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Sacred harp fuguing tunes: Basic moves

28 Oct 2020

This post is part of a series on Sacred Harp fuguing tunes.
  1. Basic moves
  2. Couples


In Sacred Harp singing, a fuguing tune isn’t like a classical fugue, with voices that echo each other melodically according to strict rules. Any song counts as a fuguing tune if, at some point, the voices drop out and come back in one or two at a time.

The Sacred Harp song 371 HEAVENLY DOVE with the fuguing part highlighted

Usually by the end of a fuguing tune, everyone is in rhythmic unison again.

There are endless fine points of artistry in writing a good fuguing tune. But before you can even start trying to apply your creativity, there’s an annoying technical problem you have to solve: how do you get the voices synced back up again?

The problem with words

This problem is, weirdly, mostly about words.

In a traditional hymn, everyone sings the same words. Everyone sings in rhythmic unison, nobody skips any words, and if anyone repeats a word or a phrase then everyone else does too.

Four voices in rhythmic unison A diagram representing four voices in rhythmic unison. First they all sing the first line of Amazing Grace, then they all sing the second line Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me! That saved a wretch like me! That saved a wretch like me! That saved a wretch like me!

But if you did all that in a fuguing tune — that is, if you started at different times and then did that, singing the same words at the same pace, not skipping, and not repeating more or less than anyone else — you’d never come back into sync…

Four voices that stay out of sync A diagram representing four voices out of sync. They all sing the words of Amazing Grace, but they start and different times and end at different times Amazing... That saved... I once was... Was blind... Amazing... That saved... I once was... Was blind... Amazing... That saved... I once was... Was blind... Amazing... That saved... I once was... Was blind...

…no matter how many times you repeated.

Four voices that stay out of sync no matter how long they repeat A diagram representing four voices that are out of sync even after many repeats. They all sing the words of Amazing Grace, but they start at different times and trail off, many repeats later, never having come into sync.

Something would have to give.

So to get the voices synced up you have to break some of the rules of pacing in traditional hymn singing.

People have been commenting for centuries on our breaking of these and other rules — sometimes talking as if old Sacred Harp composers didn’t know any better, and sometimes crediting them with writing consciously experimental music. But in either case, rule-breakers is what we are, and here is what that most often amounts to:

  • Some voices might slow down and noodle around, or stop entirely, while others keep going.
  • Some voices might repeat a lyric while others don’t.

Sometimes fuguing tunes do other illegal things, but these are by far the most common, and they’re all you really need to get a fuguing tune to work.

Staggered and gathered

But writing a fuguing tune isn’t just about breaking the rules. It’s about knowing what will happen when you do.

If you take a line in a basic hymn meter, and sing it as a sequence of quarter notes, it takes up two measures.

The first tenor phrase of the fugue from Sacred Harp 107, Russia
From SH 107, Russia     Play mp3     Full score at SH Bremen

(Well, it starts and ends at the upbeat. But basically two measures. The tendency to start on the upbeat in fuguing tunes is so strong that it makes more sense to count as if measures start on beat 4 rather than beat 1.)

The entrances in a fuguing tune are usually a measure apart. So in the simplest case, with the most basic rhythm, the first voice finishes when the second is only halfway done.

The tenor and bass entrances from Sacred Harp 107, Russia
From SH 107, Russia     Play mp3     Full score at SH Bremen

In colored blocks, they look like this:

A pair of blocks, each two measures long. They are offset by one measure.

Let’s make up a term and say those voices are staggered. If two voices aren’t staggered anymore, let’s say they’re gathered.

Staggered by one

So how do you gather voices that are staggered by one measure?

One way is stretch out the voice that’s ahead. Instead of straight quarter notes, give it longer ones. Alternating quarter and dotted half notes is common.

From SH 107, Russia     Play mp3     Full score at SH Bremen

In block terms: instead of this…

Two pairs of blocks, each two measures long, offset by one measure

…our buddy Daniel Read decided to do this.

Two pairs of blocks offset by one measure. One block is stretched to three measures long, so they come back into sync in the end.

Once he’s done that, the two parts are gathered and ready to move forward in sync again.

From SH 107, Russia     Play mp3     Full score at SH Bremen

Another thing you can do with voices that are staggered by one…

From SH 40, Lenox     Play mp3     Full score at SH Bremen

…is to make them swap places by letting the one that’s behind repeat a line.

From SH 40, Lenox     Play mp3     Full score at SH Bremen
A two-measure block that's repeated in the bottom voice, and sung only once in the top voice. They are staggered so that the bottom voice starts one measure early and finishes one measure late

That doesn’t gather them immediately, but it sets up some new options. Now you could slow down the higher line instead of the lower one.

From SH 40, Lenox     Play mp3     Full score at SH Bremen
Like in the previous example, the lower voice repeats a two-measure block, so that it is behind instead of ahead. Then, the upper voice stretches a a block out to three measures. Now, they are in sync.

Staggered by two

When voices are staggered by two measures, there’s an extra thing you can do. Repeating a line in the one that’s behind will now gather them together instead of swapping them.

From SH 300, Calvary     Play mp3     Full score at SH Bremen

Stretching still works too. You just have to stretch harder.

From SH 432, Cheves     Play mp3     Full score at SH Bremen

The fun part

In a very funny way, now you know everything you need to know about gathering voices. It’s all just stretching and repeating (though sometimes with some fancy twists I haven’t talked about: you can stretch by a fraction of a measure, or repeat only part of a phrase).

In another sense, this is completely missing the point. Lining bricks up isn’t composing. It isn’t even the rhythmic part of composing. If I’ve got these two measures…

  Play mp3

…and need to stretch them out to four, I could decorate them in any of these ways or dozens of others.

  Play mp3
  Play mp3
  Play mp3
  Play mp3

If I realize I need to stretch a part, it’s more like a door opening: I could do this a million ways — which would be most fun to sing?

Or I can meet the muse halfway: Inspiration just struck for a treble-alto duet on these words! Now, to flesh that inspiration out, I might need to do some math: How can I arrange my blocks to make it happen? What combination of moves will get them there together at the right time?

Or I can think about tradeoffs: “Either I stretch this one or I repeat and then stretch that one — which would be cooler?”

Or I can recognize when I’m in a dead end: “No wonder this isn’t working. I can’t stretch this part any further and still have the rhythm I want. I’d better back up and rethink this.”


And this is just two voices. In future posts I’m hoping to talk about:

  • How to keep your head straight when you’re using these moves on four voices instead of two.
  • Traditional and untraditional ways to use them.
  • Using them to make cool musical things happen.
  • Using them to make cool social things happen.