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
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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
Josquin

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.

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