A Brief History of A Cappella

a cappella groups
Over the past few years, a cappella has become a popular genre and trend. But what exactly is it? The term a cappella is an Italian term that means “in the manner of the church” or “in the manner of the chapel,” referring to the type of music that is sung without the use of musical instruments. History tells us that a cappella music got its beginning in a religious setting, but the genre continues to grow and change as shows like Glee and movies like Pitch Perfect move the style into popular culture.

Progression of A Cappella Groups
In the early years of the twentieth century, a cappella earned its popularity with barbershop quartets.  These groups would sing beautiful four-part harmonies and usually dress in matching suits for their performances.  Even though the dawn of radio threatened to put barbershop quartets to rest, the barbershop revival in the 1930s kept the phenomenon growing, and today The Barbershop Harmony Society keeps the love of these popular a cappella groups alive.

In the 1960s and 70s, groups like The Persuasions and The Manhattan Transfer started performing a cappella music, which introduced pop music to this ancient style of singing.  Many well-known artists have since done a cappella songs, which keeps the love of this style alive.  One of the most popular pop a cappella songs is “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Nylons.  Even though this song was released in 1981, it continues to be a favorite.

Many other a cappella songs have turned into huge hits. Billy Joel’s “For The Longest Time” and Paul Simon’s “Graceland” are two great examples of this.

A Cappella Variations
While artists and a cappella groups continue to perform their music without instruments, many of them through the years have begun creating instrument sounds with their voices to complement the words.  An excellent example of this style is the “beatbox,” which is very popular in rap and in hip hop, where many of the songs are performed without use of musical instruments.

A Cappella Lives On
In 2009, NBC aired the popular show The Sing-Off, which featured several different a cappella groups who competed for a cash prize and a recording contract.  The show returned for additional seasons because of its popularity.

The hit television series Glee is a good example of yet another television show that supports the performance of a cappella music.  Many of the songs that have been performed on the show, by the New Directions or one of their rival singing groups, are done a cappella or with a cappella elements to them.

It will be interesting to see how this incredible genre of music continues to evolve and transform the music world.  It’s a beautiful form of musical expression that deserves to be celebrated and recognized as it has been for many years!


Photo by indoloony


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