We were talking to a new singer during the break this evening. She’s a visiting scholar from Sweden, she was curious about Sacred Harp singing and had some questions. Why do we sing at a pitch lower than the written pitch? My explanation is that most of our tenor singers really don’t have the range to sing the highest notes (many voices are really mid-range voices, not true tenors or sopranos), so we tend to sing songs between a second and a fourth below written pitch. She wanted to know where Sacred Harp singing fits into the wider spectrum of musical styles; this was a little more challenging to explain to someone who is not from the United States, but she knew about American bluegrass music, and got how Sacred Harp is related to bluegrass.
Then she wanted to know why we sing so loud. I guess one reason is that we like to sing loud, and another reason is that it’s actually easier to sing loudly than to sing softly, but the reason I gave was this:— this music was originally (and still is, for many singers) sacred music, and the loudness seems to me to come naturally as an expression of religious ecstasy. So as not to confuse the issue further, I did not go on to say that I used to get that same sense of religious ecstasy from punk rock concerts — but that was true for me, and it is why I like Shani’s characterization of Sacred Harp as the punk rock of choral music.
5 replies on “Explaining to a new singer”
I’m glad she was able to be there last night, I felt it was the best “loud” singing we’ve had in a while. We’ve discussed how we tend to over sing in that room but last night we were really coming together in sound and spirit. I could physically feel my voice resonating with other loud voices in the room. And it’s hard to explain but when the singing really gets good and loud, you can hear your own voice sounding with surprising power, in a way that’s beyond your control, larger than yourself. I will always remember the first time I experienced this at an all-day singing. (But I won’t try to analyze how it fits into the idea of religious ecstasy!)
I’m glad she was able to be there last night, I felt it was the best “loud” singing we’ve had in a while. We’ve discussed how we tend to oversing in that room but last night we were really coming together in sound and spirit. I could physically feel my voice resonating with other loud voices in the room. And it’s hard to explain but when the singing really gets good and loud, you can hear your own voice sounding with surprising power, in a way that’s beyond your control, larger than yourself. I will always remember the first time I experienced this at an all-day singing. (But I won’t try to analyze how it fits into the idea of religious ecstasy!)
First — I certainly miss singing with you all.
Second — I think the reason you gave for singing lower that written is correct, but I think the story is more like this: keys used to be tuned to human voices, but are now tuned to machines. I think there is a story, too, of a change from a focus on (earthly) male voices to (heavenly) female voices.
I’ve been told by more than one Sacred Harp singer that sometimes the key chosen for how a tune is printed on the page is simply so that it can be typeset well, with as few ledger lines as possible, so that the notes and text don’t crowd each other physically. As a composer who typesets your own tunes, is that true for you, Dan?
Will, if you go back far enough, you’ll find that composers changed clefs frequently to avoid ledger lines, but that was well before the American singing school tradition. The singing school tradition began by using pitch pipes, e.g., in the introduction to his first book of tunes, William Billings explains how to use a pitch pipe, and the scholars that I’ve read seem to think that he expected his tunes to be sung at written pitch. The change to relative pitch (as opposed to absolute pitch) appears to have emerged in the nineteenth century. So your statement may be true after 1800….
And yes, there was a change of emphasis from male voices to female voices as the most important in sacred choral music; nowadays, in standard church hymnody as written, sopranos (not tenors) nearly always get the melody — though the reality is that in most churches, everyone is supposed to sing the melody line, including altos and basses who can’t sing that high, and baritones and mezzos who don’t want to sing that high — which I think helps explain the poor quality of hymn singing in most churches today; many ordinary singers simply can’t sing in the range we ask them to sing in. But I digress from Sacred Harp singing….
How all this happened historically seems very complicated to me. In my limited understanding, what’s most important from our point of view as Sacred Harp singers is the history of congregational singing, which really begins only with the Reformation. Prior to the Reformation in the West, it was primarily trained choirs that sang sacred music, while the people sat and listened. Once the Reformation begins, you have movements to engage the whole congregation fully in singing psalms (hymns and other sacred songs really don’t enter the picture until Isaac Watts). And the history of congregational singing doesn’t really evolve into full four-part singing until the eighteenth century, at about the time the singing school tradition begins. As I understand the scholarship, there is some thought that the tenor line was doubled by men and women pretty early on in the singing school tradition, perhaps by Billings’s time (if not earlier). But what happened in the actual practice of Sacred Harp singing in the nineteenth century seems much more obscure to me.
Clarissa, yes, my goal as a composer is to try to avoid ledger lines, particularly in the tenor and treble parts. This is mostly a psychological thing — e.g., tenor singers tend to resist a tune if they see ledger lines below the staff even though they regularly sing down to middle C (for women tenors; down to C5 notated an octave up for men tenors) in terms of absolute pitch; and tenors and trebles tend not to like it when there are ledger lines above the staff, regardless of the actual range of their part.
The bass part uses the F clef, which tends to place the bass range comfortably within the staff such that few or no ledger lines are needed, assuming the bass range is about a fourth or fifth lower than the tenors. The altos cause more problems, because while their range should be an octave above the basses, we assign them the G clef; we no longer use the old alto clef, which was somewhat better at avoiding ledger lines for the altos; some alto parts are still notated with the F clef (e.g., Easter Anthem; technically an octave F clef, since it marks F4, not F3) which places the altos at about the same place as the basses, thus tending to avoid ledger lines better than the G clef. Fortunately, the altos usually have parts that are very restricted in range, making ledger lines less of a problem — except in tunes with a wider alto range such as Akin. Note that if the alto part of Akin were notated with an F clef, you could avoid more ledger lines. To avoid ledger lines completely, Akin could use an F clef that places F on the middle line of the staff (or a C clef that placed C on the top line of the staff), but in today’s Sacred Harp music (unlike in older Western music), we do not move clefs from their accustomed places.