Sacred Harp singing, also known as shape-note singing, is an amateur and participatory tradition with a historical connection to congregational hymn singing. We sing for each other, and not for an audience. There are no auditions, and no commitment: we just hold a singing each week, and anyone who’s interested is welcome to come and sing with us, or even just to listen. Anyone means anyone: we welcome you whether you are a singer or not, whether are part of Yale or not, whether you have any experience of shape-note music or not.
On Tuesday nights we sing from the 1991 Denson revision of The Sacred Harp, the shape-note book most widely used today. Once a month, usually on the first Saturday afternoon, we sing from a wide variety of shape-note sources, including new compositions.
We call ourselves the Yale-New Haven Regular Singing after a music-literacy movement in 18th-century New England. Church music at that time had fallen into such decline that congregations in some churches knew just five or six tunes, and they sang them, in ragged unison, to whatever texts needed to be sung. There were no church choirs, members of the congregations couldn’t sing very well, and almost nobody knew how to read music. Some clergymen and lay leaders felt that the situation could be improved if more people had access to printed music in four-part harmony and knew how to read from it. They encouraged the establishment of “singing schools,” where members of the community learned to read music and to sing in harmony. The music-reading method taught in these singing schools was called singing by rule, singing by note, or Regular Singing. By creating a population of musically literate churchgoers, the Regular Singing movement prepared the way for the first flowering of indigenous American music: psalms, hymns, and anthems by composers like William Billings, Timothy Swan, and New Haven’s own Daniel Read. These tunes formed the foundation of the repertory embodied in shape-note tunebooks, and are still sung today by Sacred Harp singers around the world.
For other Sacred Harp singing opportunities in and around southern New England, visit the websites of the thriving Sacred Harp communities located in Western Massachusetts, New York City, and Rhode Island.