Accent & Emphasis in Sacred Harp singing

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During the singing school at Cork’s Irish Convention, Jonathon Smith brought out the stylistic importance of accent in Sacred Harp.  This was timely, for I had asked Matthew Parkinson to clarify the topic a few months before. I had the pleasure of meeting this friendly, experienced singer at the 2015 London Convention.  Below is his article. Thank you to Mary Jane Wilkie from the NYC SH group for the translation of this paragraph.

Matthew Parkinson is a singer and composer from Bristol, UK. While completing his Masters Degree in Music he heard a clip of Sacred Harp singing which was the start of an obsession. He has now been a dedicated singer and composer of shape note music for 6 years. He has taught singing schools in London, Glasgow, Bristol, Bremen, and Camp Doremi Europe.

If you have been singing Sacred Harp for a while, you will probably have heard someone talk about ‘accent’. Accent is one of the most important musical characteristics of the Sacred Harp tradition.

Listen to this rendition of 159 WONDROUS LOVE performed in a liturgical setting and compare it to a recording from The First National Sacred Harp Convention in 1980. There are many differences between these renditions and one is that the choir and congregation of Notre Dame Indiana are singing mainly without accent, while the singers at the National Convention in 1980 are accenting strongly. This is not to demean the fine singing at Notre Dame – singing with or without accent is not a good/bad or right/wrong matter, it is a matter of style. If we want to sing in a style authentic to Sacred Harp, then accent is essential. If we want to sing liturgical choral music, then accenting is not required.

The term accent can be confusing for new singers. Often we immediately think of people speaking with different accents. For example, someone from the south will speak with a different accent from the north. This is not what we are talking about – we do not expect Sacred Harp to be sung with a spoken accent from the American South!

If you have previous musical training you may think we are talking about the accent symbol which indicates playing a single note louder than others:

Capture d_écran 2017-04-06 à 21.58.09

This is getting closer to what we are talking about, but it is still not right.

Accent could be more accurately named emphasis, or stress. The rudiments from the 1860 edition of The Sacred Harp say that “accent is a stress of voice or emphasis on one part of a sentence, strain, or measure, more than another”, while the 2012 Cooper edition simply says, “accent is a stress of voice or emphasis”.

These definitions leave two questions unanswered:

  1. What specific notes do we emphasize?
  2. How do we emphasize them?

The following chart shows the seven modes of time found in The Sacred Harp, along with arrows to show the movement of the hand when marking time. As an added guide to the accent pattern, each note head has been been made smaller or larger to indicate the amount of emphasis used on that particular note.

Capture d_écran 2017-08-23 à 21.28.32

In every mode of time the strongest emphasis is placed on beat 1 of each measure (see all the notes labelled ‘1’ in the chart). We call this the primary accent. Notice that the primary accent always coincides with the hand moving downwards. This makes it easy to remember while singing, and is a good reason to mark time when singing Sacred Harp.

The primary accent, at the beginning of each measure, is followed by the secondary accent. The secondary accent is given a little less emphasis than the primary accent, and always occurs as the hand moves up when marking time (the only exception to this rule is when beating in 4). Have a look at the chart again. In 4/4 the primary accent is on beat 1, which is shown by a large notehead with a downward arrow, and the secondary accent is shown on beat 3 by a medium sized notehead with an upward arrow.

Can you see the pattern in all the modes of time? Remember, the strongest degree of emphasis is placed on beat 1 in line with the downward movement of the hand, and the lesser degree of emphasis occurs on beats 2, 3, or 4 normally in line with the upward movement of the hand.

How do you emphasize these particular notes? The rudiments of the 1991 edition of The Sacred Harp states that a note is accented by “enunciating it a little more emphatically and making it a little louder than the others”. This is a good starting point, however we can learn more by listening to recordings and thinking about how emphasis works in language. Read the following sentence aloud, giving emphasis to the words written in capital letters:

  • I love The Sacred Harp.
  • I LOVE The Sacred Harp.
  • I love THE Sacred Harp.
  • I love the SACRED Harp.
  • I love The Sacred HARP.

By using emphasis we make the text more expressive, more intelligible, and easier to physically speak (try reading aloud like a robot giving equal emphasis to all the words – it takes more effort). The same is true of using emphasis when singing – the meaning of the text is brought out, it is more interesting to listen to, it is easier to sing, and it provides rhythmic energy. How did you emphasize each word when reading aloud? Probably, you spoke a little louder, you enunciated with more impact and energy, and you may have slightly lengthened or stretched the particular word. Try doing this when you are singing Sacred Harp – on the primary and secondary accent make those notes a little louder (but without straining or shouting), give them more energy, and try stretching or adding weight to them. You should start to hear that doing this adds a more energised rhythmic quality to your singing.

It is important to know that once a basic understanding of accent has been acquired, the best way to improve your accenting is to listen to good recordings and sing with singers who accent well. I find that the best recordings to listen to are those made earlier than the 1990s. Here are some suggestions:

Finally, if you proceed to pay more attention to your accenting and listen to some of the recordings mentioned above, here are a few pointers and things to listen for.


Great accenting has a sense of ease about it. This ease applies both to the physicality of singing, and to the mental attitude with which singing is approached. On old recordings you can hear a style of accenting which often sounds nonchalant, or even lazy. If your accent feels effortful, harsh, or strained, then you are probably trying too hard!


With good accenting, you should hear and feel a subtle pulsing. I say ‘subtle’ because too much pulsing sounds choppy (which reminds me of feeling sea sick) while, on the other hand, too little pulsing sounds flat and lifeless.


In older recordings you can often get a swinging sensation, especially on the first beat of each measure (the primary accent) which has a kind of ‘whoosh’ quality to it, like a pendulum swinging through the central part of its movement. Can you hear or create this kind of whoosh feeling in your accenting?


Accenting should occur within a steady tempo and, if done well, it should help the class maintain tempo. There is a tendency for singers to get excited and speed up, especially on fuging entries, repeated notes, and difficult passages – resist this tendency and keep your accenting in a steady tempo.


Accenting doesn’t work if we don’t do it together! When accenting is done well you should feel your voice lock with the rest of the class. This is massively affected by how much you listen to the singers around you, and how much you watch the leader and the front benches. Always endeavour to look up from your book as much as possible, and listen to the class.

To conclude, there are many ways to think about accent, and it is worth thinking about since Sacred Harp singing without accent is a shadow of what it can be. Due to our personal differences, one person may find the sense of ease in accenting really helpful, while another person may connect more with the feeling of a pendulum swinging. Find what works for you. Can you hear how some accenting sounds stiff and mechanical, while other accenting sounds flexible and elastic? Can you hear how some accenting sounds self-conscious and affected, while some natural? The most important thing is to listen attentively, and always remain open to learning more about Sacred Harp singing, even if you count yourself as an experienced singer.

Matthew Parkinson, 02/08/2017.


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