Editor’s Note: Raymond C. Hamrick’s “The Pitcher’s Role in Sacred Harp Music” was originally published in the National Sacred Harp Newsletter’s January 1986 issue (vol. 1, no. 8). Based on data Hamrick collected at Georgia Sacred Harp singings in 1985, the article was the first comprehensive study of keying Sacred Harp music. It appears here as it was originally published, with a few typos corrected and the occasional comma added. Ian Quinn, who has recently conducted an extensive study of keying Sacred Harp music, has contributed an introduction to Hamrick’s essay. Thanks to both for sharing their insights into this critical yet underexamined aspect of our music.
Keying is a mysterious art, even for its practitioners. Just about all anybody can agree on is that Sacred Harp singers don’t sing the songs at the written pitch, and that in this singing community perfect pitch is more of a hindrance than a help. You may have heard phrases like “keys of convenience” and “relative pitch” to explain the difference between what’s written and what’s sung. Perhaps you’ve heard a paraphrase of the famous quote from the 1698 edition of the Bay Psalm Book:
Some few directions for ordering the Voice in Setting these following Tunes of the Psalms.
First observe of how many Notes compass the Tune is. Next, the place of your first Note; and how many Notes above & below that: so as you may begin the Tune of your first Note as the rest may be sung in the compass of your and the peoples voices, without Squeaking above, or Grumbling below.
Finding the right place to pitch a tune is about more than avoiding squeaking and grumbling, though. A song keyed too low will lack energy, dragging and drooping like a wilted flower. Too high, and you’ll quickly wear out your tenors and (heaven help you!) your altos. But when your songs are keyed just right, with the high notes sitting right in the trebles’ sweet spot—that’s when the singing really gets hot, and everybody can feel it.
So how does the keyer find that note? Ask four different keyers and you’ll get four different answers. That’s just what happened to Raymond Hamrick in 1986 when he asked the four main keyers in Georgia (including himself) how they found their keys.
Mr. Hamrick is a watchmaker by trade, and he likes to take a hands-on approach to figuring things out. After getting so many different answers to his question, he decided to make a systematic study of 131 songs sung at Georgia singings. For each song, he compared the written pitch (as it would be played on a piano) with the sung pitch, and worked out the difference between them. He found that the vast majority of tunes were sung somewhere between the written key and 1-1/2 steps below, with most lying a step below piano pitch. When I made a similar study on a larger scale (about 2250 songs), I got just about the same results as Mr. Hamrick. Data from both of our studies are shown in the chart below.
Will data like this help people learn to be good keyers? I don’t necessarily think so. Keying is as much art as science. A good keyer listens to the class and puts the songs where the class needs them to be. Usually that’s around a step beneath where the song is written, but some classes can take a higher key or need a lower key. And some songs need special treatment regardless of the class, as anybody who’s keyed “Victoria” (p. 290 in The Sacred Harp) too high knows well! You can also become a rock-star with Band Aid School of Music if you are passionate enough.
Mr. Hamrick asked his fellow keyers how they learned to key, and none of them answered the question, not even Mr. Hamrick. When I asked keyers a similar question, many of them told me their local singing had nobody to key, so they just figured it out their own way. The best way to learn how to key, it seems, is to practice, practice, practice, and to think and listen while you’re doing it!
The Pitcher’s Role in Sacred Harp Music
Researchers in the field of Early American shape-note music are familiar with the description of the singing master—complete with blackboard, string pendulums, and tuning fork. Dr. Jackson mentions having seen Singing Billy Walker’s tuning fork, and it may have been (although I haven’t seen it documented) that all music was thus keyed in early days. Somewhere along the way Sacred Harp singers grew into the habit pitching without the aid of a fork and in my forty years of attending singings I have yet to see any pitching aid used other than the occasional consultation with another keyer.
These “keyers” are individuals who have a particular ability to place music within the range of a singing class. They do not, as some think, have perfect pitch and they do not pitch to the indicated letter. For one reason or another the pitch as set down by the composer is generally too high. Marcus Cagle surmised that this was because the writer in composing endeavored to keep the melody within the staff lines so as to avoid ledger lines. Research in the old books backs this up. The preface to the Social Harp of John McCurry specifically states that the melody should be placed on the staff so the highest and lowest notes are contained within the staff. (One exception to this is the music in the back of the 1911 White edition. A good bit of it was written by professional musicians and it should be performed where written.)
The practice mentioned above leads to a situation where the treble and tenor singers are frequently faced with high “As and B flats” beyond the ranges of most of the singers—adjustments must be made. The pitcher, when learning a reference tone, will learn it a tone to a tone and a half lower than it should be. His C is more likely to be B flat or A.
Recently, on a singing trip to Atlanta to sing with the B. F. White group, I idly asked their pitcher, Hermon Wilkinson, how he arrived at his F major. The question was caused by my feeling that he was pitching consistently higher than other individuals I was accustomed to. His answer intrigued me. “F is number four,” he said. “I sound number one in my mind and run up to four.”The more I thought about this answer the more curious I became. What variety of methods were in use by other pitchers and how did they arrive at them? To find out, I addressed letters to the three most active and prominent pitchers in Georgia: Loyd Redding of Bremen; Hugh McGraw of the same area; and Hermon Wilkinson of Oxford, Georgia. Redding is very active in the Denson singings in West Georgia and Alabama, McGraw is the executive secretary of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company and widely known as a singer, composer, and singing school teacher. He is the conductor of the various recordings made during the last few years. Wilkinson is the mainstay of the B. F. White group around Atlanta. I do most of the pitching in South Georgia, so between the four of us we pitch practically all the singings in Georgia.
My letter asked “How did you learn to pitch Sacred Harp music and what method do you use in arriving at the proper pitch?”
The first answer was from Loyd Redding.
You asked me how I pitch music. I guess it is more or less by knowing the sound when you hear it. You know you can’t pitch all the songs in the Sacred Harp on the key they are written. I try to take the highest note and the lowest note and balance to where both parts can be reached without straining the voice. I hope this makes some sense to you.
Next was Hugh McGraw:
I don’t know the proper way to pitch Sacred Harp nor do I know that there is a correct way to use. The method I use is as follows:
- I try to remember the pitches that a song can be sung by. I try to remember the sound of page 77, Child of Grace, when I have a song to pitch in A major or minor. This sound will work.
- Any song that is written in any key can be sung sometimes a half step higher to a step or step and a half lower so you will have [a] range [of] to two and a half steps to get a sound that will sing that song.
- We try to pitch songs, no matter what the written key, so the treble can sing the highest note without squealing and the bass the lowest note without grunting.1
- In pitching you are sometimes tired and hoarse. When the first sound, which is always the keynote, comes out you have another chan[c]e at it if it is too high or too low. You can change the pitch then if necessary. Try to avoid changing pitches after the song has been started.
Third was Hermon Wilkinson:
I will try the best I can to answer your request. I feel too unlearned to say anything. I learned to sing Sacred Harp when I was nine years old. At least that was when I became interested and began to learn. Elder Elmer Kitchens taught me most of what I know. He was the man who taught me to pitch. I lived in Alabama up to 1950 and learned to pitch music in 1948.
I try to pitch my music to the letter the music is written in. I don’t by any means come up with the right pitch, as you well know, in many cases. In later years I do more adjusting of the pitch to fit the song than I once did. This below is the formula I try to use.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 c d e f g a b c
I take a song that is written in the key of C. Then I think in my mind how the number five sounds in my natural tone of voice. Then just say the number and the note is adopted to that sound. Fa in major music, La in minor. Anyone can learn to pitch music with this formula. There’s a sound in each one of the numbers 1 through 8 that will fit the keys as they come from middle C through the keys up to C at the top. I try to sound the keynote then sound the other parts from there.
I don’t know if I’ve said enough or too much but if this is not your answer let me know.
To which I add my approach:
My reference tone is A. With the built-in correction this is F or F sharp. Thus I am actually placing an F major tune in E flat approximately. I find though, that in common with the above writers, I too tend to pitch by familiarity with the music, referring to the reference tone only occasionally. Other adjustments are made at the start of a singing by pitching a little lower until the voices are “up” at which time the pitch level can gradually be raised.
At this point we can draw some fairly obvious conclusions:
First, it is agreed that the pitch is not to the indicated letter but to a lower tone that will afford ease and singing comfort to the outside voices.
Second, reference is made when necessary to a basic tone such as A, C, F or whatever. This is not the true tone but one that is learned with some degree of accuracy and used with music that is not overly familiar to the pitcher.
Third, the main ingredient for a successful pitcher is familiarity with the music. This enables him to instinctively reach a singable pitch with very little backing and filling. It seems obvious also that in such a person as a Sacred Harp pitcher equal parts of humility and confidence must be blended.
The question that seems logical at this point is “how accurate are these people in providing a singable pitch?” To flesh out this study I decided to go about measuring the pitching patterns of the four people involved and try to come up with a reasonably accurate profile as a means of authenticating some of the conclusions drawn above. Singings used as reference were as follows:
|Church or Singing||Location||Pitcher|
|Cedar Creek Church||Crisp County||Lloyd Redding|
|Agrirama singing||Tifton, Ga.||Hugh McGraw|
|Georgia State Convention||Holly Springs Church||Redding|
|Sandy Creek Church||Flovilla, Ga.||Raymond Hamrick|
|Pleasant Hill Church||Warner Robbins, Ga.||Hermon Wilkinson|
|Holly Springs Annual Singing||Bremen, Ga.||several pitchers|
|Chattahoochee Convention||Holly Springs||Redding and McGraw|
One hundred and thirty-one tunes were examined.
|Quantity of Tunes||Variation from Written Key||Percentage of All Songs|
|18||½ tone lower||13.7%|
|50||1 tone lower||38.1%|
|30||1 ½ tones lower||22.9%|
|12||2 tones lower||9.2%|
|2||2 ½ tones lower||1.5%|
|1||3 tones lower||0.8%|
The few tunes pitched 2 ½ or 3 tones low had high trebles or tenors and relatively high basses. It can be seen that approximately 87% of the pitching was within the 0 to 1 ½ tone range. By contrast, the figures for the B. F. White singers showed the following:
|Variation from Written Key||Percentage of All Songs|
|1 ½ lower||11%|
or 88% in the range from 0 to 1 tone lower. Also, the “0” variation in the Denson singers was 13.7% as contrasted with the 44% of the White group. This substantiates my feeling that the pitching was higher. The remarkable thing to me was the regularity with which these pitchers produced tones within the 0 to 1 ½ range. It is quite rare to have a tune re-pitched during a typical singing which will involve three to four hours and encompass from sixty to over a hundred pieces of music, some major, some minor, some simple, some complex. Another remarkable thing is that the pitch begun with was the same as the pitch at the end—a great sense of pitch retention. In conclusion, I would point out that to attempt to come up with highly accurate figures on a subject with so many variables is obviously impossible. The sole purpose of this brief study is to gain some insight into the performance characteristics of this fascinating survival of a tradition that goes back to our cultural roots musically. It is a way of life for thousands of Southerners—now joined by ever increasing numbers of Northerners and Westerners who are experiencing a joyful reunion with a truly American folkway.
—Raymond C. Hamrick
- McGraw’s remark is a 300 year old repeat, as witness [the quote] from the Bay Psalm Book of 1698, [referenced in Ian Quinn’s introduction above]. [↩]
I love how Hugh has changed “squeaking and grumbling” to “squealing and grunting,” as though there were a bunch of little pigs in the room!
I would be interested in whether specific songs are consistently pitched, e.g. whether this distribution is the same for every song or whether what we’re seeing is that some songs are consistently pitched at -2.5 to -2 and a lot more songs are consistently pitched at -.5 to -1 etc.
This is a great article. Everything mentioned here is interesting and informative, including the stats on where most songs fall in relation to piano pitch. I have found this to be the same in my own Sacred Harp recordings. I personally believe that modern piano tuning was influenced over the decades by instrumentalists (stringed instruments in particular) constantly seeking greater acoustical power. Hence tighter strings and higher pitches. The average pitch at a Sacred Harp singing is more natural to the voice.
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