Bound Together: What Makes an Effective Pairing of Text and Tune

In a skillfully composed [nineteenth-century American] composition, the whole acquired a larger significance not foreseeable by merely reading the words or examining the air.

—Nicholas E. Tawa1

Why do the text and tune of certain Sacred Harp songs go so well together? How do I look for poetry to go with a particular air or melody? How do I set a beautiful hymn that I found to music? While there is definitely some magic to how a powerful song brings out the meaning of the words, we can also learn some text-setting techniques that many great Sacred Harp songs have in common.

First of all, shape-note hymnody usually does not use certain ways of depicting text that other types of music do use. For example, a Sacred Harp song’s melody does not try to reflect moment-to-moment emotional changes in the text, even in longer set pieces like odes and anthems. Instead, the tune usually matches the subject matter of the poetry in a more general way. If the music is actually crafted around the details of the poetry in any way, it need only fit the first verse.2 Instead of painting the emotions in the text, I have found that a Sacred Harp tune more often uses melodic shape, rhythm, and even harmony to accentuate important words in the poetry.

"Idumea," as published in The Sacred Harp (p. 47b).

“Idumea,” as published in The Sacred Harp (p. 47b).

Let us begin to explore this through an extreme example. “Idumea” (p. 47b in The Sacred Harp, see above) is most certainly a sublime combination of tune and text, which explains its popularity as reported in statistical studies of the Minutes of Sacred Harp Singings, even before its “Cold Mountain bump.” The New Harp of Columbia, however, substitutes a different text (see below), which does not go well with the music. First, and most obviously, the upbeat text (Isaac Watts, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, Book II, Hymn 30) does not match the mournful character of the music.3

"Idumea," as published in <em>The New Harp of Columbia</em> (p. 44).

“Idumea,” as published in The New Harp of Columbia (p. 44).

We can also examine the tenor melody and see how well it fits with the words. Where are the most important moments in this tune? The two most obvious tenor notes that stand out are the two high sols, the first in measure five, and the other in measure eight. In The Sacred Harp, these notes carry the words “lay” and “must,” both important words in the poetry. In The New Harp of Columbia, however, these notes carry the words “let” and “in,” neither of which are important words in the text. In the Kentucky Harmony where this tune was first published (see below), these notes carry the words “thee” and “cannot,” which also works better than the New Harp words.

"Idumea", as published in Kentucky Harmony (p. 33)

“Idumea,” as published in Kentucky Harmony (p. 33)

Melody is not the only way that the music can bring out parts of the poetry. Let us now explore two songs that successfully use different musical elements to enhance the same hymn text. S. Whitt Denson’s “Burdette” (1909) (p. 422) and his father Seaborn McDaniel Denson’s “Praise God” (1911) (p. 328) were both written for the 1911 James revision of The Sacred Harp, but they set slightly different versions of Charles Wesley’s (1742) hymn illumination of Psalm 51, verse 10.4

Analysis of text highlighted in “Burdette” (p. 422).

First, “Burdette” enhances certain words in the poetry with pauses in the text delivery on either longer notes or vocal flourishes. This kind of emphasis created through lengthening is called an agogic accent. In the above illustration of “Burdette” the color blue highlights all of the agogically accented words (i.e. “God,” “sin,” “heart,” “blood,” “freely,” “me,” “heart” (in the tenor and bass), “thy” (in the treble and alto), “blood,” and the last four words “freely shed for me”). Adding the tenor part’s local high points (marked green above) fills in two missing “heart”s at the beginning, adds emphasis to the word “free” in measure five, and also accents the word “shed” in the fuging section. The only important word in the text that never receives emphasis through either melodic shape or rhythmic lengthening is the word “clean.”

Analysis of text highlighted in "Praise God" (p. 328).

Analysis of text highlighted in “Praise God” (p. 328).

The song “Praise God,” on the other hand, is more selective in its emphasis of certain words, and uses chord changes to accomplish this. I have added chord analysis symbols below the first section of the song in the figure above.5 Understanding the nuances of chord analysis is not required for our purposes here, though. We shall only look at the Roman numerals that begin each of the chord symbols to see when they stay the same or when they change.

Harmony Analysis Symbols.

Harmony Analysis Symbols.

The first section of “Praise God” presents the text entirely in even quarter notes, with pauses only at the ends of lines two and four of the hymn. When singers accent this song well, all of the words that S. Whitt Denson emphasized in “Burdette” stand out more or less equally in this song, plus the word “clean” and a few less important words. Some of the music’s strong beats also use a different chord, which places special emphasis on some of these accented words. All of the strong beats at the beginning of this song through the word “heart” are harmonized with “i” chord and marked in blue in the illustration of “Praise God” above. (The “VII” chords are all on weak beats.) The first accented syllable with a different chord is “sin” (marked in green). Instead of returning immediately to a “i” chord, the next two syllables (“set” and “free”) both also have different chords that have not yet been used in the song. This sudden harmonic wrenching away from “i” captures my attention when I listen to this song, and the phrase “sin set free” really does seem to jump out.

The next strong-beat diversion from a “i” chord is a “VII” chord that coincides with the word “sprinkled.” Because the following accented syllable (“with”) also has a “VII” chord, the return to “i” on the word “blood” becomes the surprising chord change. This begins an alternation between “i” chords and “other” chords, where the chord changes themselves signal the highlighted words “blood,” “free(ly),” “shed,” “for,” and “me.” The next time you sing or listen to this song, see if the chord changes make these words (“sin set free,” “sprinkled,” “blood,” “freely shed for me”) stick out to you.

Kama Dembinska leads “Praise God” at the second Poland Sacred Harp Convention, September 21, 2013.

Here are the aspects of the music and poetry to explore when trying to judge how tune and text interact in a Sacred Harp song.

Elements to Examine

  • General emotional character of the words and music
  • Agreement of text stress and musical accent
  • Interaction of the melody and the important words of the text
  • Interaction of rhythm and the important words of the text
  • Interaction of harmony and the important words of the text
  • Text painting effects

And I looked for the following four types of attention-getting events when analyzing how these songs can make certain words stand out.6

How to Emphasize a Word

  • New – Something not heard before, or not heard recently
  • High – The highest note sung so far
  • Long – A long note value, or a melisma (one syllable stretched over many notes)
  • Different – A sudden change from the norm, or a denial of expectations7

If you are trying to find or write a tune for a preexisting text, however, I can offer you a few other tips and tricks. First, consider how to make the mood of the music match the tone of the text through your choice of a major or minor key, the mode of time, and tessitura (whether the music spends most of its time in the voice ranges’ upper or lower ends). After making these general decisions, your main focus should be planning out melodic shape and rhythm so that they enhance the text.

As mentioned before, the easiest way to highlight the most important words is to use relatively long and/or high notes. Both rhythm and melodic shape can also be powerful ways to create direction and energy in a song. If a melody goes up, it can reflect a sense of striving, aspiration, or increasing tension in the text. If a melody goes down, it can sound like a relaxation if presented in even note values or increasing length, or it can sound like it is gaining momentum if the rhythm gets faster.

When I am composing a song around a text, I work first on the general melodic shape and basic rhythm that I want. I begin by writing the song’s words on a piece of paper, leaving plenty of space between each line of text. Above each syllable I use round notes to write out the rhythm that I want, and I draw a curvy line across the page showing where I want the melody to go up or down. Only then do I begin to think about how to fit this melodic shape onto the musical scale. Drawing the melody and rhythm without shapes or a staff allows me to think first about the musical gestures that I want to associate with various parts of the text. Writing a good tune is a task deserving separate attention and should happen after worrying about how the tune will illuminate the text.

I hope that many of you find this guide useful. If you would like some practice analyzing the way that Sacred Harp composers set text, take a look at these two beautiful settings of the same text, “Baptismal Anthem” (p. 232) and “The Lamb of God” (p. 572). See if you can describe the text setting of each, along with any instances where one composer seems to be more attentive to text-music interaction than the other. While it is not essential for a great Sacred Harp song to have extensive tailoring of the music to every word in the text, I hope that I have shown you the ways in which text-music relationships can make a song more than the sum of its music and poetry. I believe that the moments where the text and the tune seem to become inseparably unified are at the heart of what we enjoy about a song when we sing it.

  1. Nicholas E. Tawa, “Serious Songs of the Early Nineteenth Century. Part 2: The Meaning of the Early Song Melodies.” American Music 13, no. 3 (Autumn 1995), 263–294, []
  2. Songs from nineteenth-century America often work well for the first verse, and audiences of the era were expected to forgive any dissonance between the music and the text of the subsequent verses. For a more complete explanation of this practice, see Tawa, “Serious Songs.” []
  3. An emotional character mismatch between tune and text is more likely to succeed when the music is happy, as in “Morning Sun” (p. 436). Although I am not sure why this is true, it may be partly due to the prevalence of major over minor. Also, it is easier to find a convincing narrative that explains singing dark poetry with a major tune (something like “smiling through the pain”) than singing a cheerful text with somber minor music. []
  4.  The 1911 James revision’s “Cheese Notes” to “Praise God” indicate that James selected the song’s text after S. M. Denson composed the tune and submitted it for publication. This explains why, as we shall see, “Praise God” is a much more straightforward Common Meter tune than “Burdette.” []
  5.  Table 1 briefly summarizes how these symbols work, and my academic paper, “A Corpus-Based Model of Harmonic Function in Shape-Note Hymnody,” describes how I came up with this analysis system. []
  6. For those who are interested, I have analyzed a few more songs using these principles in “A Corpus-Based Model.” []
  7.  A fifth way to emphasize certain words or phrases in a text is by repeating them. Even though text repetition is fairly common in The Sacred Harp, especially in anthems—for a particularly effective example, see “Easter Anthem” (p. 236)—I’ve omitted it from this list to encourage focus on the more subtle ways of enhancing text. When I’m composing, I try to avoid repeating text for emphasis because it can distort the text’s own artful proportions and rhythm. []

About Robert T. Kelley

Robert T. Kelley is a member of the Alternate Board of Directors of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company and is a Professor of Music at Lander University. He has been singing Sacred Harp since 2006.
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