A Cappella Music

The Definition, History, and Evolution of A Cappella Music

Vocalists Kevin Olusola, Mitch Grassi, Scott Hoying, Kirstie Maldonado, and Avi Kaplan of the a cappella group Pentatonix perform in concert as part of the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo at the AT&T Center on February 15, 2015 in San Antonio, Texas.
Vocalists Kevin Olusola, Mitch Grassi, Scott Hoying, Kirstie Maldonado, and Avi Kaplan of the a cappella group Pentatonix perform in concert as part of the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo at the AT&T Center on February 15, 2015 in San Antonio, Texas. Photo by Rick Kern/WireImage

The Meaning of “A Cappella”

 “Cappella” literally means “chapel” in Italian. When the term was first coined, a cappella was a phrase that instructed performers to sing “in the manner of the chapel.” In modern sheet music, it simply means to sing without accompaniment.  

Alternate Spellings: acappella
Common Misspellings: a capella, acapella

Examples of A Capella Singing

Classical Music

  • Samuel Barber’s Angus Dei (Watch on YouTube)
  • Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque (Watch on YouTube)
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams Kyrie from the G minor Mass (Watch on YouTube)
  • Michael Praetorius’ Es ist ein Rose Entsprungen (Watch on YouTube)
  • Maurice Duruflé’s Ubi Caritas (Watch on YouTube)

Popular Music

  • Marvin Gaye’s I Heard it Through the Grapevine (Watch on YouTube)
  • Ariana Grande’s The Way (Watch on YouTube)
  • Pentatonic’s Evolution of Music (Watch on YouTube)
  • Glee’s Darren Criss covers Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream (Watch on YouTube)
  • The Cast of Glee covers Whitney Houston’s How Will I Know (Watch on YouTube)

The History of A Cappella Music

The origin and creation of a cappella music is impossible to pin down. After all, cavemen humming to themselves were singing a cappella. What matters most, like languages, is when the music was written on paper (or stone). One of the earliest examples of sheet music was discovered on a cuneiform tablet dating back to 2000 B.C. From what scholars can tell, it describes a piece of music written in a diatonic scale. Just recently, one of the earliest known scores for polyphonic music (music written with more than one vocal or instrumental part), written around the year 900 A.D., was discovered and performed at St John’s College, University of Cambridge. (Read more about this discovery on the UK’s Daily Mail.)

The use of a cappella music gained popularity, especially in western music, largely in part to religious institutions. Christian churches predominantly performed gregorian chant throughout the medieval period and well into the renaissance period. Composers like Josquin des Prez (1450-1521) and Orlando di Lasso (1530-1594) expanded beyond chant and composed polyphonic a cappella music. (Listen to di Lasso’s “Lauda anima mea Dominum” on YouTube.) As more composers and artists flocked to Rome (a capital of cultural enlightenment), secular music called madrigals appeared. Madrigals, the equivalent of today’s pop music, were unaccompanied songs sung by two to eight singers. One of the most prolific and perfecters of the madrigal was composer Claudio Monteverdi, one of my top 8 renaissance composers. His madrigals show an evolving compositional style - a bridge connecting the renaissance period to the baroque period. (Listen to Monteverdi’s madrigal, Zefiro torna on YouTube.) The madrigals composed later in his career became “concerted,” meaning he wrote them with instrumental accompaniments.

As time progressed, more and more composers followed suit, and a cappella’s popularity diminished.

A Cappella Music and Barbershop Music

Barbershop music is a form of a cappella music that began in the 1930s.  It is typically performed by a quartet of men with the following voice types: tenor, tenor, baritone, and bass. Women are also capable of singing barbershop music (women’s barbershop quartets are referred to as “Sweet Adelines” quartets). The music barbershop quartets perform is highly stylized - it is predominantly homophonic, meaning that the vocal parts move together in harmony, creating new chords in the process. The lyrics are easily understandable, the melodies are singable, and the harmonic structure is crystal clear. Both Barbershop and Sweet Adelines quartets have established membership and preservation societies (Barbershop Harmony Society and Sweet Adelines International) to promote and preserve the musical style, and each year both present contests to find the best quartet.  Listen to the winners of the 2014 competitions:

  • 2014 Barbershop Harmony Society International Championship Quartet
    Musical Island Boys
    “Now is the Hour” (Watch on YouTube)
  • 2014 Sweet Adelines International Champion Quartet
    Finals Package (Watch on YouTube)

A Cappella Music on Radio, TV, and Film

Thanks to the hugely successful television show, Glee, with a series run from 2009 to 2015, interest in a cappella music increased.  A cappella singing wasn’t bound to hymnals and classical pieces anymore. Musical a cappella groups gained an incredible amount of popularity. Pentatonix, a group of five singers who formed in 2011, won the third season of NBC’s singing competition, The Sing-Off, and have now sold over 8 million albums. Their music is entirely a cappella and incorporates vocal percussion within their original songs, covers, and medleys. The popularity of a cappella music is further seen in the 2012 movie Pitch Perfect, which follows a college female a cappella group competing to win a national championship. In 2013, Jimmy Fallon, Miley Cyrus, and The Roots performed an a cappella version of Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” and released it on YouTube. As of June 2015, the video has over 30 million views.

  • Glee’s Darren Criss covers Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream (Watch on YouTube)
  • Pentatonix sings “I Need Your Love” at the 2013 Sing-Off Finale (Watch on YouTube)
  • “The Riff” - Clip from the movie, Pitch Perfect (Watch on YouTube)
  • Miley Cyrus, Jimmy Fallon, and the Roots sing “We Can’t Stop” (Watch on YouTube)

Learn to Sing A Cappella

Learning to sing a cappella is as simple as taking voice lessons. To find voice teachers in your area, I recommend first checking with the voice department of your local college, university, or music conservatory. If they are unable to help you or do not offer lessons to anyone not enrolled there, you can check online with the National Association of Teachers of Singing’s “Find-A-Teacher Directory.” You can also join church choirs or musical groups within your town, many of which only require a basic knowledge of music and notation.