Harmonious Union: How Sacred Harp Brings People Together

I recently gave a talk at Camp Fasola about the community-building aspects of the Sacred Harp tradition, and I would like to share my ideas again here. Shape-note singers, of course, already know very well the fellowship and bonding that comes from singing together, so I know that I am “preaching to the choir” so to speak. I would like nevertheless to examine Sacred Harp traditions more closely and explore some specific new ideas that I have that support our shared belief in the power of fasola. Namely, let us explore why Sacred Harp is a more useful music-making endeavor than most other American and European musical traditions. We shall see if we can discover how each of the Departments of Music in the rudiments and the organizational structures governing an all-day singing support and promote the goals of harmony and unity through singing together.

The Western Concert Hall

Christopher Small, in his book Musicking, contrasts the type of traditional music making in most non-Western cultures with Western art music’s most elevated form, the symphony concert. Small laments that in the concert hall

The western concert hall.

The western concert hall.

[w]e are prepared to laugh, to weep, to shudder, to be excited, or to be moved to the depth of our being, all in the company of people the majority of whom we have never seen before, to whom we shall probably address not a word or a gesture, and whom we shall in all probability never see again. What we accept as the norm is, in fact, the exception among the human race as a whole.1

Westernized industrialized nations all have “concert music,” but this is the only culture in the world that forces audiences into internalized individual responses to music rather than social participatory community music making.

Reasons for Making Music

We may actually have some difficulty pinning down what the purpose of the symphony concert is for those involved. We can likely come to consensus that it has something to do with eliciting an aesthetic or emotional reaction from the listeners, and that there is also a social purpose, most closely akin to “conspicuous consumption,” or an opportunity to “see and be seen.” If we look at community-oriented social participatory music-making traditions like Sacred Harp and like most music making in the world outside of Western culture, we can more easily discern the purposes for making music. Drawing on the work of others, I have devised a list of reasons to participate in music:

  • To build creative confidence and self-worth2
  • To create “flow” together3
  • To enhance our societal rituals (both religious and non-)
  • To model and explore ideal relationships4
  • To build social unity
  • To unite disparate people’s activities toward a common goal

For more information on how we can fight against the forces that discourage creativity in our society, see David Kelley’s TED Talk "How to Build Your Creative Confidence."

Let us discuss each reason in turn. Every human being possesses creative capacity, whether or not that person thinks of him/herself as a creative person. Even though our culture frequently discourages innovative thinking, in order to contribute to society, one must learn to innovate. How to practice and improve one’s creativity is a bit of a paradox. One must simply “be creative” repeatedly, with the courage to weather judgment of one’s first feeble attempts. Through simply engaging in creative activities, one begins to think of oneself more and more as a creative person. Music-making is one excellent way to practice creativity. Thomas Turino, in his book Music as Social Life, identifies “flow” as a primary goal of music-making and defines “flow” as heightened concentration, where distractions vanish, and the actor is fully in the present.

The [“flow”] experience actually leads to a feeling of timelessness, or being out of normal time, and to feelings of transcending one’s normal self. . . . People find “flow” experience restful and liberating, because the problems and aspects of ourselves that sometimes get in our way from reaching a clear, open state of mind disappear during intense concentration. . . . This open state of mind is fundamental for psychic growth and integration.5

A ritual is any human act that serves to communicate a set of cultural values. According to Christopher Small, music’s main purpose is to rehearse the gestures of ideal relationships, and music is therefore an excellent medium for the expression of cultural values. What are these gestures, and how are they expressed in music? Since one can interpret a wide variety of musical phenomena as gestures, let us begin with a simple example. One rudimentary type of musical gesture is a melody that ascends. Because higher pitches often require more energy to produce (with the voice), an ascending melody often depicts a gesture of striving toward a goal. One can find music’s most immediate gestures in the music’s rhythm, or how the music “moves.” Is the music fast and furious, slow and sombre, or irregular and halting? The musical movements give rise to ideas of activity and relationship.

The language of gesture thus includes verbs, but not nouns. Music can depict nouns through sound effects, for example the sound of a babbling brook, a chirping bird, or a speeding locomotive. But beyond identifying onomatopoeia in music, a listener cannot discover who is performing the gesture, and upon whom the act is being performed. So musical language requires the listener to imagine the relationship that would include such a gesture. The relationships can be between human beings, between a person and the environment, or between a person and God.

When people make music together and agree upon the cultural values conveyed through the musical gestures and idealized relationships, this has the effect of building social unity. Many people all over the world have therefore discovered the power that music possesses to unite disparate people’s activities toward a common goal. Work songs exemplify this purpose for music-making, but the goal, as we shall see in Sacred Harp singing, does not have to be a physical task.

The Philosophy of Community Music-Making

Community music-making strives much more to embody gestures that express idealized rela- tionships than to make precisely the right sounds in the right way. As a result, amateur musical communities place far less importance on musical ability than the concert music profession does. Musical ability does not necessarily indicate mastery of the gestures and relationships modeled. The process of learning how to make the musical gestures is what ultimately rewards the musician. The sound is just evidence—a trace or record of our experimentation process and our degree of success engaging with the gestures and relationships.

Because music communicates using the language of gestures, expressing the actions but leaving the forces involved anonymous, the relationships thus remain hypothetical, not specific relaionships in the real world. Making mistakes in the music does not particularly damage the event. If one makes a serious mistake when acting in a real relationship with real people, one could harm that relationship, but an amateur musician does not have to apologize for messing up the musical gestures that build the hypothetical relationships expressed through the music. Further, if one tries out some music and finds that one disagrees with the content of the music, there is no obligation attached. One will have learned something just by trying out the gestures that one then found disagreeable.

Music-making also models relationships in an even more important way than the content of the music or of the text. It is through how people make the music. One can discover the culturally valued relationships modeled in everything from the venue chosen to the way that people organize themselves in order to engage in the music-making. This is where community music making and Sacred Harp in particular truly excel as musical traditions. Christopher Small provides the following three relationships to examine when evaluating a type of music-making:

  1. Relationships between the people and physical setting
  2. Relationships among those taking part
  3. Relationships between the sounds that are being made

Community Music Traditions in 21st-Century America

Let us now examine some of the participatory amateur music-making opportunities that we can presently find in the United States. If you feel like you need to make some music, you can join a community choir, community band, or community orchestra, you could go dancing,6 you could sing karaoke with your friends or start a garage band, or you could play Guitar Hero or Rock Band.7 We shall also talk about Sacred Harp singing and the values that it promotes.

Several of the many participatory amateur music-making opportunities presently available in the United States.

Several of the many participatory amateur music-making opportunities presently available in the United States.

Relationship Types

What are the relationships expressed in these types of music-making events? First, we should talk about the possible types of relationships that we might encounter in the organizational structures surrounding the music-making and in the gestures of the music itself. Anthropologist Alan Fiske, in his study of relational structures, has provided us with three cross-cultural types of human relationships that will be useful and adequate for our purposes here:

  • Dominance “Don’t mess with me.” This is a very high maintenance relationship.
  • Reciprocity “Tit for tat.” Relationships of commerce, the basis for democratic society.
  • Communality “Share and share alike.” Relationships of kinship, family, tribe, or community.

For more information on Alan Fiske’s relational models, see this video on "Language as a Window into Human Nature."

These relationship types may not seem equally desirable, but our human nature requires all three types. In different forms these relationship types all can either benefit all parties or harm one or more involved. In the United States, educators make an effort to train “leadership skills” so that those in dominance relationships can maintain a positive relationship. People can only maintain a communality relationship when they can put the health of the relationship above feelings of fairness and equality. Because this rarely happens among diverse people, even people who share the same worldview sometimes must resort to the structures for maintining positive reciprocity relationships. We shall see that the degree to which these principles of positive relationships are built into a musical tradition’s practices form a useful way of measuring how well it provides for the musical, social, and spiritual experiences of its participants.

Relationships Modeled by Classical Music

Let us now examine the relationships that seem to be promoted by the types of music performed in most community music-making events in America. First, let us examine Classical music. Most works of concert music (symphonies, concertos, tone poems, etc.) pantomime a narrative about overcoming struggles against a force that seeks to destroy order (usually portrayed as a masculine ideal of order and a feminine force of disorder).8 Concert music presents the imagined protagonist’s triumph in his struggle to restore order and hierarchy as a life-changing event, where a new order is established that differs from the tranquility before the struggle.9 Most classical music’s traditional music-making venues and traditions also show preference for dominance relationships, or at least reciprocity relationships—that is, one must pay for a ticket to experience the professional musicians’ expertise. Those that come to hear classical music have no say in the music-making. The musicians onstage also organize themselves into a strict hierarchy of power in making decisions about the musical interpretation and details of performance practice. The musical director chooses the repertory to be performed, and the conductor (usually the same person) makes all of the important musical decisions for the group.

Relationships Modeled by Rock Music

Suppose instead that we would rather join a Rock band to satisfy our musical desires. What types of relationships does this popular genre of American music endorse? Rock music often promotes rebellion and anarchy, describes dysfunctional romantic relationships, and seems to express a kind of solipsism through endless repetition of a groove. Presentational performance is perpetuated in much of rock music as well, but the music is frequently intended for dancing and as ambience for social occasions. The volume at which the music is almost always played, however, seems not to encourage conversation as the main type of social interaction.10 The high level of violent imagery in the staging of a lot of rock music also becomes troublesome when viewed from our perspective that music should convey our cultural values.

All of the amateur music-making opportunities that I have listed also express many positive relationship ideals. Let us use Sacred Harp to examine these, since this musical culture promotes positive relationships so effectively.

Relationships Modeled in the Traditions of Sacred Harp Singing

When we sing Sacred Harp, we sit in a hollow square with everyone in the room facing the center. The fact that this places the whole group of singers on more-or-less equal footing, and that we make no distinction between performer and audience, is amplified and exemplified in the hollow square arrangement. This has the effect of emphasizing both the participatory nature of our tradition and the primarily social purpose of our music making.

Gray Court Pioneer Day Sacred Harp Singing, Sept. 8, 2012. Photograph by Robert T. Kelley.

Gray Court Pioneer Day Sacred Harp Singing, Sept. 8, 2012. Photograph by Robert T. Kelley.

We also, with very few exceptions, always sing the shapes before singing the words. Our practice of solmizing every song connects us to our singing-school origins, and offers an invitation to participate. Less experienced singers get a chance to practice the song before singing the words. Through singing on the notes, we also gradually become better at sight-singing new music written in shapes. Our carrying a singing-school practice into our social music-making events forms a self-preservation and self-improvement device, and singers tell stories of shape-note traditions that died out when singers stopped singing the shapes.

The venue for music-making also needs to be examined here. Shape-note singers like to sing in meeting houses and primitive country churches. Singers perceive these plain surroundings as ideal acoustically for singing (at least for singing without any distinction between performer and listener) and adequate for food and fellowship, and they provide no distractions from the main purpose of our music-making. Singers hold excellent singing locations in high esteem and make great efforts to travel to singings where the community is welcoming and the venue is conducive to a highly spiritual singing experience.

We have a tradition of offering all singers the privilege of leading a song. Many others have commented on the inherently democratic sensibility exemplified in our system of sharing the job of leading the music among all members of the group who wish to do so. This is an excellent example of how our music-making methods and culture model ideal relationships. But we can learn even more by examining our willingness to allow anyone in the group temporarily to take on a dominance relationship, and we try as much as we can to render their song choice in the way that they want to hear it.

The fact that the leader can choose any song in the book that has not already been sung that day is also worth examining. The texts in The Sacred Harp express relationships among people and between the singer and God. The leader may choose a particular song in order to explore the relationships in the music itself, or in the text, or both. The tune that the leader selects for singing a popular text carries a particular emotional response to the relationships expressed in the text. For example, we can easily see the different emotional responses inherent in choosing “Huntington” (p. 193 in The Sacred Harp) as opposed to “Greenwich” (p. 183) for the singing of “Lord what a thoughtless wretch was I”, or choosing “Concord” (p. 313t) versus  “Novakoski” (p. 481) for singing the Isaac Watts hymn “Come, we that love the Lord.”

Thomas Turino explains why all participatory social music-making traditions possess the feature that they discourage displays of virtuosity.

Music making is as much about social relations and fostering participation as it is about sound production and the creative drives of particular musicians. Those who wish to prioritize their own creative urges would do better to perform in presentational contexts.11

In Sacred Harp singing, we discourage ostentation in the square and encourage restraint, dignity, and composure when leading. The speed at which one leads a song has bearing on this issue. Leading any song so fast that only a practiced few can spit out the correct syllables quickly enough privileges the virtuosity of a few at the expense of the social unity of the group and therefore creates a destructive ostentation. But there is more to be read in the speed at which we choose to lead a song: It can indicate the degree to which the leader wants the class to deliberate on the meaning of the text. Slower leading can also suggest a desire for the class to deliberate on the traditions and “proper ways” of conducting ourselves at a singing.

In shape-note singing, we sing in harmony together (both metaphorically and literally). A simplistic view of this might lead one to assert that to make the ultimate statement of unity everyone should sing the melody together in unison. As we all should already know, however, the more complicated reality of human existence is that people are not all the same. In the “dispersed harmony” of Sacred Harp singing, we bring highly individualistic melodies together into harmonious union. We are showing that each person has a role to play in our community, and not all of the jobs are alike.

Some elements of the music itself clearly relate to our relationship ideals as well. The rudiments no longer discuss the science of composition in depth, but the 1844 B. F. White rudiments prescribe how to use discords carefully to make the concords more satisfying. There is an obvious metaphor here for disagreements among people in our community. We resolve our dissonances.

The gestures in the melody and rhythm of Sacred Harp music are worth studying, but in the interest of space here, let us only explore one unique feature of Sacred Harp singing, accent, and how it expresses our values. When people read a text out loud together, they must come to terms on the inflection, stress, and timing. Likewise in Sacred Harp singing, we accent the music based on the meaning and scansion of the text. Accent can be seen as a gesture of agreement among people about the text that they are reading. Good accent does not necessarily indicate an agreement on the veracity of the message. But it does amount to an agreement on the meaning of the text. How we accent confirms how we interpret the words. We can all say or sing words that we do not believe in literally. But unless we understand what they mean and inflect them appropriately, the unified delivery will not come off. It is the unified delivery of texts whose overarching meaning conveys our values that fosters unity among the singers. Ultimately, as a day of singing proceeds with good accent, this unification of meter and meaning, text and music, and hearts and minds, builds the connection that people feel with each other while singing.

Laura Clawson, in her book I Belong to This Band, Hallelujah!: Community, Spirituality, and Tradition among Sacred Harp Singers12 provides an in-depth study of how Sacred Harp singers navigate through differing views about the texts in the Sacred Harp, as well as conflicting religious, sexual, and political identities among singers, while still encouraging people of diverse cultural backgrounds into the communality of the “fasola folk.” While I direct the reader to Clawson’s book and Kiri Miller’s Traveling Home: Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism13 to explore this topic, let us take a moment here to consider the relationships that singers have with the text and how we can sing together about particular religious or political ideals, but at the same time we avoid discussing them at a singing. When speaking about a controversial idea, one must take great care to convey that one is not endorsing nor denouncing it, and even then one runs the risk of misunderstanding.14 Singing communicates a text differently from speaking, however. Speech is complicated and could be literal or figurative, factual or hypothetical, critical or descriptive, and abstract or specific. People nevertheless tend to interpret speaking as more literal, factual, critical, and specific. In singing, however, it becomes difficult to express that one is actually espousing the ideas being sung, especially in group singing. Music contains only generalized and hypothetical relationships, and sung texts become an object for more detached interpretation than statements made in public speech or conversation. Each singer has a reaction to the messages in the text that is being sung, and these individual reactions can differ wildly and even conflict without disturbing the unity-building effects of singing that text together with the other singers.

With all of the unwritten rules for maintaining a spirit of welcome and communality at a singing, Sacred Harp singers also have more formalized standards when it comes to the func- tioning of the singing convention and the schedule of the all-day singing. To varying degrees, different singings and singing communities operate by Robert’s Rules of Order, most of them probably functioning most of the time in a more informal manner. In fact, virtually all singings today seem to work perfectly well without the traditional meeting-house traditions of Primitive Baptist associations and singing societies. Why do we still at least pay lip service to operating by Robert’s Rules and observing the singing traditions outlined in the rudiments?15 Sacred Harp has built within its organizational structures the principle that our music-making is modeling idealized relationships. When it comes to discussing the nitty gritty business among people that do not necessarily agree, we want to model a principle of fairness and reciprocity. We are expressing our ideal that the whole world would conduct business fairly in the way that we do. Sacred Harp thus operates within all three types of relationships, allowing individuals into temporary positions of dominance for the purpose of using their individuality to strengthen the community, and enforcing time-honored procedures of reciprocity when conducting business, so that a feeling of fairness and equality strengthens the communality that Sacred Harp strives to achieve as its normal mode of proceeding.

We can see how, simply through singing together, Sacred Harp seeks to build a community of trust and constantly add new members who, even though highly diverse, benefit from the fellowship and music-making. People do not sing together and share food with people with whom they have a dominance or reciprocity relationship. These activities create a communality relationship. This explains why singers freely open their homes to each other to spend the night before and after singings. In the foregoing discussion, I have hinted at a higher purpose as well. When you make communal music that models ideal communal relationships, you open up the possibility of accomplishing tremendous and amazing things together. When we come together to sing, we are modeling our ideals about community to the rest of the world and setting forth our highest hopes for the future of society.

  1. Christopher Small, Musicking (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1998), 39. []
  2. David Kelley, “How to Build Your Creative Confidence,” TED Talk, May 2012, http://www.ted.com/talks/david_kelley_how_to_build_your_creative_confidence.html. []
  3. Thomas Turino, Music As Social Life: The Politics of Participation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). []
  4. Small, Musicking. []
  5. Turino, Music as Social Life, 4. []
  6. I include any kind of dancing here, from square dancing and contradancing to ballroom dancing and dubstep. Christopher Small includes dancing as a music-making activity, because more than almost any other way of interacting with music, through dancing one physically embodies the gestures found in the music. []
  7. Ethnomusicologist and Sacred Harp singer Kiri Miller, in her book Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), addresses the heightened interactions with musical gesture that these video games provide beyond just listening. []
  8. For more on the gendered narratives in Classical music, see Christopher Small’s book, Musicking, and Susan McClary’s book, Feminine Endings (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991). []
  9. The hero’s journey is an archetype that parallels this typical musical narrative. []
  10. I leave to the reader’s imagination the question of what types of socializing are encouraged by music that drowns out conversation. []
  11. Turino, Music as Social Life, 184. []
  12. Laura Clawson, I Belong to This Band, Hallelujah!: Community, Spirituality, and Tradition among Sacred Harp Singers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 9–10, 124–125, 130–132. []
  13. Kiri Miller, Traveling Home: Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008). []
  14. For example, someone might tune into a conversation after the disclaimers have been made. []
  15. John Garst, “Rudiments of Music,” in The Sacred Harp, p. 25. []

About Robert T. Kelley

Robert T. Kelley is a member of the Alternate Board of Directors of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company and is an Associate Professor of Music at Lander University. He has been singing Sacred Harp since 2006.
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2 Responses to Harmonious Union: How Sacred Harp Brings People Together

  1. Reid says:

    I agree with your points about the structure of shape-note singing being conducive to building community. But I think it also needs to be said that unless the people who are coming to sing together are committed to and are embodying the principles hard-coded into shape notes, “community,” as you describe it, won’t exist.

    In my experience, putting people together in the same space, even with guiding principles, does not a community make. It takes the committed investment of all of those participating to extend the hand of kindness and fellowship to each other. And we, like any other imperfect humans, sometimes do that well and sometimes not so well, and I have seen that borne out in various shape-note singing groups. I think it is important to acknowledge that it takes effort, and that sometimes we fall short of our ideals.

  2. Thom Fahrbach says:

    While planning for our upcoming all-day singing, I have been mulling over the usefulness and relevance of Robert’s Rules in the Sacred Harp tradition. I’d almost decided to chuck this formality as more of a distraction than a benefit (how fast can you say “second” and “aye”) but Kelley’s point about modeling a behavior of “fairness and reciprocity” strikes me as an end which justifies the means. Reign on! Robert’s Rules.

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