The phrase a cappella is among the most butchered and misunderstood musical terms. The predominant, and most "correct" spelling, is ...
Musicologists have fun debating the extent to which a cappella, "in the style of the chapel," can include instrumental accompaniment. Some argue that early sacred a cappella performances would sometimes include instruments that double a human voice part. So, the correct definition of a cappella should be something like "singing without independent instrumental accompaniment."
At Primarily A Cappella, we are trying to popularize this style of music, so we like to keep it simple.
Those of you who are serious singers may say, "my voice is my instrument!" True. But will the general public understand the meaning of "singing without other instruments?" Or the more cumbersome, "singing without non-vocal instruments?"
Some musical dictionaries indicate the Italian a cappella is preferred over the Latin a capella (one "p") yet both are technically correct. Why do those dictionaries muddy the waters with two spellings?
The phrase was first used in Italian Catholic churches, where Latin was the language for sacred text. Thus, the Latin spelling for 'in the style of the chapel' - a capella - has some historical basis. However, most other musical terms - forte, accelerando, and many others - are Italian in origin. Since the Italian spelling is more consistent with other musical terms, it has been used more frequently.
Given the difficulty of spelling our favorite style of music, we'd like to endorse the simplicity of a single spelling:
Joining the two Italian words together to make Acappella is a popular variation in the U.S. For many streetcorner singing fans, Acappella means unaccompanied singing of '50s (and early '60s) songs. There were a series of recordings released in the early 1960's of Mid-Atlantic unaccompanied doo-wop groups called "The Best of Acappella." The liner notes on the first LP noted that Acappella means "singing without music." In this matter we do tend towards being picky - instruments do not alone music make! A cappella (or Acappella) singers make music while they are ...
A more recent, second meaning of Acappella has emerged. The Contemporary Christian group Acappella is the first formed by prolific songwriter Keith Lancaster. In the early 1990's he added Acappella Vocal Band (now mostly known as AVB) and "Acappella: The Series" which uses studio singers (plus LOTS of electronic help) to perform songs around specific themes. All of these efforts are now combined in The Acappella Company. The good news is they have sold millions of recordings and have contributed greatly to the awareness of a cappella. The bad news is they have popularized a spelling variation, and through the heavy use of electronically manipulated voice (which can sound like any other synthesized instrument) have chipped away at the idea of ...
There's now a third meaning that has emerged on urban music singles - voices without instrument tracks. There are often remixes of the song labelled acappella (or some variation, rarely the traditional spelling). Even on largely rap songs, an acappella mix will stand on its own. It's not really singing, but it's acappella!
This spelling is totally wrong, and yet has been used by those who should know better. The most prominent occurrence is on the re-release of first album by the Singers Unlimited. Originally titled "Try to Remember," this very popular collection of vocal jazz arrangements by Gene Puerling has no doubt led some to misspell, or at least question the correct spelling of ...
The Manhattan Transfer sang a song with this title on their debut, eponymous album. Ironically, the whole song is accompanied, as are most of their songs by this group, so one can only guess at the intended meaning. The lyrics "Everything's gonna be mellow, Listen while we sing it occapella" precede a refrain of scat-like harmony (with the band receding into the background but still audible).
Also ironically, The Manhattan Transfer are often the group music lovers think of when they hear the phrase "a cappella." Many people associate "close harmony" with "a cappella," which certainly makes a great deal of sense. Popular 20th century a cappella is characterized by extensive use of close harmony - when voices separated by small intervals (seconds, thirds, fourths) sing the same rhythm and words. The Manhattan Transfer sing great close harmony, but most of it includes instrumental accompaniment. Only a handful of their dozens of songs are performed a cappella.
The Blenders open their second album "From the Mouth" with a schtick by this title. On this brief cut, the group is trying to discuss their new recording with an unenlightened agent, who keeps referring to the style of "Oxapello." Hopefully the next time you run into someone similarly confused, you'll remember to politely tell them:
On the Trenchcoats' second album, "Your Joy," one of the fun originals is "A Cappello Blues." The phrase is sung straight (that is, pronounced incorrectly) until the final chorus, when a hesitating voice-over says "uh, isn't it, a cappella, with an "a"?" By now, hopefully, you've got the correct spelling emblazed in your brain.
Singing without instruments comes in many shapes and sizes. One of the attractions for artists is the nearly unlimited pallet the voice provides. The same singer can sound sultry and sexy one minute, cold and machine-like the next, then change to a trumpet, and morph again to a soft harmonic background "ooooh."
In short, a cappella enables "out of the box" music - art that defies singular categorization.
It's not surprising, then, that the artists who create breathtaking, out of the box a cappella performances sometimes want to add instruments. The vocal pallet does have some limitations, after all. We endorse artistic creativity, and so we include recordings that include accompanied songs along with a cappella performances.
Another issue debated among purists is whether a cappella allows for percussion accompaniment. While we think the Nylons, Acappella and others should be allowed to describe themselves as "singing without instruments" without saying 'but with a drum track,' our 'primarily' moniker allows us to step aside and let customers decide.
Of course, it's not always the artists that choose to add instruments. Recording industry executives by and large don't appreciate the marketing potential of a cappella beyond the token ballad cover. So, many groups performing luscious close harmony capable of standing on its own are told by their record labels in no uncertain terms that the recordings will include instruments. Still, the music is appreciated by the same fans who love pure a cappella ... and those fans are our customers, so we want to alert you to great harmony wherever it's found!
Finally, some of the best close harmony in vocal jazz and doo-wop is found on 100% accompanied recordings. Many a cappella aficionados are also fans of the Hi-Lo's, The Four Freshmen and similar groups. We want to be your one-stop shop!
In most of our recording reviews, we mention how many of the songs are unaccompanied by instruments so that you won't be shocked.
So maybe that's a bit more than you wanted to know, but now you know how to spell "it" ... right?
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