One of the strangest aspects of the Sacred Harp singing tradition is the arm-waving. Most people who encounter this music for the first time are perplexed by all the rather cult-like gesticulation, and some are probably deterred by it. Admittedly, it looks pretty strange to the uninitiated. Choirs generally don’t do that, so what’s the point?

Well, it should be obvious that polyphonic (“multi-voiced”) harmony singing sounds better when the singers are synchronized, rhythmically attuned to each other. A choir achieves this by practicing a song several times, supported by a choir leader who typically appears quite dictatorial. The choir “conductator” works on a piece, smoothing out the bumps, polishing each dynamic detail, going over that bit in the alto part just one more time, until finally none of the singers can bear to hear the song any more.

A Sacred Harp group is not a choir, has no conductor and does not rehearse. They sing songs for the joy of singing – they don’t beat them to death in order to present them to an audience. Sacred Harp is pretty much the opposite of a dictatorship; it’s democratic almost to the point of confusion. So as not to slip into an ever-threatening chaos, and yet not to pay the price of a “totalitarian regime”, some clever people have devised some equally clever tools. “Singing the notes” (the shapes) is one thing, the arm-waving is another; it helps to keep the singers in time.

“Oh, OK”, you might think, “so you just wave your arm to the rhythm.” Well, hmm, almost – but not quite. Crash course in one paragraph:

Each song is divided into measures (UK: bars), shown by vertical bars (UK: barlines). Each measure usually contains several notes (sometimes just one or none, the latter being a rest). Each note denotes a pitch to be sung. Notes sung one after another form a melody; notes sung simultaneously (by different people) form a harmony. Harmony sounds good when the singers first of all get the right notes and secondly if they start and stop singing at the same time. The shapes help with the former, the measures help with the latter – and the measures also help with beating time.

What does this mean? Let’s look at a simple example, a song in 2/2 time (“two halves”).

It has 19 measures, separated by bars (or barlines – highlighted in red). “2/2” means that each measure is as long as two half notes. Most measures in “Cobb” contain two half notes, except the blue ones, which contain whole notes, and the green ones, where the alto and tenor parts have a half note rest followed by a half note. But don’t go looking for blue and green measures in the book now…

Beating time goes like this:

At the beginning of each measure the hand is at the top, in the middle of the bar at the bottom and at the end again at the top, ready to “enter” into the next bar.

The hand jumps over the bar line.

This can be a helpful way to imagine following the staff lines as though walking alongside a fence. Your hand glides along the fence and has to jump over the regularly protruding fence posts. The bar lines are the fence posts.

This rule that the hand jumps over the bar line always applies, regardless of the time signature. Let’s take a look at a few more:

“Windham” is written in 4/4 time (“four quarters”); each measure is as long as four quarter notes. But hang on, that’s the same length as 2/2… yes, only here the quarter notes actually shape the rhythmic character of the song. And the same applies again; at the beginning of the measure the hand is up, in the middle, down, at the beginning of the next, up.

Another example in 4/4:

What’s different here? Well, the song begins with a rest. This means that on the first sung note the hand is not up (moving down) but down (moving up). You still beat time the same way, starting with the hand up, and moving down, only the singing begins after you have started beating, rather than at the same time. This “beating the rest” can be quite handy to indicate your chosen tempo to the singers before they start singing. Everything else is the same as before.

The reason the “beating curve” here looks so strangely distorted is due to the fact that the long-lasting notes take up the same horizontal space (in the typeface) as the rhythmically shorter notes. Let’s take a look at the first two measures:

On the eighth note (the “ye”) the hand is roughly at the bottom.

You all right? Good, good, good. Time for a little confusion.

The curve looks as if the draughtsman has had too much coffee. But here’s the explanation.

“Idumea” is in 3/2 time, each measure is as long as three half notes. So far we have been cutting the measures in half while “waving”; in the middle of the measure the hand was down. Now we have to divide the measure into three parts. We could draw a triangle in the air, but in the square the singers sit around the leader, and such a triangle wouldn’t be seen equally well by everyone.

So we keep beating up and down. Again the hand is up at the beginning of the first “full” measure (marked green here). In the first third of the measure it sinks half way down, about to the horizontal position. In the second third it goes all the way down, and in the third third all the way up again. We count “one, two, three” and beat “half, half, whole” (down, down, up).

Note: Whenever there is a 3 at the top of the time signature, the song is beat in this “down, down, up” method. In all other cases, whether there is a 2, 4, or 6 in the time signature, we beat evenly “down, up” as described above.

Ah yes, “Idumea”, like “Pilgrim”, begins with an upbeat (“anacrusis”); so we start by beating for the whole note rest (one whole = two halves, down-down), and start singing the very first note with the hand down (and on its way up).