In musicology, the material discussed here would be called "performance practice," but the term is awkward in the context of Sacred Harp music. This music is participatory, not audience-oriented, and thus in a sense is not really "performed".
The reason why Sacred Harp includes practices not notated in the music (that is, in the various published editions of The Sacred Harp) is that the printed music is not the only way that the music is transmitted among singers and across time--there is an oral channel as well. Many Sacred Harp participants can be described as traditional singers. They learned Sacred Harp by being taken to singings as children, and usually are the children of traditional singers of the previous generation. The parents, in turn, also learned the tradition as children. Thus there is often a chain of direct transmission dating back to (or even before) the original appearance (1844) of The Sacred Harp. This chain has evidently developed and transmitted a number of singing practices distinct from what is printed in the book. As Sacred Harp scholar Warren Steel states, "traditional singers use the printed book in learning songs, and refer to it while singing, but the notes in the book are not interpreted literally, but according to a performance practice and style that is learned through oral tradition and varies among different regions and families."
Although none of the practices described below are notated in the music, there are several ways that scholars can gather information about them.
The most obvious is to attend singings where most of the participants are traditional singers. The disadvantage of this method is that the notes are fleeting, and repeated observation concerning musically subtle questions is not possible.
A more stable source of evidence is recordings made by traditional singers. Among these are the recordings made by Alan Lomax under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution during the 1940s; these are commercially available. The Sacred Harp Publishing Company, the publisher of The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition, produced six albums of recordings in the years 1965-1976, which are also currently obtainable (for both sets, see References below).
More recently, recordings of Sacred Harp singings have been posted on the Web (see External Links, below). The more recent of these recordings are unlikely to be reliable as source material on traditional practice, since almost every singing today is likely to be attended by a fair number of non-traditional singers.
There are also written sources. The Rudiments sections of the currently available editions of The Sacred Harp (see Sacred Harp) include information about how the music is sung. Scholars have also offered written descriptions of the tradition; see References below.
The most commonly remarked difference between traditional singing and the notation of the Sacred Harp books occurs in minor-mode tunes, and involves the so-called "raised sixth."
Here is the relevant background. As taught to beginning musicians, the minor scale is said to take three basic forms, which are as follows.
Natural minor (also called "Aeolian mode")
Most Sacred Harp songs are notated in the natural minor, as given above. However, in Sacred Harp singing, it is common to sing the sixth degree of the minor scale, wherever it may appear, one semitone higher than it is written. In musical terminology, the minor scale that results is called the Dorian mode. In the following notation, the notes that in Sacred Harp are called “raised sixths” are shown in red.
Singing minor-key songs in the Dorian mode instead of the natural minor is felt by some to give the music greater character and strength. The effect is usually subtle, however, because the sixth degree constitutes only a small minority of the notes in a typical minor-key Sacred Harp song. Indeed, some minor-key Sacred Harp songs use a so-called "gapped" scale, in which the sixth degree does not occur at all.
"Windham" is a song written by Daniel Read sometime before 1785 and later incorporated into the Sacred Harp tradition. In The Sacred Harp, 1991 edition, it is notated as shown below. (Note that the treble (top) part is generally doubled an octave below by male singers, and the tenor an octave above by women).
On recordings made by traditional singers, the raised sixth in the treble and tenor lines can be fairly plainly heard. The singers sing the song as if it were notated as follows (raised sixths shown in red):
The piano reductions given above demonstrate the contrast between Aeolian and Dorian modes, but give no idea of the sound of "Windham" as it is rendered by Sacred Harp singers. For such a rendition, see External Links below.
Some authorities assert that, provided that those present at a singing are traditional singers, the sixth degree of a minor tune will be regularly, consistently--perhaps even unconsciously--raised. This claim is made by Buell J. Cobb (see reference below) in his scholarly study of Sacred Harp singing. In addition, the editorial board of The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition chose to include a recommendation in the Rudiments section of the book (pp. 18-19) in favor of consistent use of the raised sixth.
The picture is likely to be more complex than this, however. The singer/scholar Karen Willard, a member of the editorial board for the 2000 Cooper edition of The Sacred Harp, asserts "Not only does the practice of Sacred Harp singers vary somewhat across the South in the degree to which these notes are altered, but also from song to song" (see External Links below). The Sacred Harp scholar George Pullen Jackson, who observed singers in the first half of the 20th century, once provided a list of songs where the raised-sixth substitution is employed (see The Story of the Sacred Harp; (1944), p. 30); presumably this means he did not consider the substitution to be an across-the-board procedure, but a song-by-song one. Variation in how and where the sixth is raised is also documented by Miller (2004), who reports the testimony of traditional singers.
In sum, although there may be some singers who raise the sixth in all applicable places, the normal situation probably is that singers raise sixths according to whatever pattern they encountered while learning to sing in their own home region.
Occasionally individual Sacred Harp composers have notated the raised sixth, though toleration of this practice seems to vary. In the 1911 ("James") edition, Geo. B. Daniel rewrote J. T. White's song "Jordan Shore," adding sharp signs to express the raised sixths, apparently reflecting (Cobb, p. 34) the way it was actually sung. This version appeared in 1936 Denson edition, but in the 1966 edition the sharp signs were removed. The song "Wood Street," by the contemporary singer Judy Hauff, was printed in the Denson 1991 revision; it consistently uses natural signs to specify the raised sixth.
Traditional Sacred Harp singers often "add dots" to their music, in the sense that they will make the notes falling on the strong musical beat about one and a half times as long as written, with the following note shortened to half of its written duration in compensation. The great majority of the cases seem to involve substitution of the sequence dotted eighth + sixteenth for what is written as two eighth notes.
An example can be found in the following passage from the "Easter Anthem" of William Billings. Billings wrote the passage in even musical rhythm, and this is reflected in how it is printed in The Sacred Harp:
On a recording issued by the Sacred Harp Publishing Company (#3 in the list below), the same passage is performed with "dotting", as if it were written as follows:
In addition to the dotting of eighth note sequences, the sequence dotted quarter + eighth often realized with "double dotting". Thus, a few measures later in the same Billings work, the following passage in the alto part:
is sung as follows:
Elsewhere in this series of recordings, this group of singers adds dotting quite liberally, essentially in any song that is in lively tempo and duple rhythm. The same appears to be true in the other traditional-singer recordings mentioned above. Singers who attend traditional singings in the South have attested to the prevalence of dotting, among them the author of this page
Occasionally singers suppress dotting in passages where the composer has written out a particular distinction between dotted and even-rhythm passages; for example, in the opening of Billings's "Rose of Sharon":
Finally, it should be noted that even the dotted notation given above does not necessarily do justice to what is sung. The actual durational ratio between the longer notes is not necessarily an exact 3:1, but can vary over a range, from just a mild durational difference to a difference that actually exceeds the written 3:1 ratio.
The two traditional Sacred Harp practices just noted--unwritten accidentals and unwritten dotting--have parallels in older European music.
The music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance was often annotated under the assumption of musica ficta, which were particular raisings and lowerings of notes by the interval of a semitone, not written in the music notation. Authentic performance of such music must rely on the best available musicological scholarship to interpret the difficult and obscure rules governing when musica ficta should be introduced.
Sacred Harp scholar Buell E. Cobb claims that the exact pitches of the musical scale are somewhat different when rendered by traditional singers. Most noticeably, the third degree of the major scale (in Sacred Harp terms, the boldface note of fa sol la fa sol la mi fa) is sung somewhat lower than it would be sung by performers of classical or popular music. According to Cobb, outsiders sometimes hear the traditional pitching as simply out of tune. In opposition to this, he asserts that the choice of pitches is part of the tradition and in context should be considered as correct.
Cobb marshals the intuitive judgments of traditional singers in support of this view. For example, the pitch preferences of traditional singers "may explain why the Sacred Harp singers have not responded favorably to recordings of their songs by trained choirs. Cobb quotes L. L. Welborn, a traditional singer:
Marini (2003) embellishes Cobb's characterization, focusing on the alto part (which will most often contain the third scale degree): "Altos, taxed with the musically least interesting part, make a virtue of necessity by creating subtle tunings for those few notes. Often they will sing their harmonies slightly flat or sharp, lending an archaic modal sound to the ensemble.
In the minor scale, the third degree of the minor scale is sometimes realized as a kind of gliding pitch, so that the notes in question start out on the minor third and end up on the major. For example, the singers on the Sacred Harp Publishing Company's recording of A. M. Cagle's "Soar Away" sing this passage:
more like this, with a glissando from the minor to the major third:
The extent of this practice is unknown.
Most of the elements of singing noted above could in principle be notated in the printed music. Tone quality, however, is unnotated and is determined by custom in virtually all musical traditions.
One element of the tone quality of traditional Sacred Harp singers that can be clearly asserted is that they never use vibrato. However, this in itself says little about the rather distinctive sound that traditional singers produce. Subjectively, Sacred Harp bass sections (generally all male) tend to sound booming. Male tenors and trebles produce a powerful sound, often slightly nasal or "covered" in tone. Alto sections (generally all female) sound brassy; Marini refers to a "laser-like chest tone quality". The higher-voiced women tend to "float" their voices, blending well into the whole. As a result, Sacred Harp singing tends to be dominated in volume by the male tenors. In this respect its sound is quite different from that of ordinary mixed choruses, which at loud volume tend to be dominated by their sopranos.
All parts are sung loudly. Often, individual singers possess very powerful voices and stand out from the group.
When Sacred Harp singers sing a song, they first sing it through "from the shapes"--that is, they read the names of the notes from their shapes, rather than singing the words of the song (for details, see Shape note; Sacred Harp). The note names (which date to Elizabethan times) are: "fa", "sol", "la", and "mi".
In 18th and 19th century American sources, the syllables "fa" and "la" are often spelled "faw" and "law". This almost certainly means that when speakers of the time pronounced them, they used the vowel of American English that is spelled "aw". In most dialects that have this vowel, it is lower mid, back, and made with slight lip rounding. Its symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet is [ɔ].
On the recordings mentioned above, traditional singers can be heard pronouncing "fa" and "la" in two different ways. Some of them use the rounded vowel just noted, while others use a pronunciation closer to the Italian spelling, with a low central unrounded vowel, IPA [a].
A reasonable surmise for why "faw" and "law" were substituted for "fa" and "la" can be offered, based on the history of the English language. Until the twentieth century, English had no words ending in [a]. Words ending in “aw”, however, have always been abundant (paw, caw, thaw, saw, Shaw, maw, law, raw, yaw, claw, draw, craw, McGraw, etc.). It is likely that speakers of pre-20th century English adapted the foreign syllables "fa" and "la" to match their native speech habits, substituting [ɔ] for [a].
During the 20th century, various borrowed words with final [a] came into English: spa, bra, Shah, Zsa-Zsa, cha-cha. Perhaps these paved the way for the pronunciation of la and fa with [a]. Another possibility is that increased foreign language instruction in schools made Americans more comfortable with final [a], enabling [la] and [fa] as well as all the new words just mentioned.
The syllable spelled sol is normally pronounced so by all singers, as is implied by the colloquial designation of Sacred Harp music, "fasola".
In recent decades, Sacred Harp has increased in popularity, especially among people who are not traditional singers, but who discover the tradition in adulthood and learn to participate by attending singings. Often, newcomers have some previous musical training and have learned to sight-sing in some other context.
Such singers will naturally tend to sing the music as it is printed. This gives rise to the possibility of misaligned rhythms and clashing pitches whenever traditional singers and newcomer singers sing together. Such shared singings are in fact frequent, since newcomer singers attend singings in traditional Sacred Harp territory and traditional singers also attend singings outside this area.
While there is no consensus on this point, it is certainly a widely held view among newcomer singers that the singing community is best served if newcomers learn to sing in the way that traditional singers do, at least as far as this concerns rhythm, pitch, and the procedures followed at singing. For instance, this link, an exhortatory essay from one newcomer singer addressed to other newcomers, urges them to respect the practices of traditional singers. A number of traditional singers are also willing to offer guidance to new singers, seen for instance in the minutes of Camp Fasola, a summer camp for Sacred Harp learners.
Sacred Harp scholar Kiri Miller has argued that there is more at stake than just achieving uniformity. Rather, traditional singing practice is often highly prestigious among newcomers: "Orally transmitted elements of Sacred Harp performance practice have a special capacity to [impart a sense of] authenticity, timelessness, and tradition."