Singing at home

Understanding structure of tunes, for newer singers

Some people at the Berkeley weekly singing asked me to talk to the monthly learner’s group, with the idea that a tunesmith might have something to offer newer singers. Below is a recreation of the session I led this evening:

[To begin, we sang through some scales on page 18 of the Rudiments section.]

Understanding a little bit about the structure of our tunes can make it easier to sing from the Sacred Harp….

I have never been a particularly strong singer, and I have to use every crutch I can. When I started singing Sacred Harp, I realized that it helped me to stay in tune by listening, not just to the basses around me, but also to Ken Mattson, an excellent treble singer, across the square. Soon I was also listening to the altos and the tenors. If I could hear a good, accurate singer in another part, I found that made me much more confident in my own part.

In other words, we can take advantage of the fact that we sit in a hollow square. No matter where we sit around the hollow square, we can hear the other parts. In fact, the tunes are often composed with that in mind, going back as far as William Billings, whose singers would often be seated around the three sides of the gallery (or balcony) in a church.

Turn to page 23 in the Rudiments, and read Chapter VIII, section 18, first paragraph: “Given a tenor part (tune), … composers write the other parts in the order bass, treble, alto….”

Thus, from the composer’s point of view, the tenor part is the most important part. For the typical Sacred Harp class, the tenor part also tends to be most important — that’s where the tune is, after all. So it is a good idea for the rest of us to listen to the tenors while we’re singing.

Now let’s sing together the tenor part of no. 141, Complainer.

In conventional Western music, the melody is typically carried by the highest voice, and every other part is subservient to the melody. This is why male rock and pop singers tend to have freakishly high voices — so they can sing above all the other instruments. But in Sacred Harp music, the melody is in the tenor, which is not necessarily the highest part. It can be hard for us to hear the tenors, since the tenor part isn’t always higher than the other parts. (You might also look at page 21 in the Rudiments, Chapter VIII, sections 1, 2, and 5.)

Next turn to page 20 in the Rudiments, and look at Chapter IV, Section 1, the second paragraph: “The last note in the bass part is always the tonic….”

After the tenor part, the bass part is the second most important part: it’s the second part that the tunesmith will write, and the last note of the bass part tell you what key you’re in. To put it another way, the bass part tends to determine the harmony. (This is true for most Western music, by the way.)

Now let’s all sing together the bass part of no. 141, Complainer.

No matter what part you are singing, always listen for the tenor part. If you know how your part is supposed to sound in relation to the tenors, you’ll find it easier to sing your part. And if you’re a tenor, listen for the bass part: if you know how your part is supposed to sound in relation to the basses, you’ll find it easier to sing your part.

As you start listening to the other parts, you find out that very often two different parts are singing the same note at the same time — often at the beginning of tune, or the beginning of a section. Thus you can look and listen for places where you’re singing the same note as another part. That way, if you get lost, you can maybe pick up your place again by listening for that shared note.

To show you what I mean, let’s sing the bass and tenor parts of no. 141.

Notice where the notes are the same (unisons or octaves): first note; three notes in measure 2; all measure 3; 2 notes in measure 4; etc. If you get lost, try to look for those places where another part is singing the same note as you — that’s where you can get back into the tune.

Now we’ll sing the alto and bass parts of no. 141 together.

The alto part may be restricted to a fairly limited range, but this means they can concentrate on accenting the first and third beats (for more on accent, look at page 16 in the Rudiments, Chapter II, section 14). Plus, the alto are more likely to stay on pitch (since their parts tend to be a little easier), which means that the rest of us can often listen to them if we get lost and want to get back on track.

Now let’s sing the treble part of no. 141 by itself.

The treble part usually serves as a sort of counter melody to the tenor part.

Now let’s sing the treble and tenor parts of no. 141 together.

Notice how the treble and tenor parts complement each other? (Rebecca pointed out that treble and tenor parts often have melodies that cross one another, that is, first one part is higher, then the other is higher. This can be very beautiful, and fun to sing — and it is very characteristic of Sacred Harp music, as crossing vocal lines are forbidden in more formal music.)

As a final exercise in listening to the other parts, let’s look at the fuguing portion of no. 107 Russia. Notice how the parts give each other their first notes? The bass begins with the “la” that’s a fifth above the tonic, or root note (remember we talked about how the last note of the bass part in any tune is the tonic?). Then the bass part goes up to the “la” that’s the tonic or root note, sings it twice, goes down a step just in time for the tenors to sing that exact same “la.” The tenors then go up to the next “la” up, sing that a couple of times, go down a step, just in time for the altos to come in on exactly the “la” that the tenors just left! And then the same thing happens with the trebles.

This is not uncommon in fuguing tunes, where each part gets its starting note from the part that entered just before it. Or the starting note is provided in some other easy-to-hear way. This is why this music is so much fun to sing — we’re always picking up things from the other parts. I’m always looking for those notes that other parts might be handing off to my part.

Conclusion: Now you’ve had lots of practice singing the various parts of one great Sacred Harp song, no. 141 Complainer: you know how the tenor part sounds, and how the various parts fit together. You’ve also looked at the fuguing portion of no. 107 Russia. As you sing other favorite, familiar songs, start to listen to how their parts fit together. As you listen for these moments, not only will your singing get better, but you’ll also have more fun singing!

2 replies on “Understanding structure of tunes, for newer singers”

Thanks Dan, I appreciate this as a way to meet a new song. I look forward to the next time we sing together.

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