Thursday, March 25, 2010

Shape Note Singing!!

I was following yet another internet rabbit trail the other day (don't you love those internet rabbit trails).  I started out googling church acoustics.  Jeshurun has done a lot reading about church acoustics and has a lot of opinions, and I wanted to see if he was right (he was, of course).  I happened across this site which contains really nice clips of a capella singing done in an old church building with excellent acoustics.

Prairie Harmony song samples

I shared some of the clips with Jesh and he said "Hmmm, shape note singing is usually much more vigorous."  Shape note singing?  Huh?  I hadn't heard of that.  So of course, I turned to wikipedia and Google.  Turns out that shape notes are a type of musical notation which originated in 18th century America, in which every note is a different shape; this is supposed to aid congregational singing by making sight reading easier.  Shape note songbooks are still used today by several churches in the South, like the Primitive Baptists, and by other groups such as the Mennonites.

A subset of shape-note singing is the Sacred Harp tradition (nice sample there on the Wikipedia page).  Sacred Harp singing is generally not done in church services, but in gatherings in homes or larger venues.  Singers sit in a square facing one another, with each part on one side.  Singing is a capella and the pitch is set by a leader.  Melodies are polyphonic and often on a minor scale with lots of fourths and fifths (I only barely understand these terms, just including them for those of you who know what they mean. :) )

I came across a Sacred Harp Singing in Texas website that was pretty interesting.  Please take a minute to click on the "Sound Clip from Southwest Texas Convention."  Jesh said it might be the best shape note singing he's heard, and if you know Jesh, you know that those are pretty strong words.

Then I had a flash of inspiration.  "I wonder if I can find shape note singing on Youtube."  Well, duh.  Here's a nice example of a fuging tune.
If you want to hear more, search "Sacred Harp" or "shape note singing" on Youtube.

Sacred Harp singing is enjoying a resurgence in popularity.  Sacred Harp singings can be found in many locations (several in Houston, actually) and in many places, one can find all-day regional singings, complete with an afternoon pitch-in meal.  Why is Sacred Harp singing so popular?  An article entitled "The Initial Appeal of Sacred Harp," on the Sacred Harp Singing in Texas site, explains its appeal as follows: the music is powerful and joyful yet mournful at the same time, it's an emotional and spiritual experience, everyone is welcome to participate regardless of their singing ability, participants share a strong sense of community and fellowship, and singers feel connected with history as they sing the songs the way they've been sung for hundreds of years.

Sound familiar?  Many of us are part of an even older and richer musical tradition.  We sing songs written three thousand years ago, and set to meter at the end of the Protestant Reformation.  We sing the songs to tunes written over a span of several centuries.  And the songs we sing were inspired by our Father and are suited for worshipping Him unlike any song written by man.  May we who sing the Psalms of David never lose sight of the blessing that is ours.

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