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Sacred Harp as participatory music

Sacred Harp singers view their tradition as a participatory one, not a passive one. Those who gather for a singing sing for themselves and for each other, and not for an audience. This can be seen in several aspects of the tradition.

First, the seating arrangement (four parts in a square, facing each other) is clearly intended for the singers, not for external listeners. 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 a designated separate audience location.

The leader, being equidistant from all sections, in principle hears the best sound. The often intense sonic experience of standing in the center of the square is considered one of the benefits of leading, and sometimes a guest will be invited as a courtesy to stand next to the leader during a song.

Source: Sacred Harp – Wikipedia


Musica ficta (Musicology, medieval)




  1. Tim B.

    “One element of the tone quality of traditional Sacred Harp singers that can be clearly asserted is that they never use vibrato.[8] However, this in itself says little about the rather distinctive sound that traditional singers produce. Subjectively, Sacred Harp bass sections (generally all male) tend to sound booming. Male tenors and trebles produce a powerful sound, often slightly nasal or “covered” in tone. Alto sections (generally all female) sound brassy; Marini refers to a “laser-like chest tone quality”.[9] The higher-voiced women tend to “float” their voices,[10] blending well into the whole.[11] As a result, Sacred Harp singing tends to be dominated in volume by the male tenors. In this respect its sound is quite different from that of ordinary mixed choruses, which at loud volume tend to be dominated by their sopranos. “

  2. Tim B.

    ” Our tradition is a living, breathing, ongoing practice passed directly to us by generations of singers, many gone on before and many still living.

    All events welcome beginners and newcomers, with no musical experience or religious affiliation required — in fact, the tradition was born from colonial “singing schools” whose purpose was to teach beginners to sing and our methods continue to reflect this goal. Though Sacred Harp is not affiliated with any denomination, it is a deeply spiritual experience for all involved, and functions as a religious observance for many singers.

    Sacred Harp “singings” are not performances. There are no rehearsals and no separate seats for an audience. Every singing is a unique and self-sufficient event with a different group of assembled participants. The singers sit in a hollow square formation with one voice part on each side, all facing inwards so we can see and hear each other. However, visitors are always welcome to sit anywhere in the room and participate as listeners.”

  3. Tim B.

    “All of these books became the focus of all-day church homecomings and community singings and of a ritualized practice whose distinctive features include: seating by parts, facing inward in a “hollow square”; rotation of leaders, whereby each leader stands in turn in the centre of the square, selects one or more songs, and leads the singers by keeping time with a simple motion of the hand, unaccompanied by instruments; and “singing the notes” (singing each selection using the fasola or doremi syllables prior to singing the lyrics). Prayers, observances in memory of deceased singers, and a shared “dinner on the grounds” add spiritual dimension to a day devoted to music, family, and community.”

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