What is A Cappella Music?

Instructor: Sharon Rhinesmith
A cappella music refers to vocal music, either solo or choral, that is sung without music behind it. In this lesson you will learn about the history of this style of singing and what kind of vocal music is sung a cappella today.


A cappella is an Italian phrase which means 'in the style of the chapel.' It was originally used to refer to music that was sung in a chapel or small worship space without accompanying instruments, as opposed to a large church where vocal music was usually accompanied by an organ. The term has since come to mean any music sung without accompaniment, whether sacred (religious) or secular (non-religious). A cappella music can be performed by a large choir, a small group, or as a solo.

History of A Cappella Music

We know the ancient Greeks used instruments when making music. Instrumental music up to the Renaissance was mostly associated with dancing and merry-making. As one could not have too much fun in places of worship, this kind of mirthful music was not popular with religious leaders. In the early church, instrumental music was associated with the sinful outside world and considered a bad influence. Starting with the Hebrews, the tradition of using music without accompaniment began after the fall of the second temple in 70 A.D., at which point instruments were not allowed during a period of mourning after the fall.

In orthodox and conservative Jewish congregations, the tradition of singing mostly a cappella still exists. In these synagogues, it is customary for a cantor to chant or sing a scriptural text which the congregation responds to in kind. The only instruments used might be a pitch pipe to give everyone a starting note or a ram's horn on a special occasion or holiday.

The early church developed the tradition of a cappella singing from the Hebrews, chanting psalms or other scriptures and using a cantor as a leader. Gregorian chant, the liturgical chant of the Roman Catholic Church named after Pope Gregory, was the prevailing form of church music starting around 590 A.D. It is a single, simple, melodic line half-spoken, half-sung in a free rhythmic style. More than 3,000 of these recorded chants have been preserved and they comprise one of the best examples of a cappella church music.

Example of Gregorian chant
Gregorian chant notation

The tradition of unaccompanied sacred vocal music continued during the Renaissance. Although instruments sometimes doubled or substituted for a vocal line, vocal music largely stood on its own. The sound of a choir of voices in a chapel with excellent acoustics had a particularly ethereal effect.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was one of the most significant composers of the Renaissance in Italy, writing hundreds of masses and motets for the church. 'The Palestrina style,' as it was called, was a sophisticated a cappella form using many voices singing different music and text coming in at different times, or polyphonic, as opposed to one melodic line sung together or in the same rhythm, or homophonic.

Outside of the church, Italian and English madrigals were common. These were pieces for a small ensemble of usually four or five voices and, contrary to what was sung in church, they were often about everyday pleasures: love, drinking, and having a good time.

A Cappella Music Today

Although very different from madrigal music, the idea of a small secular group of mostly male voices singing in close harmony unaccompanied, or with the accompaniment very much in the background, became quite popular in the 1950s and 60s . Some examples of these groups include The Marcels, The Drifters, and The Harptones. Some famous songs include 'Blue Moon' and 'I Only Have Eyes for You.' One reason a cappella singing was so popular was that it was cheaper because the groups did not have to hire a band.

The Marcels
The Marcels

A cappella singing is also popular among college choral groups, barbershop quartets, and contemporary Christian groups.

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