Why Sacred Harp Sounds Strange

For people who grew up with “four-square” hymns and classical music, the American (and English) style of vocal music found in hymn book such as Southern Harmony and The Sacred Harp sound very different, even unpleasant. The chords have been described as “open” and the tone “primitive.” Part of this comes from the modes used by composers, the keys and the frequently minor melodies. However, even major tunes can be off-kilter to some ears, even before you hear them done in a Sacred Harp Sing.

Just to really mess with you, musically, keep in mind that one of the greatest early-American composers, William Billings, was writing at the same time as Mozart. The sounds of the two are, let us say, somewhat different. William Billings came from an English popular tradition sometimes called “West Choir” music, because rather than singing as part of the formal choir in the chancel, people used the west choir in the church for unofficial spiritual and popular music singing when the service was not being held.

The composers and arrangers of many of the hymns in Southern Harmony, The Sacred Harp, and similar songbooks/hymnals were aiming for a harmonious setting of three or four parts. The groups of notes in “concord” or peaceful harmony, were fifths (do-so) and octaves (do-do). Thirds (do-me) and sixths (do-la) were lesser concords, used to add variety. However, discords, combinations of notes that were deliberately dissonant, added variety to the music, or could help emphasize a textual point. If the text is about the pains awaiting fallen sinners who do not repent, then lovely, sweet chords are probably not ideal. Or if the text is about spiritual warfare (“Oh When shall I see Jesus” aka “Morning Trumpet”), harsher sounds make more sense. In many ways, Sacred Harp music is text-driven almost as much as plainsong.

However, even though concords dominate in Sacred Harp, the sound remains different from, oh, “Holy, Holy, Holy” and the type of hymn harmony popularized by Lowell Mason and used in many churches since the 1820s. This is because of how the chords are “stacked.” The Do-fa-ti (one-four-seven) combination is very common in Sacred Harp, far less so in main-line hymn harmonies. The sound strikes the ear as “open,” as if it is both dissonant and missing something in the middle. Fourths are used much, much more in Sacred Harp than in other styles of American hymnody.

[For a very detailed music-theory article, go here.]

Having three rather than four parts also lends an “odd” tone to the music, since everyone picks the line that fits his or her voice the best. The top line is “soprano” but you will find other voices there. The melody is generally in the tenor* line, but not always. Even four-part Sacred Harp harmonies can be strange-sounding to ears accustomed to other modes and ways of arranging tunes.

This is not to say that Sacred harp is always simple. William Billings “I am the Rose of Sharon” is a complicated setting of the text from Song of Songs. He also has a lot of “fuguing tunes,” where the melody appears, then a round, or fugue, form the core of the hymn, before resolving into a unison once more. The link takes you to a small professional ensemble doing “Rose of Sharon.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0OFnfWtIa10

So, for a bit of compare and contrast:


The above is a trained early-music group doing “David’s Lamentation.” Below is a Sacred Harp sing doing the same setting and text.

Below is another of my favorites. Note that the text is an exultation, but the mode is minor, which seems a bit of a disconnect. You can certainly hear the “openness” in the chords.

Below is a professional chorus doing another famous Sacred Harp tune, arranged in a more conventional style:

If you don’t like the sound of “raw” Sacred Harp sing, you are not alone. As a fellow shape-note singer once said, “I’ll drive five hundred miles to sing it, but I won’t cross the road to listen to it.”

*Think of the Statler Brothers “Daddy Sang Bass (Mother sang Tenor).” That’s what they are describing.


5 thoughts on “Why Sacred Harp Sounds Strange

  1. Okay, this is the church and picnic music of my youth. I didn’t realize I missed it. It fits in so well with bluegrass culture.

    I like the second (Sacred Heart) David’s Lament better, but the first seems more appropriate and solemn.

  2. I notice that the melody is still with the sopranos in the Sacred Harp “David’s Lamentation.” I’ve understood that more usually the tenors have the melody.

    • Melody in the tenor is the most common. I picked “David’s Lamentation” in part because I could find both a polished and a “raw” version of it. “Exultation (Come Away to the Skies)” and “Wondrous Love” are two that are tenor melody, when printed in the Sacred Harp or Southern Harmony. Since singers can and do switch parts with gusto, moving to whatever suits their voices best, you will hear women on the tenor line and tenors or altos on the soprano line as the spirit moves us.

      • My understanding is it is NOT unusual to have tenors doubling Sopranos an octave down and vice versa an octave up. similar behavior in Alto/Bass (when 4 part) so you end up with open octaves between the doubled voices. I’ve sung Billings “I Am the Rose of Sharon” as part of an octet with all parts octave double (I double the soprano). Its gorgeous even if a bit odd sounding to an ear used to Classical/Romantic composition. And yes Billings does use the music to accent the words. I remember the line “I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk” has some amazing dissonance that sets your teeth on edge as mixing wine and milk certainly would. Really neat stuff.

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