Sacred Harp Music

What you see above is a video of Quire Cleveland performing a song called Sherburne, sung to music written by the 18th century American composer Daniel Read. This music first appeared in The American Singing Book (New Haven, CT, 1785), a hymnal published and sold by Read himself. [1] In that publication, the song is shown with “Words by unknown.”[2] However, according to some modern sources, the words are attributed to Nahum Tate, having first appeared in 1700 in a supplement to the New Version of the Psalms of David (1696), authored by Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady and published in England. [3]


I first heard Sherburne sung by The Boston Camerata as part of the album Sing We Noel: Christmas Music from England & Early America (Joel Cohen, director) recorded in 1978. I found the sound of the music to be unique and hauntingly beautiful. It came to mind recently when I heard music that seemed to have a similar unique sound. I’ve since learned that Sherburne is part of a body of early American music that’s sometimes referred to as Sacred Harp music. There are a number of YouTube videos that provide additional information and various performances of this music. Here are links to some of the videos that have contributed to my understanding of this music:

Sacred Harp Singing
The Sacred Harp of Hoboken
“Soar Away” (Sacred Harp 455) Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church
Coming Again, White Hill AME Zion Church, Rock Hill, SC
Quire Cleveland sings Shiloh by Williams Billings
Anonymous 4 sings Bethleham by William Billings


[1] Rhoades, Mark D. Anthology of The American Hymn-Tune Repertory. Retrieved from https://people.bethel.edu/~rhomar/index.htm.

[2] ibid. Retrieved from https://people.bethel.edu/~rhomar/TunePages/Sherburne.html.

[3] See Wikipedia article While shepherds watched their flocks.

Musipedia

Have your ever had a tune running through your head and not been able to remember what it was, who wrote it, or where you may have heard it?  When this happens to me, the tune seems to dig itself into my brain.  I can suppress the rogue engram by listening to other music I find compelling, but that’s not always convenient.  In many cases, the better alternative for mental housekeeping is to identify the tune and tuck it away into a larger memory.  But how does one identify a tune with no clues other than the tune itself? 

In seeking an answer to that question, I have discovered Musipedia, which is much more than a solution to my little conundrum.  Musipedia describes itself as “a searchable, editable, and expandable collection of tunes, melodies, and musical themes” that is being grown and maintained by a community of volunteers.  Musipedia lets you search for music in various ways.  If your computer has a working microphone, you can simply whistle or hum a part of what you’re looking for.  I was able to find the Tannhäuser Overture using this method.  A flash keyboard lets you listen while you peck out your tune, which worked for finding Yellow Submarine (by the Beatles) .  A JavaScript piano can be used to create a musical score, which allowed me to find Frère Jacques even with botched timing.  Another option, tapping the rhythm using any key on the computer (I used the spacebar), mostly didn’t work for me, though I was able to find Hark, the Herald Angels Sing by using the keyword “Christmas” in combination with tapping.  There’s also an option to use the mouse to create a musical grid, but I couldn’t get this to work for anything. 

Finally, you can enter a melodic contour using a Parsons code.  This is a simple notation that’s easy to learn and use. You start by entering the character * for the first note, then enter U if the next note goes up, D if it goes down, and R if it stays the same.  For example, the Parsons code for Amazing Grace is *UUDUDDDDRUUDUDUDUDUDDDUURDDRUUDUDD, which can be visualized as follows: 

Of course a tune will only be found if it’s in the Musipedia database, which is not comprehensive.  At present, the database seems to be most complete for classical music.  Another thing to keep in mind is that you don’t always know whether something that sounds like a repeated note (especially when there are sung lyrics) may be a held note in the score, and vice versa.  This can make it difficult to find a tune, even though you think you’ve reproduced it perfectly. 

If you can’t identify your tune with the tools Musipedia provides, you can try posting it in website’s the forum to see if another person can help you out.