Here on this blog, we’ve introduced and highlighted a variety of instruments, from the mainstream to the obscure – but what about that most important instrument of all, the one we were all born with?
While we love beautifully crafted instrumental pieces, it’s hard to deny the incredible affect the human voice has on music. In fact, it’s so powerful that the voice has the ability to mimic other popular instruments – and great music can be created by voices alone.
The term a cappella comes from an Italian phrase meaning “in the manner of the church” or “in the manner of the chapel”, referring to the type of music a church choir sings without instrumental assistance. But while it may have originated in religious customs, a cappella has grown and morphed over the years – and recently, modern media (think Pitch Perfect and Glee) has secured it a place in popular culture.
How did a cappella make such a transitional journey, moving from hymns sung in churches to the lively renditions of pop songs heard today? Well, early progression can largely be contributed to the barbershop quartets of the early twentieth century; the melodic four-part harmonies and matching outfits proved to be as entertaining for onlookers as they were fun for the performers. And while the dawn of radio threatened to put an end to the pastime, the 1930s saw a barbershop revival and the birth of The Barbershop Harmony Society – who, to this day, keeps the love of these early a cappella groups alive.
Today, a very different picture might surface when we think of a cappella – one involving teams of students competing against one another, in the way of a sporting event or dance-off. And it’s true that high school and college campuses across the United States have become important hubs of the instrument-less art. Joining an a cappella group is a respectable extracurricular activity, whether the student plans to pursue a career in music or not. And as modern music continues to evolve and diversify, so do the different types of a cappella. (Have you ever considered that beatboxing is a form of a cappella? It is.)
If you’re a fan of a cappella and want to find more of it, look for singles by 1980s artists like The Manhattan Transfer, Bobby McFerrin, Huey Lewis and the News, All-4-One, Backstreet Boys and The Nylons. That time was a great one for a cappella – but the genre can be found in many different places, from musical theatre to the group of kids freestyle rapping on their front porch down the street.
For more fun facts and updates from the world of American music, keep checking back with us at HillTop Records.