What Is Old Harp Singing?

What Is Old Harp Singing?

“Old harp singing” is a communal style of singing of the shape note tradition using M.L. & W.H. Swan’s book, The New Harp of Columbia.

This style of singing is not performance-based, nor is it typical of any choir or choral society. It is a participatory gathering where people sing for enjoyment. People of all backgrounds are encouraged to attend, regardless of their religious affiliations, age, gender or musical experience.

Although “old harp singing” dates back well over a century, the singings are not considered reenactments. They are events where a living tradition continues to grow and thrive. Despite the passage of time, this style of music has endured because of its uniquely beautiful sound and the powerful bonds of love it creates between those that sing it.

Most all singings still follow the format of the “singing schools” of early America. The singers are arranged in a “hollow square” with four sections (treble, alto, tenor or “lead”, and bass) each facing one another. Participants take turns standing in the middle of the square to lead a song of their choice. The singers will first sing the “shapes” (do, re, me, etc.) and then follow with the words.

The following is an excerpt from The New Harp of Columbia.

In the small towns and rural areas of early America, church-sponsored “singing shools” proliferated as a way of both improving congregational singing and drawing communities together. Congregants attending these schools were taught a form of musical notation in which the notes were assigned different shapes to indicate variations in pitch- a method that worked well with singers having little understanding of standard musical notation. These schools eventually became major social events that drew hundreds of attendees, and today countless enthusiasts carry on the shape-note tradition.