Sacred harp singing: Becoming one with the music

Ari Davis
Harp singers gather at the St. Mary’s Episcopal Church to sing hymns. The only instrument used in these gatherings are the human voice. (Ari Davis)

Singers belted early American hymns as loudly as they could while sitting in a square facing each other.

Sacred harp singers held their monthly meeting at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Nov. 11. Their common goal: to express themselves and become one with the music.

The term “sacred harp” refers to the human voice, the musical instrument that everyone possesses. This is the only instrument used in this singing tradition.

The tradition is not exclusive; everyone is welcomed to sing. No musical training or singing ability is necessary. The emphasis of this singing style is experiencing the music, not performing it.

“Harp singing is rustic; it’s not refined singing,” said harp singing group organizer Jenny Jensen.

The group has held a monthly meeting in Provo for about 12 years. The group has seen many members come regularly and others stop by once or twice over the years.

The singing group’s name originated from the hymnal it uses, “The Sacred Harp.” The hymnal is composed of songs that are spiritual in nature but not related to a particular denomination.

The sacred harp hymnal is written in standard music notation with four parts, but the notes are written using four different shapes to help aid sight singing, since this type of singing is not something that is practiced.

Ari Davis
Harp singers gather at the St. Mary’s Episcopal Church to sing hymns. The only instrument used in these gatherings is the human voice. (Ari Davis)

“If it falls apart we laugh and move on,” Jensen said.

There are four note shapes, which include the traditional circle, squares, diamonds and triangles. Each shape has a different name; fa, sol, la or mi.

The first time a song is sung through, it is sung with just the names of the shapes to learn the individual parts, and then the second time it is sung with words.

Many hymn lyrics may look familiar to an LDS audience, but the tunes often differ greatly from what would normally be found in an LDS hymnal.

Harp singing is a different form of singing that isn’t designed to have traditional harmonies or melodies. Each part has its own melody that intermingles with the other melodies.

“It was nice to see the correlations of the different types music compared to what we are used to,” said Amy Rojo, a BYU student in public health and a first-time harp singer.

Sacred harp singing is an old singing tradition that dates back to colonial times. These songs were an important part of worship for early Americans.

“We can get a feeling for the time and place and the feelings they had through some of the music that they sang by participating in the same things they did,” said Lawrence Rees, a professor of physics at BYU. “For me it gives me a connection to the past that is quite real.”

Harp singing is intended to be a participatory experience that all participants share. Inward-facing chairs aid the communal feel of harp singing. The chairs put in a square facing each other reinforces the idea that the singers are singing for each other and no one else.

Singers seek to relate to the music and what they are singing. The songs portray common themes of human feeling and emotion with regard to spirituality.

“There’s a down-to-earth expression of the human experience that you see in a lot of the hymns,” Rees said.

Many visitors to harp singing are BYU students who come for extra credit or because they are curious about what harp singing is. The younger dynamic of the group gives the singing a different kind of energy than some other groups that mainly have older participants.

Rees has participated regularly in harp singing for nearly 13 years. “It’s a good way to let out any frustrations,” Rees said. “Just sing as loud as you can for a few hours.”


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