Pitching Sacred Harp music

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In Sacred Harp music, it is the custom to sing a song in a key chosen for the moment, rather than the one notated in the hymnbook. Pitching (also: keying) is the act of finding such a key. A person to whom this task has been entrusted is called a pitcher or keyer.

Why pitchers are needed[edit]

According to Sacred Harp scholar Buell E. Cobb, the notation of Sacred Harp songs is often a notation of convenience, arranged to keep the notes within the staff on each part, minimizing the use of ledger lines.[1] It is feasible to switch keys at the moment of singing because Sacred Harp singing is an a cappella tradition; hence there are no instruments that would have to transpose on the spot, often a difficult task. Most singers transpose effortlessly.[2]

The pitcher's task[edit]

At Sacred Harp singings, the choice of the key in which to sing a song is, in principle, given to the person leading the song (see Leading Sacred Harp music). However, only a few singers exercise this option; most defer to the pitcher, since the pitcher usually has more experience and skill.[3] In addition, delegating the task of pitching lets the leader focus undistracted on the choice of tempo.

There are various factors that determine what key the pitcher will choose. Most plainly, the pitcher can inspect the notes of all of the vocal parts in a particular song, and pitch in a way that will avoid excessively high or low notes. Another factor to be weighed is the time of day; in the first morning hours of a singing, the singers' voices will not yet be warmed up and the pitcher may opt for a lower key than might be used at other times; lower keys may also be adopted during the final hours of a singing.[4]

Once the pitcher has found a good key, he or she must communicate this choice to the singers. Methods of doing this vary; Cobb suggests that pitchers generally give the opening note of the song, in the tenor and possibly other parts. Singing master David Ivey teaches pitchers "to sound the tonic ... first, and follow with the other first notes of the parts."[5]

Whatever pitches are given, they are sung using the standard names ("fa, sol, la, mi") in the system of shape notes used in Sacred Harp singing. The singers join in with their initial notes, likewise sung on the proper syllable, and then all begin the song, following the motions of the leader.

Pitch pipes, tuning forks, etc.[edit]

Strikingly, pitchers at singing conventions generally do not use any mechanical aid, such as a pitch pipe or tuning fork, to help them find the right pitch.[6] (Such aids may be more common at small local singings.)[7]

How Sacred Harp pitchers (who generally do not possess perfect pitch) achieve their ends without mechanical help is not a fully understood question. It probably helps that pitchers typically know the songs very well, and that they have the opportunity to test out how a particular key "feels" when they sing the first note aloud. Sometimes a pitcher will try one opening note, find it unsatisfactory, then execute a glissando to a neighboring pitch.

Cobb lists some ways in which pitchers make up for the lack of a pitch-giving device.[8] Some use their own voices as a kind of reference, for instance by knowing the lowest note they can comfortably sing. Others have a kind of "reference song"; a song so familiar that when they summon it to mind it is in the original key, which then can be used as a reference point.[9] For many singers, however, good pitching seems to be a purely intuitive activity, a skill they possess but cannot explain. One experienced pitcher told Cobb "it's kind of like learning to fix an automobile--you just got to have a knack for it."

The value of skilled pitchers[edit]

Errors in pitching tend to produce quite noticeable results. An excessively high pitch will lead the singers to struggle, producing a loud but thin, unsonorous sound. An excessively low pitch will lead to a rendition lacking in energy. These undesirable outcomes, together with the relative rarity of good pitching skills, lead to high esteem among Sacred Harp singers for good pitchers. Cobb notes that among certain communities of African American Sacred Harp singers in South Alabama, the pitcher position is a paid one, appointed in advance and given a special seat at the singing.[10] But even in the usual case where the pitcher is a volunteer, singers recognize "the degree to which the skill and flexibility of the pitcher make possible the success of the singing."[10]


Historical evidence can sometimes be brought to bear on two questions concerning pitching: first, whether it was considered desirable for singers to select their own key, and second whether it was advisable to use a tuning fork or pitch pipe as an aid.[11]

The earliest roots of Sacred Harp singing are found in the singing schools and composers of 18th-century New England. An early allusion to the task of pitching appears in the 1698 edition of the Bay Psalm Book:

Some few directions for ordering the Voice in Setting these following Tunes of the Psalms.
First observe of how many Notes compass the Tune is. Next, the place of your first Note; and how many Notes above & below that: so as you may begin the Tune of your first Note as the rest may be sung in the compass of your and the peoples voices, without Squeaking above, or Grumbling below.[12]

Later on in the New England tradition, it appears there may have been move to emphasize the desirability of singing to the printed pitch. This was the recommendation of the leading composer of the period, William Billings, who wrote the following in the introduction to his book The Continental Harmony:

Every letter has its own peculiar air, which air is very much hurt if the tune is not rightly pitched; for instance, if a tune is set on A natural, and in pitching the tune, you set it a tone too low, you transpose the key into G, which is perhaps quite different from the intention of the author, and often very destructive to the harmony, for there is a certain pitch for every tune where it will go smoother and pleasanter than it would on any other letter whatsoever....The best general rule I know of, is, to set the tune on the letter the author has set it, unless he has given directions to the contrary.

Elsewhere, Billings makes the same recommendation, though somewhat less firmly, and suggests a pitch pipe as the best means to match the composer's pitch:

Great Care should also be taken to Pitch a Tune on or near the Letter it is set, though sometimes it will bear to be set a little above and sometimes a little below the Key, according to the Discretion of the Performer; but I would recommend a Pitch Pipe, which will give the Sound even to the nicety of a half a Tone[13]

The use of a pitch pipe by the New England singers can be noted in early fiction portraying the period: in James Fenimore Cooper's classic novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826), the singing master character David Gamut carries (and frequently uses) a pitch pipe.

The 19th century singing master William Walker, whose Southern Harmony was an immediate ancestor to The Sacred Harp, evidently used a tuning fork. This is known because his fork was handed down through later generations. The Sacred Harp scholar George Pullen Jackson was shown the fork when he attended the Southern Harmony-based Big Singing in Benton, Kentucky in 1931.[14] Walker addresses issues of pitching in the Rudiments section of The Southern Harmony. His discussion is not transparent, but he mentions the use of a pitch pipe, and apparently also endorses choosing a key for the occasion rather than necessarily adhering to the composer's key.[15]

Around the time that The Sacred Harp was first prepared, it appears that pitchers sometimes used a pitch pipe, sometimes not. In 1849, five years after the initial appearance of The Sacred Harp, the singing master Lazarus J. Jones published a competing volume, The Southern Minstrel. An evaluative preface written by George McCormick praised Jones for including a method for pitching without the use of a pitch pipe:

The rules, as laid down by most authors, are so vague and indefinite, as to render it almost impossible to arrive at a correct conclusion on the subject. Their rule requires us, in keying tunes, to depend entirely upon the pitchpipe, which is not only uncertain, but often impracticable, on account of its absence. The author of the work now before us, for this purpose, has given us rules entirely independent of any instrumental aid. His directions are of the greatest utility among students in vocal music, when without a pitchpipe.[16]

David Warren Steel summarizes the pitching method taught by Jones as follows:

Jones's solution was to count up from the low G of the average male voice:
Q. But how shall we get the sound of the natural keys?
A. The lower line of the bass stave is considered the first degree, or lowest sound in the general scale of music; no tune should be keyed so low, but that a note on the lower line of the bass could be distinctly sounded by a medium voice. You will therefore ascend the degrees of sound in regular succession, either by the order of the notes, or by numbers, one, two, three, &c., from the lower line of the bass, or first degree, to the second or fourth, the places of the natural sharp and flat keys.
Although Jones's directions are somewhat obscure and do not account for the possibility of transposition to accommodate varying vocal ranges, their mere presence appears to be unique in a Southern tunebook.[17]

B. F. White, who (with E. J. King) was the originator of The Sacred Harp, evidently judged that it was appropriate to pitch a song for the occasion. In his preface to the 1860 edition, he wrote:

Care should be taken that all the parts (when singing together) begin upon the proper pitch. If they are too high, difficulty, and perhaps discords, will be the consequence; if too low, dulness and languor. If the parts are not united by their corresponding degrees, the whole piece may be run into confusion and jargon before it ends; and perhaps the whole occasioned by an error of only one semitone in the pitch of one or more of the parts.[18]

He includes a definition of "pitch pipe" in his musical glossary, but makes no recommendation concerning whether or not a pitcher should employ one.

The history of the abandonment of pitch pipes and tuning forks by Sacred Harp singers is unknown to the editors of this encyclopedia. Cobb asserts only that "Probably in a few areas pitch pipes were once used in Sacred Harp singings, but they are never seen today".[19]


  1. ^ Cobb 1978, 53. Cobb cites as authorities the 20th-century composer Marcus Cagle and the 19th century shape note composer John G. McCurry, creator of The Social Harp.
  2. ^ Sacred Harp scholar Kiri Miller (2004, 487) observes that singers with perfect pitch "are at a severe disadvantage" in Sacred Harp, since for them transposition is a conscious, deliberate process.
  3. ^ This is noted by Hugh McGraw, teaching at Camp Fasola; Sacred Harp minutes http://fasola.org/minutes/search/?q=pitching&n=2367. McGraw opines that all leaders should learn to pitch their own songs, while recognizing that this is not the norm.
  4. ^ See Cobb (1978, 54); also the teaching of Richard DeLong at Camp Fasola; http://fasola.org/minutes/search/?q=camp+fasola&n=2133.
  5. ^ Minutes of Mr. Ivey's pitching class at Camp Fasola 2006, Sacred Harp Minutes page, http://fasola.org/minutes/search/?q=pitching&n=2367.
  6. ^ Cobb (1978, 54
  7. ^ See the web page of the Pacific Northwest Sacred Harp singers concerning small singings: http://pacificnwsacredharpsingers.org/WhatIsMonthlySinging.html
  8. ^ Cobb 1978, 54-55
  9. ^ Richard DeLong keeps a small inventory of "pet songs", each used for pitching a different key; http://fasola.org/minutes/search/?q=camp+fasola&n=2133
  10. ^ a b Cobb 1978, 55
  11. ^ Cobb (1978, 53) perhaps errs in judging that a tuning fork or pitch pipe would only be used to locate the printed pitch; in principle it could be used to find any key known to be appropriate for a song.
  12. ^ Quoted from http://www.mit.edu:8001/people/ijs/sn/BPBPitching.html
  13. ^ Source: Billings's introduction to his book The New-England Psalm-Singer
  14. ^ See Jackson (1933)
  15. ^ The relevant page may be viewed at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.natlib.ihas.200038824/enlarge.html?page=19&size=1024&from=pageturner (Library of Congress)
  16. ^ Quotation taken from Steel (1988, 141).
  17. ^ Steel (1988, 141)
  18. ^ Text available on line: http://digital.lib.msu.edu/collections/index.cfm?action=view&TitleID=610&Format=jpg&PageNum=1
  19. ^ Cobb (1978, 52)


  • Cobb, Buell E. (1978) The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and its Music. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Jackson, George Pullen (1933) White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-486-21425-7
  • Miller, Kiri (2004) "First Sing the Notes": Oral and Written Traditions in Sacred Harp Transmission. American Music 22: 475-501.
  • Steel, David Warren (1988) "Lazarus J. Jones and the Southern Minstrel (1849)," American Music 6: 123-157.

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