A Capella Music: Definition & Songs

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

A cappella music has again become popular in American culture, but how much do you really know about it? In this lesson, we'll look at the definition and history of a cappella music and see what this style is really all about.

A Cappella

Imagine that you are in a musical group, when suddenly the director instructs you to start performing in chapel style. What would you do? Before you start posing like a Gothic tower or pulling out monks' robes, it might help to know that most people don't call it chapel style these days. Instead, we often ask that music be performed a capella, using the Italian phrase for chapel style. So, what exactly does this mean? Simply- put down the instruments. A capella music is that music featuring human voices, unaccompanied by any other musical instruments. This may include a solo singer or a choir of voices, but the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms are all carried vocally. That's how you perform in the style of the chapel.

No instruments needed

Origins of A Cappella

To really understand why we do this, let's take a quiz tour through the history of music. Since a cappella music is simply that performed with only voices, we can assume that the first musical traditions of the world were all a cappella. However, the introduction of instruments did not necessarily diminish the appeal of this performance style. Around the world, folk songs are very often sung a cappella since instruments were not always historically available. In Polynesia, a cappella songs were used as paddling songs and to help memorize maps of the seas. In Africa, these songs retold folk tales. Amongst Amerindian communities, a cappella songs carried spiritual power allowing people to interact with their cosmology.

In Western music, our modern ideas of a cappella music can largely be traced back to early Christianity. In 70 CE, Romans destroyed the Hebrew temple in Jerusalem and the rabbis banned the use of instruments as a sign of mourning. The early Christians incorporated this practice into their own music, maintaining it as a symbol of purity in faith and to distance themselves from the pagan-based popular music of Greece and Rome. The taste for unaccompanied vocals was carried into Islamic traditions as well. Early Christian a cappella music makes up some of the oldest sheet music that has survived into the archeological record and is very often a cappella. The remnants of these songs can be heard in traditional chants echoed by Gregorian choirs to this day.

A Cappella in the Renaissance

A cappella music is popular the world over, but where it first started really appearing as a defined musical genre was in the Renaissance of the 14th-16th centuries. A renewed interest in the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as an emphasis on arts, education, and the humanities, led to a renewed focus on composition. A major figure in this was Josquin Desprez, a 15th- century Franco-Flemish composer. Josquin was one of the first masters of polyphony, or the use of overlapping melodies to create texture, which became a staple of a cappella choral music.

Josquin Desprez

Over the next centuries, composers devoted more attention to this style of composition, and it became a defined musical form. It was generally composed as religious music, sung where? In chapels! It is from this that the name derives. The 16th-century Italian composer, Giovanni Pierliugi da Palestrina, and 17th-century Italian priest, Claudio Monteverdi, are notable masters of this style. However, there was one major distinction in Renaissance a cappella music: it often included instruments. Since these instruments carried the exact same melodies as the vocalists, however, they still fit the definition of a cappella at that time.

Modern A Cappella

Modern a cappella music began to appear later, in the late 19th century. There are two origins we can look at. First is a renewed interest in the Italian Renaissance, which reintroduced people to Italian a cappella. Since Renaissance musicians did not write for specific instruments, it gave the impression that no instruments were used, and thus modern conceptions of a cappella became focused solely on vocalists.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account