I love acapella music. Like, not just in the normal “Oh, I really liked Pitch Perfect” kind of way (although, I can’t even count the number of times I have seen the first one – I also know almost every harmony to every song from that movie and can quote the entire script almost verbatim, but that is beside the point). I have MULTIPLE Spotify and Apple Music playlists for acapella artists, ranging from the traditional stuff like Celtic Thunder and all the way to some weird, experimental stuff that you wouldn’t even necessarily recognize at first as music.
So, just for the sake of posterity: What is acapella?
Acapella music is a song or composition that can be sung either solo or in a group, without using any accessory musical instruments. Or in other words, as eloquently stated by Chloe Beale in Pitch Perfect, “We do it without any instruments. It’s all from our mouths!” Now, this second definition is actually a bit restrictive. While a vast majority of acapella music is produced using only vocal sounds (such as beatboxing, mimicking guitar sounds, and the ever popular “ooooh”s and “aaaah”s), that is not all that can be used. Some musicians choose to use their bodies in other ways to make sound (I’m talking about clapping and snapping and stuff, y’all, get your minds out of the gutter). So saying that acapella is just made with vocalizations is not as comprehensive as it could be. Therefore, for the sake of this article, I will be using the first definition I laid out.
Having said this, a few of my absolute favorite “acapella” songs actually utilize some synthesizers and the occasional instrument, but the vast majority of the sound being produced is vocalized harmony and other self-generated sounds, so we will just let those few slide because I really want to share them with you. At this point, I would also like to point out that acapella music has been used all throughout history. You’ve got the madrigal stuff that I will be talking about later in the post, but acapella music is also very, very integral to a great many resistance movements and has quite a lot of social baggage to go along with it. For example, while slavery as we think of it was going on, groups of slaves in the field would bond together and sing spiritual songs and working songs and all sorts of stuff. This is an area of convergence between music and history that I find utterly fascinating. And while I would LOVE to research into it and talk about that, as it stands now, I simply do not have enough information and time to do justice to that topic. BUT, I would really like to in the future, so be on the lookout for a post about that.
One things that many singers are familiar with is the panic-inducing question that is asked of us as soon as we reveal that we do, in fact sing: “Oh, my god, will you sing something for me?!”. This is always a difficult situation to navigate for several reasons. 1) Singing is a very personal thing, so being asked on the spot to whip something out is just kind of invasive. 2) I am a little baby who gets nervous and embarrassed and insecure, especially in front of strangers or people I am not familiar with. 3) A lot of times, people will press and try to get you to sing even if you have said that you don’t want to, and coming up with other excuses for why you can’t is difficult because, unlike with pianists or guitarists, singers always have their instruments on them and can’t say “Oh, I left it at home, sorry”.
However, that last issue is one of the things that I enjoy most about singing. Unless I am sick, I can sing any time, anywhere.
And I always have. As some of you may know, in high school, I was a member of an acapella madrigal group that used to get all dressed up in ridiculous clothes and prance around the Texas Renaissance Festival. This was my first up-close-and-personal experience with acapella music and I fell hard for it. We sang a whole bunch of medieval and renaissance-style music that involved lots of canonical singing and big open harmonies, lots of layering, etc. A lot of the music we sang was rather fast paced, which the audience always really enjoyed, but my personal favorites were always the really slow and soft ones. There was something magical about hearing all of these different voices coming together the way it did. There was something pure about it, and atmospheric, that you simply just don’t get from singing while accompanied.
Here is one of the sets that the Triple Trio sang: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhIvAemQNTA&list=PL0rtm-i_CdHBewEvk7rrTJeJY94dZ3dBq (this video is from after my time, so just because I love y’all and want you to be able to make fun of you, here is a video of me and the group singing a slightly different style of song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSsTuB02KZA)
Every instrument, including the human voice, has a very different sound quality and tone to it. Trumpets have that really bright, brassy tone. Flutes have a nice light, airy tone. Cellos are dark and rich. The human voice, to me is very warm and smooth, very full tone that blends together in this amazing way, producing this very visceral and atmospheric sound quality that I really just don’t think you can hear anywhere else.
Okay, so I talked about my nerd stuff. Onto more serious matters: high school choir. My senior year of high school, I went to All State Choir and we sang this acapella piece by Eric Whitacre called Water Night (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pg0tuah-VA). Our conductor had us get into a circle in mixed formation (altos can’t stand next to other altos, basses can’t stand next to other basses, and so on), close our eyes, sway with the beat, and sing for memory all that we had learned earlier that day. And I know it sounds kind of stupid, but I swear, that was a transcendent moment for me. That was the first time that I had ever connected to music in that way before. It was like the whole world dropped out and it was just me and this huge wall of sound that just permeated everything. Singing together in large group like that is form of solidarity that is unmatched by almost anything else.
I kept up with the whole acapella thing in college for a little while, joining a group on campus called Pitching and Screaming. This was a super great experience with me because, not only did I get to hang out with a bunch of really cool talented people, but we got to sing pop songs! We did a really cool cover of Toxic by Britney Spears; we did I Want It That Way by NSYNC or The Backstreet Boys (don’t lie to me and tell me that you know the difference); a version of Under the Sea from The Little Mermaid; and Falling Slowly from Once. Being in this group really helped me appreciate all of the hard work that goes into acapella. Unlike the acapella music that I had sung in choir, which gave each part a continuous line to sing (even if we weren’t singing melody, we were singing a harmony of some sort that made sense with the shape of the song), the parts that each of us were given didn’t really have much of a shape. In a lot of pop covers of songs, instead of doing straight harmony along with the melody, vocalizations are used to keep time; so, while that meant that a lot of our parts were really repetitive, it also made it really easy to lose count of where we were and made it SUPER HARD to try and get back in after we had messed up. This group really helped with my musicality, as far as counting and rhythm went. Before, I had just relied on my fellow section-members to help guide me, but in this style of music, I was singing my very own part and having to actually count. Plus, let’s be real, singing pop songs is just really fun. It was during this time that I got really into the college a capella scene and found all sorts of really cool versions of pop songs. Here are a few of my favorites!
The Sound of Silence by The Harmonics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TuF-54c6jQ (So this version doesn’t have the synth, I don’t believe, but the BOCA recording on iTunes does. AMAZING!!!!)
In the Air Tonight from American Psycho (musical): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IZj8MH3SrVI (This one does use synth, but it is very cool)
Danny Boy by Celtic Thunder: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aes9TO0YNSQ (So this isn’t pop or college acapella, but this is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard in my life)
I Write Sins Not Tragedies by The Midnight Ramblers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKJM9qYpM6o
After a History of Jazz class one day a few semesters ago, the professor came up to me, knowing that I had been a member of an acapella group the year before, and told me to take a look into this experimental acapella group called Roomful of Teeth that he had heard on NPR (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iKuFujJq6zU) because he thought I would like them. Now, I will give you a warning because I was kind of taken aback when I first heard the recording: this is…some weird shit. However, if you can look past the initial shock and actually give these songs a good listen, I think you might really enjoy them. This group really experiments with the human voice in ways that I hadn’t really thought of using it before. They not only use yodeling (which, if you’ve read my post about the history of yodeling, you will know that I am a huge fan of), but they also use what I can only think to describe as guttural grunts, moans, and…Kermit the frog voices (I am certain that there is a musical term for this, but I don’t know it). Furthermore, they use extremely tight and often very dissonant harmonies to produce a very disjointed and, for lack of a better word, inhuman sound that just sounds like RAW EMOTION. It’s honestly really impressive. Also, the amount of musicality that this group has is staggering. They never miss a beat, even when they are singing in completely different meters and they just do a great job with dynamics and everything.
So, basically, the point of this whole post is that acapella is a super diverse and really, really cool musical style and that everyone should love like I do.
Also, if you ever want some acapella recommendations, I got you.