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.