Saturday, October 24, 2015

Raising a sixth, raising a stink

“...Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!” - James 3:5

On my blog I discuss music and singing, but mostly stay away from technical musical discussions. Not so today. A technical musical discussion raised in Sacred Harp circles is whether the sixth degree of the minor scale (FA) is a half step or a whole step from the fifth degree (LA).[1] If it is sung as a whole step it is considered a raised sixth, or by some a Dorian scale rather than a natural minor. Raising the subject of raising the sixth can raise a stink. The sixth member of the minor scale, the minor sixth is a little member – often not even used in minor Sacred Harp tunes – but it can kindle a great matter. The minor sixth is quite an eccentric character, getting a lot of press in relation to its actual use! David Wright wrote that, “The sixth, for all our talk about it, is used sparingly in minor key music, frequently as a passing tone or in an unaccented position.” Tom Malone says, “the raised sixth is one of the most unwelcome topics that can be brought up in polite [Sacred Harp] conversation.”[2]

At Issue
This was probably never much of a discussion point for singers until George Pullen Jackson raised the spectre of the raised sixth in his writings. Now it is not uncommon to hear or read that “traditional singers” sing all minor key songs with a raised sixth degree of the scale (in minor songs that have the sixth degree). For example, in The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music (p. 33), Buell Cobb asserts that Sacred Harp singers’ practice of raising the sixth “is followed wherever the sixth is encountered in a ‘minor’ song, not just in the melody line but in all harmonic parts, even in the songs purposely composed as minor.” In A Plea for Participation in the Sacred Harp Tradition, Ginnie Ely advises that we should “Sing only one minor scale (which contains the raised sixth).”  A Critique of a Popular Teaching Illustration, at the Pacific Northwest Sacred Harp Singers website, tells us that a minor scale that is the relative of the major scale is “wrong” and that teaching a half step between the fifth and sixth notes in the minor scale is “incorrect.”

Furthermore, though no Sacred Harp book had previously done so, The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition chose to include a recommendation in the “Rudiments” section in favor of consistent use of the raised sixth (pp. 18–19). The Sacred Harp, Revised Cooper Edition 2012 followed suit, adopting the raised minor sixth theory in its “Rudiments” (See pages xx, xxiv). At issue is the fact that the books and others teach that the minor key in Sacred Harp music always has a raised sixth degree.[3]

Some problems
A dogmatic “raised only” view rejects over 100 years of teaching tradition of The Sacred Harp. While it will be readily agreed that a raised minor sixth exists and has long (if not always) existed in the “singing” tradition of The Sacred Harp, the appeal that it ought to be taught and practiced consistently and universally is new-fangled – not according to the “old paths”.

  • B. F. White 1844: In the minor key, the semitones occur “between the second and third, and fifth and sixth sounds from the key.” (The Sacred Harp, 1860, p. 14)
  • W. M. Cooper’s diagram shows minor semitones between the second and third degrees and between the fifth and sixth degrees (The Sacred Harp, 1902 p. 22)
  • J. L. White’s diagram in his rudiments (p. 17) indicates he thought the seventh in the minor scale should be raised (and so denoted with an accidental), but he indicates a half step between the fifth and sixth degrees. (J. L. White editions of The Sacred Harp, 1909-1911)
  •  J. S. James’s discussion of the subject of the minor scale is a little confusing, but he clearly indicates a half-step between the fifth and sixth degrees of the scale. (Original Sacred Harp, 1911, p. 10)[4]
  • Paine Denson: In the minor scale, the semitones occur “between 2 and 3 and 5 and 6, both ascending and descending.” (Original Sacred Harp, Denson Edition, 1936, p. 16)
It is incredible to think that no editors of the Sacred Harp book from 1844 to 1936 knew what scale they were teaching. Not until 1991 did any Sacred Harp rudiments endorse the idea that the Sacred Harp minor scale only and always contains a raised sixth.  (See page 19 in the rudiments of The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition).

A dogmatic “raised only” view does not consider all possibilities. Early American songs can be found using an accidental on the sixth degree of the minor scale. This corresponds with the composers (and music editors) consideration that the sixth in the minor was not raised unless notated. This may also be seen in the work of certain composers and editors.  For example, Diana (from The Union Choral Harmony, 1836) uses an accidental to raise the sixth on all four instances when it is found in the tenor part. Jordan’s Shore, which had been removed from The Sacred Harp in 1870, was added back to the 1911 Original Sacred Harp. G. B. Daniell rearranged this tune and “corrected” the sixth by adding a sharp to it in the three places it was found in the tenor, making it clear that in his knowledge of the tradition the raised sixth was not part of the minor scale – and that singers were and/or should be singing a raised sixth on the song in those places. George Byron Daniell was a traditional singer and a founding member of the United Sacred Harp Musical Association.

A dogmatic “raised only” view creates a universal that does not exist. Many students of this music acknowledge that the practice is less than consistent. Raymond Hamrick contended that its actual practice depended on “where, when, what, and who.” Like Hamrick, the Shenandoah Harmony editors (p. vii) concluded that “This practice varies by region, singer, and specific musical instance.” It can vary by geography, family,[5] era,[6] and the particular songs being sung. In her book Traveling Home, Kiri Miller quotes one widely-travelled Northern singer saying that some Southern singers “would give me the hairy eyeball if I consistently sang raised sixths that could be played on a piano”[7] and that “traditional singers are reluctant to support the efforts of newer singers to codify the oral aspects of the tradition.”

A dogmatic “raised only” view advances one “traditional” practice above another “traditional” practice. That is, it gives preference to the traditional singers or traditional locations where the practice is followed, implying that traditional singers or traditional locations that do not follow the “raised sixth” preference lack that much being traditional.[8]

The compilers, editors and revisers of The Sacred Harp have traditionally recognized no distinctions between diatonic or pentatonic, full or gapped scales, and assigned all tunes to the major or minor mode. The instructional tradition of Sacred Harp has maintained that there are two scales – major and minor. The shape note system of music possesses a sublime simplicity. It is a simple mechanism to teach folks to sing competently without years of study. Our singing of the minor upper tetrachord is ambiguous.[9] There are three minor scales (and combinations thereof) that are common in music. The Sacred Harp/shape note/a cappella tradition minor scale has the capacity to represent ALL THREE. Among shape-note singers there has been a long-standing general aversion toward printed accidentals (as well as the extra syllables associated with them). This aversion meant accidentals were/are often not printed even when they are intended. Therefor "we" are using one scale (set of shapes) to account for three minor scales (natural, harmonic, melodic). The sharp (or lack thereof) is not printed and not called by any different syllable name. Sacred Harp singers, in fact, sing all three types of minor – natural, harmonic, melodic – using the same syllables and shape set (even when no accidentals are present for the harmonic and melodic).

The Solution
Let the singers sing it instead of letting the deciders decide it. What we do does not always match what we say (or sing). Leave alone the teaching tradition that has been the prevailing tradition from 1844 into the 20th century. Leave it alone in the rudiments, let the teachers (on either side) admit what they teach is their preferred practice, and let the singers figure the rest out themselves while singing. In many cases Sacred Harp singers substitute the sequence of dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth instead of what is written as two eighth notes. This is a common occurrence, yet we do not insist that two eighth notes in succession should consistently and universally be sung as a dotted eighth and a sixteenth – neither do we formulate any system to teach singers when to do so.

Dogmatic insistence that not always raising the sixth is wrong is not helpful, does not recognize the totality of our experience, and fails to give due deference to our teaching tradition (beginning with the rudiments in 1844). Tom Malone has described the Sacred Harp minor key as possessing an unstable upper tetrachord. In my opinion, this best captures the essence of what we do in actual singing, and leaves unnecessary settling what we always do! Warren Steel adds that “the notation is merely an imperfect rendering of how it goes.”[10]

A traditional way can be confused for The traditional way. One universal monolithic Sacred Harp tradition with no variations has never existed.[11] We have no universal common standard at which to appeal. In some of our church traditions the appeal is to the Bible as the final arbiter, and in some traditions the appeal is to what a church council or the church leader says. In Sacred Harp there is never a final appeal which settles the question. So let us sing.

Some links addressing the subject

[1] In (most) Western music a natural minor scale (sometimes called Aeolian) has the same notes as its relative major scale (the major scale having the same key signature), but starts from the sixth note of the relative major scale; the harmonic minor scale has the seventh note raised one semitone; and the melodic minor scales raise both the sixth and seventh notes one semitone when ascending (but the sixth and seventh notes are flattened when descending the scale, the same as descending the natural minor scale). The use of the raised sixth (only) in the minor scale produces a fourth variation of the minor scale, which some equate (whether rightly or wrongly) with the Dorian mode.
[2] Thomas B. Malone, The Rudiments as "Right Action": Pedagogy and Praxis in the Traditional Sacred Harp Singing School, D.M.A. dissertation, Boston University College of Fine Arts, 2009, p. 166
[3] Perhaps these discussions have not adequately considered the minor sixth varying in upward or downward motion.
[4] James’s chart in both the Union Harp (1909) and Sacred Harp (1911) show a raised seventh ascending the minor scale but a natural minor descending. Nevertheless he does not advocate a raised sixth either ascending or descending.  “The seventh tone is obtained by the use of a sharp.” (p. 21 Union Harp)
[5] That is, what traditional area the singers are from, or even the family.
[6] For example, the presence of strong teaching in favor of the raised sixth might make it more prevalent in modern times than previously. Unfortunately we are unable to know about the earliest Sacred Harp singers other than what they wrote. We have no audio examples of their singing.
[7] Matt Bell wrote that “Singers who insist on raising the sixth indiscriminately (whether consciously or not) may, in some cases, be inadvertently creating some really weird intervals…”
[8] A.M. Cagle wrote in a letter to Raymond Hamrick in 1967, “This is a thing the Sacred-Harpers know almost nothing about, and ‘care less’.” p. 175, The Rudiments as "Right Action": Pedagogy and Praxis in the Traditional Sacred Harp Singing School
[9] A scale of an octave is made up of two tetrachords – a system of four notes. The “upper tetrachord of the minor scale is La-Fa-Sol-La. In his dissertation (p. 175) Tom Malone concludes that “singers should be advised that the upper tetrachord of the minor scale is variable, and that Fa 6 can vary from song to song or from phrase to phrase within the same song.” (A tetrachord is a musical scale of four notes, the interval between the first and last being a perfect fourth – two whole steps and a half step (or, an interval the size of two and one-half steps). In the major scale the lower tetrachord is FA(w)SOL(w)LA(h)FA and the upper tetrachord is SOL(w)LA(w)MI(h)FA. In the relative minor scale the lower tetrachord is LA(w)MI(h)FA(w)SOL and the upper tetrachord is LA(h)FA(w)SOL(w)LA. In the adjusted minor scale the lower tetrachord is LA(w)MI(h)FA(w)SOL and the upper tetrachord is LA(w)FA(h)SOL(w)LA. This adjustment places the steps of both tetrachords in the same order and reflects how the scale is often perceived. The relative minor scale keeps the whole and half steps in the exact sequence as its relative major.)
[10] And I would add that even our teaching is an imperfect rendering of “how it goes”.
[11] Though something much closer to this existed when the Southern Musical Convention was the only Sacred Harp Convention.

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