What is A Cappella? A Beginner’s Guide

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Because of movies like Pitch Perfect, the opening up of platforms for these types of artists, and the mainstreaming of groups such as Pentatonix, there has been a renewal of interest in a cappella music. So, what exactly does a cappella mean? 

A cappella is Italian for “in the manner of the chapel”. It’s performance of a polyphonic (multipart) music by unaccompanied voices. In modern terminology, whether secular music or sacred choral music, it’s a group or solo performance without instrumental accompaniment or a piece intended to be performed in this way. 

So, is it acapella or a cappella? In referring to singing unaccompanied by instruments, the traditional spelling is the Italian one, a cappella: two words, two Ps, two Ls. The Latin spelling 

a capella is learned, but in the realm of musical terminology, one usually sticks with Italian.

A cappella isn’t just a type of music, it’s become a full on genre and recognized art within the music industry. And it’s been taken out of the churches and barbershop quartets and has gone mainstream, with some a cappella artists able to help sell out full stadiums and wind up placing on the mainstream music charts and winning multiple awards, including Grammys. So what’s it all about? What’s the big deal? Let’s find out. 

A cappella music obviously (considering the name) had its beginnings in religion. Gregorian chant is an example of this type of music. It really took off during the Renaissance to become secular as well. In most religions, though, instruments were rarely used other than possibly stringed instruments of the period. Therefore, a cappella rose to prominence in Jewish, early Christian, and Islamic religious gatherings.

Because of a strict interpretation of Psalms 150, which states, “Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord”, The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches perform liturgies exclusively in a cappella style with no instruments.

Published in 2015 to YouTube – Let My Prayer Rise, a Russian Orthodox Chant

Following in this line of thinking, there are many present-day Christian sects that uphold such singing in their churches over the use of instruments. They point out the many times singing is encouraged in the Bible, especially the New Testament, over the playing of instruments. In Jewish Synagogues, instruments are not used, because of scriptural cantillation (chanting your prayers). Most of their religious services are handled with a cappella and instruments are actually forbidden during many of their celebrations and observances. And because of this, the composing of a cappella music has never gone out of style.

On the secular side of the coin, in the 1930s United States – Barber Shop Quartets were all the rage. Then, there was a burst of a cappella performers beginning in 1943 when the American Federation of Musicians boycotted U.S. recording studios. A cappella groups and Barber Shop Quartets began popping up here and there in place of the normal music. The Song Spinners had a best selling song in that time frame. Then came the introduction of jazz harmonies to a cappella arrangements in the 50s and 60s. 

Check out The Barbershop Harmony Society for some acts that are reminiscent of the old school Barber Shop Quartets. 

These kinds of acts remained, but did so in the background of the music industry, until the 80s. This timeframe saw a rebirth in the genre – though many of these bands were more into harmonizing and musical instruments did play a part in their overall success. Todd Rundgren, The Manhattan Transfer, Bobby McFerrin, All-4-One,   The Nylons actually opened the door for a cappella to hit the charts back in 1987 with a doo-wap of a song “Kiss Him Goodbye”. You might recognize it more like – “Na na na na, hey hey hey, Goodbye!” Bobby McFerrin had the first a cappella song ever to hold the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 – “Don’t Worry Be Happy”. It later won Grammys for “Song of the Year”, “Record of the Year” and “Best Male Pop Vocal Performance”.  

Bobby McFarrin – Don’t Worry Be Happy (Official Video)

Musical theatre off Broadway (theatres in New York City with 99 to 500 seats) began showing more and more a cappella performances, though there were only four commercial runs that were specifically in this style. Avenue X opened in 1994 and ran for 77 performances, DRAGAPELLA! Starring the Kinsey Sicks opened in 2001 at the legendary Studio 54. That production received a nomination for a Lucille Lortel Award. Perfect Harmony opened in 2010 and also ran in Massachusetts. This was a comedy that has similarities to the motion picture Pitch Perfect. In Transit premiered in 2010 and was set apart from the other by the use of beat-boxing and more contemporary arrangement. In Transit received four Lucille Lortel Award nominations as well as five Drama Desk nominations.

 A montage from the Broadway a cappella musical IN TRANSIT provided by BroadwayBox.com

The late 80s and 90s brought along a lot of originally a cappella groups – The Backstreet Boys, Boys II Men, Shai, and several more always had that edge of harmonizing over instruments. Inevitably, though, once in a studio, instruments were added. A cappella came full circle in 1994 with the release of “Chant” by Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo De Silos. This album became an international hit and made it to the #5 spot on the Billboard charts. Boys II Men are still touring where they can as of 2021! 

An a cappella performance of End of the Road by Boys II Men  

Sampling from Universal Music Group of the original a cappella edit of If I Ever Fall In Love by the group Shai

As the 90s became the 2000s, a cappella groups began to add vocal percussion or beat-boxing to their repertoire to create a pop/rock sound. Arrangements of popular music for small a cappella ensembles typically include one voice singing the lead melody, one singing a rhythmic bass line, and the remaining voices contributing chordal or polyphonic accompaniment. There were a cappella contests on television by 2010 and a group on The Sing Off wound up being asked to help with the arrangement of a song for the hit musical television series Glee. This churned out another #1 hit on the Billboard charts for an a cappella song entitled “Teenage Dream”. 

Teenage Dream as performed on the television series Glee 

Then, bring along Pitch Perfect two years later. Anna Kendrick wound up getting so much fan attention from the song “When I’m Gone” that she simply performed with a plastic cup as an audition in the movie, that she went into the studio and recorded the song with instruments and wound up selling to quadruple platinum. But the song brought the movie more attention and a cappella once again got to shine. 

The Riff-Off scene from the motion picture Pitch Perfect

The form of musical expression shined so much that it exploded onto the radio and all over the internet. The Grammy awards added it to one of their categories: Best Instrumental Arrangement became Best Arrangement Instrumental or A Cappella. By 2015 and 2016 the a cappella “band” Pentatonix had grown in fame. They won Grammys (among other awards) two years in a row! In contemporary music, groups such as Straight No Chaser, Pentatonix, The House Jacks, Rockapella, Mosaic, Home Free and M-pact have gained traction and even went mainstream.  There are also still groups born from Christian roots that remain focused on their religious music out there – Take 6, Glad and Acappella are examples. 

Pentatonix – Grammy winning a cappella from 2015 Daft Punk Medley

And as if Broadway had finally come around, in December 2016, In Transit became the first a cappella musical on Broadway.

As a cappella took off, more and more highschools and colleges began having a cappella groups and even competitions. This rebirth of the art has spread across the world. Although a cappella is technically defined as singing without instrumental accompaniment, some groups began to use their voices to emulate instruments, which opened the door to more success. Beatboxing is also something encouraged and allowed in most cases. In contemporary music, solitary artists are using looping machines and just multiple recordings of their own voice to create and be successful with a cappella. 

Peter Hollens is a perfect example of someone who has perfected a cappella to create a channel on YouTube that has been a great success. 

Tribute to Linkin Park and Chester Bennington by Peter Hollens 

Conclusion

As you can see, a cappella is a genre of music that is here to stay. If you are interested in trying a cappella for yourself, here are some suggestions for the try. 

Singing a cappella involves producing a song entirely using your voice as opposed to being accompanied by instruments. While it requires ordinary singing skills, such as maintaining pitch and harmonizing, it also takes a good ear to be able to separate the individual sounds in a song. 

It’s important that you’re able to hold the same pitch while you’re singing, as well as be able to match your pitch to different notes. To practice this, play different notes on a piano and match your voice to the note. Singing major scales also helps you with your pitch.

Don’t forget your basic singing techniques. Stand up straight, place your feet shoulder-width apart, and roll your shoulders back. Breathe deeply from your diaphragm, low in your chest. If you breathe from too high and compress your throat too much, it can affect your voice. Also, professional voice training can help you improve all of the skills needed to sing a cappella – if you can afford this.

A lot of a cappella arrangements require singers to perform extended ranges. As you sing through the vocal range you’re comfortable with, practice more difficult notes little by little, such as notes that are just above or below your normal range. Singing scales will help you achieve a fuller vocal range.

Since a cappella music is entirely made up of voices and no instruments, you’ll need to mimic the sound of the instruments with your voice. Each instrument sound requires a different method from your voice, but they can all be done with a bit of practice and research. Or, if you are part of a group, different singers can take on different instrumental sounds.

When you choose a song that you’d like to sing a cappella, you’ll need to listen to it thoroughly to truly understand everything that’s happening in it. Decide which parts of the song you’re going to cut and which you’re going to keep, making sure you string the sections together so that they flow smoothly. Get rid of overly long instrumental solos, after all, a cappella does not need this. 

Write out the lyrics and musical factors that make up the arrangement. If you’re able to read and write music well, write out the notes for the bass as well as any other instruments you’re hoping to include. Experiment with different versions of your arrangement until you find the one version you’re comfortable with. If you can’t write sheet music, there is computer software out there that can help. If you aren’t experienced with arranging music, look online for an a cappella arrangement for the song you want to sing. It’s probably out there. Or if you absolutely can’t find it already handled, there is such a thing as an a cappella arranger. An arranger reimagines an existing composition, adapting the instruments, voices, rhythms, and tempo to create a new sound for a piece of music. An a cappella arranger takes a song, breaks it apart into each and every portion, picking out the notes and keys that should be performed by the various instruments and vocals. Then they compose all pieces for vocal parts to be used in an a cappella production. 

If you can find a local group to get in touch with and become part of, that’s great! You can get feedback real time and can learn to harmonize with others. The internet makes this even easier, because you can join with folks long-distant and create and record all from your homes. 

Whether you’re like me and can’t sing a lick, but love the sounds and listen or you’re actually interested in getting something going, look back on this article and perhaps some of my other articles that showcase a cappella artists and enjoy! 

My favorite? There are so many! But I guess… if I had to choose? Here ya go… 

Bohemian Rhapsody by Pentatonix

Rachel Adams

I would have previously thought of myself as an audiophile. But by gaming and listening to my children and their friends, I've been introduced to an entire realm of artists that are not on the radio.