Fa So La!

I spent this afternoon sitting in a square looking at triangles, circles, rectangles and diamonds and learning how to do this:

It is called Sacred Harp (or ‘Shape Note’) singing and it’s a traditional form of four part harmony singing from America. I won’t tell you anything about its history or about how to do it because I don’t know enough about either things, but the link above and this piece from the Guardian do a good job of explaining it. I can tell you about my experience though. Here’s what is amazing about Sacred Harp music, in my opinion:

  •  It sounds incredible. The youtube videos can’t really do the sound justice. Last year I spent half an hour in a bigger group in Belfast just listening to it. Imagine being in a house made of music. That’s what it’s like. All the singers sit facing one another in a square and everyone’s part is equal, and LOUD. It’s quite something to sit inside and listen to. But you don’t have to just listen…
  • It’s accessible. I can’t read music. I used to be able to but that was a long time ago. I always wanted to be a part of choirs but I was always too shy to put myself forward, especially knowing that I wouldn’t be able to follow the music apart from a vague sense of whether the note would be going up or down. The basics of shape note singing are pretty simple though so you can take part in it really quickly. There are things that are tricky but there are also things that are easy. I felt like a part of what was happening almost immediately even though I was sitting opposite people who were able to read the notes, follow the words, do the hand-wavy thing (more about that later) and put the emphasis on the right bit at the right time all at once.
  • It’s difficult. There’s a lot to learn! But somehow that seems exciting rather than intimidating when you know that every time you come you will be genuinely participating rather than making a mess of things over and over until one day you get it right. Of course, there is also room to make a mess of things. Luckily, if you’re in a house made of loud music the messing up isn’t so noticeable. There is a Big Book of Sacred Harp which has all the tunes in it and there are loads of songs and it means that sometimes there are nice slow ones that will make you feel like a proper singer. There are also some quite bonkers tunes where you can only sit and stare as the little shapes go whizzing past your eyes.
  • It’s egalitarian. The person who stands in the middle of the house made of music and leads a tune can be anyone from the group of singers. People take it in turns to start a tune and they get to decide which verses you will sing and how it will go if there are options to repeat a bit or whatever. They help everyone out with the wavy hand thing which is just another way to keep time, and which I haven’t mastered yet. I think I find this hard because when I’m beating time on the steering wheel in the car it’s always on the second beat in the bar. I’m sure there is a word for this but since I am musically clueless I don’t know what it is, but it makes acknowledging the first beat a bit difficult for me. But I’m digressing. Sacred Harp singing is traditional music, it is taught to children who grow up with it and teach it to their children. Everyone gets to participate. There is no lead singer and none of the four parts are any louder than the others (the shape notes really help you to keep your place when you’re trying to sing with 3 other harmonies in your ear).
  • It’s ideal for shy people. You are encouraged to sing loudly but that’s OK because everyone is singing loudly. At my loudest I couldn’t be as loud as the guy next to me so I was really able to sing as loud as I would on my own without feeling self conscious at all (and when I’m on my own I’m still a wee bit self conscious because we live in a terraced house, I know the neighbours can hear me singing, God help them). Aldo, the man teaching us to sing, said that there was a tradition at conferences where the last song they’d sing would be ‘The Parting Hand’ and everyone would walk around saying their goodbyes as they sang. Frankly, I prefer to not to think about that possibility but I figure I could always nip out to the loo if anyone decided that this would be a good idea.

And those are my thoughts for today about Shape Note singing. It was very good fun and the tunes were really beautiful and I really want to go back and do it again. If you are in N Ireland and fancy having a go there is a group which meets on Tuesday nights to learn how to do it and there will be a day of singing in October. There is a Facebook group you can join for more information, or you can ask me about it and I’ll put you in touch with Barton who runs the group.

Edit: I just found this video of ‘The Parting Hand’ and actually it’s such a nice tune that I might have to brave the hand shaking shenanigans. I could always practise being sociable in advance…


  1. This sounds great, Shirley – really off the wall! You make it sound like something anyone could do and enjoy.
    I wonder is this the Barton I know – American? Can’t be too many with this unusual name?

    1. Yes, if I can have a go at this then surely anyone can. And yes, it’s the same Barton! I gather Jaime goes to roller derby with your daughter. I love that about NI! I saw a picture of Barton with Ray on his Facebook page a while ago and we pieced the connection together 🙂

  2. About the wavy-hand thing, picture the musical line as a fence around a sheep field. As you walk along, you run your hand across the fence. When you come to the bar lines, those are fence posts, so you need to lift your hand to get it over the post and come down on the other side. This helpful example comes from singer Terry Wootten of Ider, Alabama.

  3. Pingback: Fa Sol La!

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