A cappella is unique in music because it doesn’t use any instruments; it relies entirely on the human voice. Every sound, from background chords usually played on a guitar or piano to percussion sounds, like that of a drum, must be created using nothing more than the mouth and vocal cords.
What Is A Cappella?
The term “a cappella” actually comes from Italian, meaning “of the chapel,” or the type of music audiences might hear in a church. This makes sense because, before the 1600s, church music was typically performed unaccompanied, with voices only.
What Do You Need to Sing A Cappella?
Technically, you don’t need anything more than your voice: One person singing alone can be enough for an a cappella performance. However, it’s much easier to render a song well with a group of at least three or four people, preferably more.
No chord can be formed without a foundation, so any a cappella group needs at least one person who can sing fairly low. A male bass is the simplest solution, but a female voice that’s low enough to reach the tenor range also works. Often, this voice will provide the low, rhythmic pulse of the song, much like a bass guitar in a band.
Alto and Soprano Singers
Sopranos, the highest voices, typically carry the melody of a song. Altos harmonize with the melody to make it more interesting, and in an a cappella group, they also help to fill in the background of the song, the parts that might have been played by guitars or a piano.
Vocal percussion isn’t strictly necessary in an a cappella group, but it can help a song to sound more like one with instrumentation, playing the part that a drum kit normally would. A group usually only needs one or two people with this skill.
Listen First, Then Sing
One of the most important skills of an a cappella singer is the ability to sing well and in tune, but just as important is having a good ear. Creating a cappella arrangements typically takes listening to a song repeatedly and picking out the different parts within them, then experimenting to develop a vocal role that mimics each component.
The ability to harmonize is key: Often, fleshing out an arrangement is as simple as adding harmonies below the melody to fill out the chord, which requires an ear for which notes are missing.
Listening is also an essential skill after the arrangement has been created: Record the group, then listen to the recording carefully to pick out spots that don’t quite sound right or where the sound seems a bit empty. Keep practicing and adjusting until the song sounds right.
- How to Be an A Cappella Genius: This article from the Contemporary A Cappella Society covers the basics of how to get started in a cappella music.
- Melody Harmonization: Learn about how to harmonize with a melody using some basic music theory.
- Rockapella: “Say You Won’t Let Go”: One of the best ways to get started with a cappella arrangements is to listen to other a cappella groups at (home) and try to re-create how they’ve done a song. Here, Rockapella, one of the most well-known a cappella groups, sings James Arthur’s pop hit.
- Pentatonix: “Attention”: Modern a cappella music often draws from pop music for its material, such as in this interpretation by Pentatonix.
- Straight No Chaser Celebrates Decade of Harmonies, Hard Work: Singing a cappella as a hobby can sometimes turn into something much bigger, as was the case with Straight No Chaser, which started as a college group before leading a resurgence of a cappella music in popular culture.
- Sweet Honey in the Rock: This is one of the oldest female a cappella groups in the country.
- Ten Songs Done Better A Cappella: Listen to the interpretations on this page for inspiration, or draw from their arrangements for your group.
- Three Steps to Begin Vocal Harmonizing: Find some tips for harmonizing with a sung melody on this page.
- How to Harmonize by Ear: Learning to harmonize can take work, but the first step is listening to others do it. Then, try making your own parts to go along with simple, familiar melodies.
- The Whiffenpoofs: Many people first discover a cappella in college, with just about every campus having at least one a cappella group. The oldest of these is the Whiffenpoofs, who have been harmonizing at Yale for more than a century.
- The Smiffenpoofs: Named in honor of the Yale group, this is the nation’s oldest female a cappella group, based at Smith College.
- Powerful Voices: The World of Collegiate A Cappella: Here, the author of a book on collegiate a cappella discusses the past and present of these groups on campus.
- Top Colleges for Intercollegiate A Cappella: The world of collegiate a cappella even has an annual competition to see which group is the best. This page lists some of the schools that host top contenders.
- Competitive A Cappella: Learn about the tournaments for a cappella groups at the high school or college levels as well as one option that’s open to people of all ages.
- The Roots of Barbershop Harmony: When people think of a cappella, some immediately think of barbershop quartets. This article examines the early history of barbershop music and its roots in African-American culture.
- Barbershop 101: Sweet Adelines International looks at the basics of how to sing in a barbershop group.
- Origins of Barbershop: The musical genre of barbershop has its roots in the South in the 1870s.
- Learn How to Beatbox: Vocal percussion is a unique talent, and this role adds dimension in a cappella groups.
- Vocal Percussion for Women: Just because men have deeper voices doesn’t mean that women can’t be good at vocal percussion.
- The Rise of A Cappella: This article examines how a cappella has gone from primarily an on-campus activity to something that’s well-received on TV, in movies and concert halls.
Creating the Perfect Studio
There are several ways to record your a cappella single or album. You might want to go to a recording studio where engineers and technicians can help your group perfect your sound. If you can’t make it to a studio, some studios can come to you. Companies that offer mobile recording services can either bring a quiet space to you or help you soundproof your home temporarily while you record.
If you’re dedicated to the art of a cappella and in it for the long haul, consider creating your own at-home studio. Check out the cost to soundproof a room to see if professional-quality noise protection is in your budget.
If so, you can find the perfect soundproofing service near you to create a space free from the noise of garbage trucks and neighborhood dogs.
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