Singing at home

Composing plain tunes, transcending self, and making mistakes

On the drive over from the Peninsula to Berkeley, Julian and I talked a little about composing Sacred Harp tunes. We agreed that the easiest tunes to write are anthems; next in difficulty are fuguing tunes; and most to difficult to write are plain tunes.

Singers generally like to sing anthems, and the composer has more latitude to play with rhythm and melody, so it’s relatively easy to write an anthem that’s fun to sing. Fuguing tunes are somewhat more difficult to write, but their structure greatly limits the choices the composer can make; and singers really like to sing fuguing tunes; the only thing that makes fuguing tunes harder to write than anthems is that you generally have to write a short plain tune section, but that can be mediocre as long as the fuguing section is fun.

Plain tunes, by contrast, are far more difficult to compose. It’s hard to produce a new plain tune that will stand out from the hundreds of other plain tunes that have been written. Even William Billings struggled with plain tunes: he wrote two nearly perfect plain tunes, 479 Chester and 178 Africa, but his original tunebooks are filled with many more that are boring and mediocre. This makes the achievement of William Walker even more amazing: he wrote plain tune after plain tune that was filled with inventiveness, and that had excellent melodies in all the parts.


The first half of the singing tonight was again loud. The singing was tuneful and uplifting at the beginning, but began to flag a little by break time. Rebecca stood up during the announcements and suggested that singers not sing too loud, and that we give attention to and listen to the singers around us. Yet even so, the second half of tonight’s singing was not as good as the first half (though it didn’t get ragged as did the second half of last week’s singing). This may have been due to singers getting tired out, or it may have been due to the fact that a good many singers left during the break. All the sections except the altos thinned out in the second half; the trebles and the basses were especially thin.

And some exceptionally fine voices did stay in the second half. They were the ones who helped to carry the rest of us, and kept the singing on track. I particularly noticed the following: in the treble section, Rebecca’s voice remained true and tuneful; and in the tenor section, I heard James, David, and Miles as equally true and tuneful. I could tell there were a couple of fine women’s voices in the tenor section as well, but from where I sat in the basses, I couldn’t pinpoint who they were.

The standout section for me, though, was the altos: they sang together well as a section, and you could tell they were listening to each other, and to the other sections. The best Sacred Harp singing, in my view, is essentially selfless: you sing, not to show off your own voice, but to support and encourage the voices around you. I’ve heard some Christian singers say that you’re singing for God, not yourself. From my own theological viewpoint, I think of it somewhat differently: you lend your own vocal talents, whatever they may be, to the greater good that is the total voice of the community of singers; in so doing, your own talents are magnified by others, and added to by the talents of others, and so you are able to transcend your own limitations and soar away to a higher state. That’s the way all human communities work, when they work well.


The bass section struggled a little tonight, especially after the break. I know I was feeling out of sorts: I couldn’t stay focused, and managed to miss too many notes even on songs that I knew well. My intonation was off. I struggled to produce a good sound; by the end of the night, my abdominal muscles were tired from all the extra effort I somehow had to put in to singing.

The worst moment for us came when James stood up to lead Rose of Sharon, a tune I love and know reasonably well. I sat next to Jeremy, someone with whom I always enjoy singing, and who knows Rose of Sharon better than I do.

I figured we would do fine, even though by that time there were only three basses left (plus Terry, who decided to visit with us tonight, just so she could better hear what some of the bass parts sound like). But we didn’t do well. In spite of James’s excellent leading, we flubbed entrances; we missed what seemed like half the notes; and we didn’t even sound very good when we sang correctly. I felt bad that we had let James and the other sections down (and because Terry didn’t really get a chance to hear one of the nicer bass parts in the Sacred Harp). When it was all over, Jeremy and I just looked at each other, and smiled, and shook our heads: we’ll just have to do better next time.

One reply on “Composing plain tunes, transcending self, and making mistakes”

Who do we sing for? Is such an important Sacred Harp question. In theory we say for each other (and to varying degrees, God.) But we also take pride in our unique full-voiced style, and there can be conflict there. I always cringe when I hear that joke passed on as wisdom – “if you can hear the person next to you, you’re not doing it right.” Sacred Harp is better approached as an exercise in humility – think not what you can do for yourself, but for the class. I love what you said about transcendence.

Note that the alto section you praise so highly was a crowd of relatively new singers, taking care to listen and learn 🙂

Also, as a non-composer I’m so fascinated by what you say about writing anthems v. fugues v. plain tunes – that’s quite the opposite of what one would assume! But it makes so much sense, and ties into the above discussion of humility. I’m thinking of that great bit in Awake My Soul where Raymond Hamrick talks about it being the singers who really take to a song and make it their own.

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