When my father taught singing schools using the seven shapes, as opposed to Sacred Harp’s four, he wanted his pupils to understand each of the note shapes. So, before allowing them to sing a song’s lyrics, he made them sing the song using only the names of the notes.
In other words, instead of singing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” you’d sing (if you were a soprano, for example), “So-la-dooooooo, mi-do-miiiiii, re-doooooo, la-soooooo.” When the four parts sang together, at any given moment, you might have the sopranos singing “so,” while the altos were singing “ti” and the tenors “re.”
Listening to the words they sang, you’d hear cacophony, nonsense. But listening to the tones of their voices, you’d hear strict harmony — assuming the singers could hit the right pitches. Even if they were off a bit, close enough was good enough.
At a Sacred Harp singing convention, they follow the same path. Every song begins with the choir singing the notes — fa, sol, la or mi — and then they sing the lyrics. What you hear feels harmonious, but in a much more primitive way. It sounds raucous — like something from your deepest past, generations deep.
That’s because it is from your deepest past. “The Sacred Harp” was first published in America in 1844, but the music’s roots run centuries deeper in various European traditions. Studying the history of Sacred Harp can take you down a musicological rathole, which we will avoid for the purposes of this story. You can learn about it yourself just by talking to folks outside any Sacred Harp singing anywhere (and they are everywhere), or you can watch filmmaker and singer Matt Hinton’s 2007 great documentary, “Awake, My Soul: The Story of Sacred Harp.” (Or if you’re in Georgia, it’s not that hard to talk to Hinton himself. You can find him most weekdays at one of his two Bell Street Burritos joints in Atlanta, or you can find him and his whole family at a Sacred Harp convention somewhere nearly every weekend.)