Singing Together In Harmony

A n y o n e who opens our service books might come to the conclusion that, in addition to singing without instrumental accompaniment, we sing “in unison.” There is only one line of music in our printed chant, and we certainly don’t sing (as congregations) much composed choral music as Episcopalians or Lutherans do. The truth is far more interesting and carries a theological meaning as well.

Because of the way our bodies are made, men and women can very seldom sing on exactly the same pitches. Instead, they usually sing notes that “sound the same,” each in his or her own vocal range. The distance between these notes that sound the same to our ears is called an “octave.” Other musical notes can be added that have the quality of “sounding good together” and to sing in this way is called “singing in harmony.”

One way to sing in harmony is to have a trained composer write out all the notes for each vocal part in advance. Of
course, this requires that the singers be able to read musical notation. But in many cultures, peoples have come up with their own ways to harmonize “by ear,” sometimes remembering a harmony line they have heard in the past and sometimes making up a new one on the spur of the moment. This is called “folk harmony.”

For centuries, our people have sung these improvised harmonies in church; the Orthodox musicologist Ivan Gardner
traveled throughout Eastern Europe in the 1930s and left us descriptions of how this was done. Some members of
the congregation sang the melody (the music in our church books) with the cantor. Others sang a musical line moving in parallel to the melody, while basses picked out the roots of the chords by ear and tenors sang a higher “holding note.” (This is what tenor means.)

If this sounds familiar, it is because much folk singing and even some popular music is performed in this way; it is also the way we have sung in church and in some places continue to do so. One way to revitalize our church singing — to sing “as the angels, with one voice” with everyone contributing an important part — is to foster and encourage this sort of singing. To this end, the Metropolitan Cantor Institute is collecting and organizing material on how chant and hymns have been harmonized in our parishes in the past so that we can teach these skills in parishes that want to restore harmony to our singing. Please contact me (see below) if you are interested in helping with this project.

And if you are fortunate enough to attend a church where men and women, young and old, lift their voices in harmony in praise of God and the saints, be sure to listen and take in what has been over the centuries an enduring part of our communal worship. Each of us brings something to our worship; let us do everything we can to make the total into a song of ever greater beauty before God.