are brief refrains after every couplet (Desire for Piety) or every line (Antioch).
  3. Non-strophic set pieces, called "odes" in the title page. These are settings of three or more stanzas of poetry, with different music for every stanza, often with musical contrasts. The poem may be on a sacred (Christian Song) or other elevated subject (Ode On Science).
  4. Anthems, or settings of prose text, usually from the Bible. Longer examples (Heavenly Vision, Rose of Sharon) may have changes of meter or key. Some anthems are as brief as a psalm tune (David's Lamentation, The Spirit Shall Return).

Is it church music? are they hymns?

Most of the words are religious, and are the work of English evangelical poets such as Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. They include paraphrases of Psalms and other scripture (Stratfield), hymns of praise (Albion), and "spiritual songs" which recount experiences in the spiritual life of the individual (Columbus) or the community (Holy Manna). Other songs are moralistic (O Come Away), patriotic (The American Star) or on other subjects. For the believer, these songs offer an eloquent expression of faith; they differ from much modern religious poetry in that they often address difficult subjects such as sin, doubt, death, and judgment. Many singers who are not overtly religious nevertheless admire the strong language and imagery of the poetry. Sacred Harp singers today include Christians of all denominations, adherents of other religions (including a significant number of Jews), and persons of no religious affiliation.

Is it folk music? why do they use a book?

Many of the melodies in the Sacred Harp are also found in ballads, dance tunes, and other songs in the oral tradition of the United States and the British Isles; many other melodies resemble folk tunes in their melodic contour, scales, and phrase structure. These songs are sometimes called "folk hymns," even when the hymn texts are by Watts or other known poets.

Traditional singers use the printed book in learning songs, and refer to it while singing, but the notes in the book are not interpreted literally, but according to a performance practice and style that is learned through oral tradition and varies among different regions and families.

Is The Sacred Harp the only book used?

At a Sacred Harp singing, the songs are usually limited to those found in one of two editions of The Sacred Harp. The B.F. White Sacred Harp (Cooper Revision) predominates in Florida, Texas, and south Alabama. The Sacred Harp (1991 Edition) is generally used elsewhere in the South, and by most Sacred Harp singers outside the South. The Sacred Harp was only one of many similar tunebooks published by southern compilers. There are similar traditions, though less widespread, involving the following books, with their initial dates of publication:

Usually, at a traditional singing, only a single book is used, even if many of the singers may use another book at another singing. At non-traditional singings, other books may be used to supplement the songs in The Sacred Harp. These include Shenandoah Harmony, Northern Harmony, Missouri Harmony and Georgian Harmony,

Who wrote these songs? Where do they come from?

Some of the tunes in The Sacred Harp were composed in England during the period 1690-1810, not for cathedrals or royal chapels, but for churches and chapels in towns and countryside, and for urban charity hospitals. Many tunes were written by New Englanders between 1770 and 1810, among them Boston tanner William Billings, New Haven merchant Daniel Read, and Vermont schoolmaster and innkeeper Justin Morgan. Many more tunes were composed or adapted by southerners, including several women, during the years 1810-1870. These include Ananias Davisson of Virginia, William Walker of South Carolina, and Sacred Harp compilers B.F. White and E.J. King of Georgia. Twentieth-century composers represented in the Sacred Harp include members of the McGraw family of Georgia, the Denson family of Alabama, and, since 1991, several composers living outside the southern United States. The Makers of the Sacred Harp, by David Warren Steel with Richard H. Hulan (University of Illinois Press, 2010), is a guide to the composers and sources of the songs in The Sacred Harp.

Is it "old English music"? Do they have Sacred Harp singing in England and other countries?

Sacred Harp singing, and the American singing-school movement of which it was a part, have antecedents in efforts by John Playford to teach note-reading to London parish clerks in the late seventeenth century. The earliest American tunebooks borrowed their methods and repertory almost wholly from Playford's psalters and method books.

In England, the singing-school movement bore fruit in a renewed interest in psalmody in every region, as local singing-masters founded choirs, often supported by instruments, which sang and played both in parish churches (Anglican) and dissenting chapels. This movement, which declined after 1830, has undergone a vigorous revival in England, where it is known as "[west] gallery music" or "Georgian psalmody." British singers are also aware of the American shape-note tradition, and have organized Sacred Harp singings and conventions. Today, there are Sacred Harp singings in Canada, Ireland, Germany, Poland, Autralia, Norway, and France.


What are shape-notes? Is Sacred Harp singing the same as "shape-note singing"?

Shape notes are are like ordinary Western musical notation, except that the note-heads are printed in distinctive geometrical shapes to indicate their position and musical syllable. Guido of Arezzo, an eleventh-century monk, devised the hexachord system of six syllables (ut re mi_fa sol la) with specific intervals between each adjacent pair of syllables. In sixteenth-century England, singers discovered they could get by with only four syllables (mi_fa sol la). English colonists brought this four-syllable system to America. Meanwhile, on the European continent, the hexachord was expanded to seven syllables, one for each note in the octave (in Italy, do re mi_fa sol la si). The seven-syllable system prevailed during the nineteenth century in England and America.

Shape-notes, also called character notes or patent notes, are one of many notational innovations that were devised in an attempt to make sight-reading easier to learn. (Others included tonic sol-fa, developed by Sarah Glover and John Curwen, and popular in the British Isles, and Thomas Harrison's numerical notation, once popular in the Ohio Valley.) Invented by Philadelphia shopkeeper John Connolly (or Coloney) around 1790, the four shape-notes were purchased by William Little and William Smith, who brought out the first shape-note tunebook, The Easy Instructor, in 1801. Over 200 different shape-note tunebooks were printed in America between 1801 and 1861, most of them with four shapes representing the four syllables of the English system. Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley were early centers of shape-note publication. From 1846 on, many tunebooks, beginning with Jesse Aikin's Christian Minstrel, were printed in seven shapes representing the seven syllables of the Italian system. Aikin's seven-shape notation is still in wide use in the southern United States, where it is used for gospel songbooks and some denominational hymnals. The four-shape system survives mainly in various editions of The Sacred Harp.

While the term "shape-note" properly includes both the four-shape (fasola) and seven-shape (doremi) systems, the connotation varies in different regions of the country. In the South the term usually refers to gospel songbooks or hymnals, while Sacred Harp singing is often called "fasola," "four-note," or simply "Sacred Harp" singing. In the North, singers who are aware of the revival of Sacred Harp singing frequently use the term "shape-note" to refer to all books printed in shape-notes, but especially The Sacred Harp.

What does fasola mean?

Fasola indicates the four-syllable solmization system, prevalent in English-speaking countries before 1800, and preserved in the Sacred Harp and Southern Harmony; also the four-shape notation used in the same two books. The term fasola contrasts with the term doremi, which indicates the seven-syllable system, together with various seven-shape notations. In parts of the South, the term Fasola refers to Sacred Harp singing.

Why are there only four syllables, instead of seven?

In the English four-note solmization, the four syllables are disposed among the seven notes of the scale, so that there are always whole tones between the notes fa-sol-la-mi, and there is always a semitone below fa. The ascending major scale is as follows (semitones are marked by an underscore):

fa sol la_fa sol la mi_fa
There is only one mi in a given scale, so this note becomes especially important in learning to sing. Before the invention of shape-notes, singers had to learn "how to find the mi" by memorizing rules: "If B be flat, mi is in E, etc." The other notes may be found by reference to mi: "Above mi, fa sol la, fa sol la, ascending," and "below mi, la sol fa, la sol fa, descending." If the last note in the bass part is one note above mi, i.e., fa, then the song is in the major key. If it is one note below mi, i.e., la, then the song is in the minor key.

Why is there such a long introduction to the book?

Most oblong tunebooks contain a section of instructional materials called "rudiments," that may serve as an aid in learning to sing with or without a teacher, and may continue to serve as a handy reference and authority on musical symbols, terms, and techniques.

Is it a "sing" or a "singing"?

The noun "singing" does not appera in many dictionaries. Despite this, it is the usual term over most of the area where Sacred Harp singing is prevalent, and is preferred by most traditional singers, though the term "sing" may also be encountered.

If I go to a singing, do I have to sing?

Of course not. At a typical Sacred Harp singing or convention, most of those who attend have come to participate in the singing, as well as other activities. There are always some, however, who prefer to sit and listen. They may include former singers, lifelong listeners, and curious newcomers.

Why do the singers sit in a "hollow square"?

Since Sacred Harp singing is a participatory activity, and not a performance, the singers arrange their seating so as to focus the sound inward, toward the center of the group, instead of projecting it outward toward an audience. The greatest volume and optimum balance are heard in the very center of the hollow square, where every singer may take his or her turn as leader.

Warren Steel (

Last modified 13 November 2016
Copyright © 1997 D.W. Steel. All rights reserved.
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