A cappella

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Musical genres, styles, eras and events

A cappella music is vocal music or singing without instrumental accompaniment, or a piece intended to be performed in this way. A cappella is Italian for "in the style of the chapel", and was originally intended to differentiate between Renaissance polyphony and Baroque concertato style. In the 19th century a renewed interest in Renaissance polyphony coupled with an ignorance of the fact that vocal parts were often doubled by instrumentalists led to the term coming to mean unaccompanied vocal music.

Religious traditions

A cappella music originally was, and still often is, used in church music. Gregorian chant is an example of a cappella singing, as is the majority of sacred vocal music from the Renaissance. The Madrigal, up until its development in the early Baroque into an instrumentally-accompanied form, is also usually an a cappella form.


Present-day Christian religious bodies known for conducting their worship services without musical accompaniment include the Amish, Old Regular Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Plymouth Brethren, most congregations among the churches of Christ, the Old German Baptist Brethren, some Presbyterian churches devoted to the regulative principle of worship, and the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church. Many Mennonites also conduct some or all of their services without instruments. Sacred Harp, a type of religious "folk" music, is an a cappella style of religious singing, but is more often sung at singing conventions than at church services.

Christian a cappella polyphony began to be developed in Europe around the late 1400s; early works are often identified with Josquin des Prez. The early a cappellas seem to have had an accompanying instrument, although this instrument doubled the singers and were not independent. By the 1500s, a cappella polyphony had been fully developed; Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina's works are considered excellent examples. After Palestrina, the cantata began to take the a cappella's place.


Traditional Jewish religious services do not include musical instruments. The use of instruments is traditionally forbidden on the Sabbath out of concern that players would be tempted to repair their instruments, which is forbidden on those days. (This prohibition has been relaxed in many Reform and some Conservative congregations.) Similarly, when Jewish families and larger groups sing traditional Sabbath songs known as zemirot outside the context of formal religious services, they usually do so a cappella, and Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations on the Sabbath sometimes feature entertainment by a cappella ensembles. Moreover, many Jews consider the 49-day period of the counting of the omer between Passover and Shavuot to be a time of semi-mourning when instrumental music is not allowed. This has led to a tradition of a cappella singing sometimes known as sefirah music.


Some Muslims have also adopted the idiom of a cappella music since traditional Islam prohibits the use of instruments except for some basic percussion. Muslim a cappella songs are called anasheed.

Contemporary a cappella

In the modern parlance, the term applies to vocal performers who refrain from performing with any instrumental accompaniment, though some emulate the sonority of instruments with their voices, microphones, and signal processing effects.

A strong and prominent a cappella tradition was begun in the Midwest of the United States in 1911 by F. Melius Christiansen, a music faculty member at St. Olaf college in Northfield, Minnesota. The St. Olaf College Choir was established as an outgrowth of the local St. John's Lutheran Church, where Christiansen was organist and the choir was comprised at least partially of students from the nearby St. Olaf campus. The success of the ensemble was emulated by other regional conductors, and a rich tradition of a cappella choral music was born in the region at colleges like Concordia College (Moorhead, MN), Luther College (Decorah, IA), Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN), Augustana College (Sioux Falls, South Dakota), and Augsburg College (Minneapolis, MN). The choirs typically range from 40 singers to 80 and are recognized for their efforts to perfect blend, intonation, phrasing, and pitch in a large choral setting.

The King's Singers are credited with promoting interest in small-group a cappella performance in the 1960s. In 1983 an a Cappella group known as The Flying Pickets had a Christmas number 1 in the UK with a cover of Yazoo's (known in the US as Yaz) Only You. A cappella music attained renewed prominence from the late 1980s onward, spurred by the success of Top 40 recordings by artists such as The Manhattan Transfer, Bobby McFerrin, Huey Lewis and the News, All 4 One, The Nylons and Boyz II Men.

This prominence, as well as a change in the style (voices used as modern rock instruments, including vocal percussion/" beatboxing") helped fuel an explosion in collegiate a cappella—some larger universities now have a dozen groups or more, and the total number of college groups grew from 250 circa 1990 to over 1,000 now. The oldest collegiate a cappella group is The Whiffenpoofs of Yale University, formed in 1909, whose members have included Cole Porter, Nicolas Rojas and relatives of George Bush. Other noted collegiate a cappella groups include Tufts University Beelzebubs, Smith College Smiffenpoofs, the Harvard Din & Tonics, Redhot and Blue of Yale University, University of California at Berkeley's Men's Octet, Straight No Chaser of Indiana University, Off the Beat of University of Pennsylvania, and The Other Guys from University of Illinois.

Major movements in modern a cappella over the past century include Barbershop and doo wop. Contemporary a cappella includes many vocal bands who add vocal percussion or beatboxing to create a pop/rock sound, in some cases very similar to bands with instruments. One such group is Rockapella, a preeminent example of contemporary A Cappella. There also remains a strong a cappella presence within Christian music, as some denominations do not allow instruments to be used during services.

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.

A cappella can also describe the practice of using just the vocal track(s) from a multitrack, instrumental recording to be remixed or put onto vinyl records for DJs. Artists sometimes release the vocal tracks of their popular songs so that fans can remix them. One such example is the a cappella release of Jay-Z's Black Album, which Danger Mouse mixed with the Beatles' White Album to create The Grey Album.

Increased interest in modern a cappella (particularly collegiate a cappella) can be seen in the growth of awards such as the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards (overseen by the Contemporary A Cappella Society) and competitions such as the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella for college groups and the Harmony Sweepstakes for all groups.

A Cappella's growth is not limited to live performance, with hundreds of recorded a cappella albums produced over the past decade. As of December 2006, the Recorded A Cappella Review Board (RARB) had reviewed over 660 a cappella albums since 1994, and its popular discussion forum had over 900 users and 19,000 articles.

A cappella is gaining popularity among South Asian youth with the emergence of primarily Hindi-English College groups. Examples of all-male groups include Penn Masala in the University of Pennsylvania and Raagapella in Stanford. The first all-female group is New York Masti, most of whose members have been from New York University. Several similar groups exist in other colleges. These groups have attained significant critical acclaim with their distinct style of mixing songs and applying a cappella to styles of different cultures. Penn Masala has songs in Hindi, Arabic, English, Punjabi and Gujarati, with lyrics from different languages in the same song.

Emulating instruments

People do not just always sing the words when singing a cappella; some also emulate instrumentation by reproducing the melody with their vocal chords. For instance, " Twilight Zone" by 2 Unlimited was sung a cappella to the instrumentation on the comedy television series Tompkins Square. Another famous example of emulating instrumentation instead of singing the words is the theme song for The New Addams Family series on Fox Family Channel (now ABC Family). Groups such as Vocal Sampling and Undivided emulate Latin rhythms a cappella. Vocal artist Bobby McFerrin is famous for his instrumental emulation, and Deke Sharon has taught seminars on how to sing a variety of instrumental sounds.

Beatboxing is a form of a cappella music popular in the hip-hop community, where rap is often performed a cappella also.

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