A cappella (Italian for From the chapel/choir) music is vocal music or singing without instrumental accompaniment, or a piece intended to be performed in this way. A cappella was originally intended to differentiate between Renaissance polyphony and Baroque concertato style. In the 19th century a renewed interest in Renaissance polyphony coupled with an ignorance of the fact that vocal parts were often doubled by instrumentalists led to the term coming to mean unaccompanied vocal music. In modern usage, a cappella often refers to an all-vocal performance of any style, including barbershop, doo wop, and modern pop/rock. Today, a cappella also includes sample/loop "vocal only" productions by producers like Jimmy Spice Curry, Teddy Riley, Wyclef, and others.

Religious traditions

A cappella music originally was, and still often is, used in religious music, especially church music as well as anasheed and zemirot. Gregorian chant is an example of a cappella singing, as is the majority of sacred vocal music from the Renaissance. The madrigal, up until its development in the early Baroque into an instrumentally-accompanied form, is also usually in a cappella form. The original music in Judaism and then in early Christianity was a cappella and has continuously existed in both of these related religious communities as well as in Islam.

This section's factual accuracy is disputed. Please see the relevant discussion on the talk page. (June 2009)

The polyphony of Christian a cappella music began to develop in Europe around the late 1400s. The early a cappella polyphonies may have had an accompanying instrument, although this instrument would merely double the singers' parts and was not independent. By the 1500s, a cappella polyphony had further developed, but gradually, the cantata began to take a cappella's place. 16th century a cappella polyphony, nonetheless, continued to influence church composers throughout this period and to the present day. Such is seen in the life of Palestrina becoming a major influence on Bach, most notably in the aforementioned Mass in B Minor.

Opposition to instruments in worship

Present-day Christian religious bodies known for conducting their worship services without musical accompaniment include some Presbyterian churches devoted to the regulative principle of worship, Old Regular Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Plymouth Brethren, Churches of Christ, the Old German Baptist Brethren, the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church and the Amish and Mennonite. Certain high church masses and other musical events in liturgical churches (such as Roman Catholic and Lutheran) may be a cappella, a practice remaining from apostolic times. Many Mennonites also conduct some or all of their services without instruments. Sacred Harp, a type of religious folk music, is an a cappella style of religious singing, but is more often sung at singing conventions than at church services.

Opponents of musical instruments in the Christian worship believe that they are supported by the New Testament and Church history. The New Testament verses typically referenced are Mathew 26:30; Acts 16:25; Romans 15:9; 1 Corinthians 14:15; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; Hebrews 2:12, 13:15; James 5:13, which reveal a command for all Christians to sing. Further study reveals that in the New Testament, when God was worshiped in song, it was performed ???a cappella??? regardless of the day or setting. Paul singing praises to God in jail (Acts 16:25) and Christians singing when they are happy (James 5:13) are two examples. 1 Cor. 14:15, 26 discusses the worship service of Corinth and textually uses the words speak and sing in ways that cannot include instruments. There is no reference to instrumental music in the worship of the New Testament or the worship of the church for the first six centuries. That being said, the reason for such absence is highly debated, though several reasons have been put forth throughout church history. The absence of instrumental music in New Testament worship is significant given the abundance of Old Testament references and commands. After several hundred years of Tabernacle worship without instrumental music, King David introduced musical instruments into Temple worship based upon a commandment from God. God commanded who was to sing, who was to play, and what instruments were to be used, as seen in 2 Chronicles 29:25???29. Unlike the Israelite worship assembly, which was only able to look on during Temple worship as the Levitical Priest sang, played, and offered animal sacrifices, in the New Testament, all Christians are commanded to sing praises to God. This leaves those opposed to instrumental music in worship with the understanding that if God wanted instrumental music in New Testament worship, he would have commanded not just singing, but singing and playing like he did in the Old Testament. Though God commanded instruments to be used in Temple worship, and the daily life of Israel, the first recorded example of a musical instrument in Christian worship was an organ introduced by Pope Vitalian into a cathedral in Rome around 670. Thus, over time, the expression a cappella (Latin for "from/like the chapel") came to mean exclusively vocal music in contradistinction to the spreading use of the organ in cathedrals.

Unfortunately, instruments have divided Christendom since their introduction into worship. They were considered a Catholic innovation, not widely practiced until the 18th century, and were opposed vigorously in worship by the majority of Protestant Reformers, including Martin Luther (1483???1546), John Calvin (1509???1564), John Wesley (1703???1791), and Alexander Campbell (1788???1866). The fact that Christendom has periodically grafted instrumental music into the worship service probably obscures, for contemporary adherents, the long, general and conscientious teaching of a cappella. In Sir Walter Scott's Heart of Midlothian, for example, the heroine, Jeanie Deans, a Scottish Presbyterian, writes to her father about the church situation she has found in England (bold added):

The folk here are civil, and, like the barbarians unto the holy apostle, have shown me much kindness; and there are a sort of chosen people in the land, for they have some kirks without organs that are like ours, and are called meeting-houses, where the minister preaches without a gown.
Acceptance of instruments in worship

An alternate viewpoint is that the unaccompanied chant of the early church is not commanded in scripture, and that the church in any age has been free to offer its songs with or without musical instruments:

Historically, as Jesus??? ministry began, both the synagogue and non-religious Jewish settings already favored purely vocal music, not because of Old Testament commands, but due to extra-Biblical influences, including the writings of the popular Jewish philosopher Philo. (The synagogue itself is not mentioned in the Old Testament scriptures, so there is no direction given to the singing in it.) The early church also chanted (without instruments). The Christian Clement of Alexandria (200 A.D) practiced the unaccompanied chant, but when commenting on Colossians 3:16-17 in the New Testament, he noted that anyone who wished to "sing and play to the cithara and lyre" was free to do so, and would "imitate the just Hebrew king giving praise to God." Offering this defense was fitting because third century Christians were beginning to oppose instruments primarily in settings of immorality. Numerous fifth century Christians believed that God opposed instruments even in worship: Theodoret and others from the School of Antioch condemned instruments even in the hands of King David. These authors alleged that God had only allowed instruments in the Old Covenant as a way to wean worshippers away from idolatry, as the lesser of two evils.

In the New Testament, the word Paul uses for Christian singing (ado) in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 always refers to accompanied praise in John???s Revelation (5:8-9; 14:3-4; and 15:2-3); hence the word itself did not imply ???a cappella only.??? Similarly, Paul???s word for ???make music??? (psallo, in Eph 5:19) refers to instruments when used by first-century Jews (e.g. the historian Josephus, others) writing to Gentiles in common (called ???Koine???) Greek, (though Ferguson believes the word had no instrumetal implications in the New Testament). Burgess polled Bible translators to find that that they intended to include instruments when translating psallo in Eph 5:19. Burgess has also observed that some lexicons of first century, New Testament Greek say that psallo meant to play or to sing with accompaniment, while other lexicons say it meant to sing with or without accompaniment, but that no lexicon says that it meant to sing only without instruments.


While services in the Temple in Jerusalem included musical instruments (2 Chronicles 29:25-27), traditional Jewish religious services in the Synagogue, both before and after the destruction of the Temple, did not include musical instruments. The use of musical instruments is traditionally forbidden on the Sabbath out of concern that players would be tempted to repair their instruments, which is forbidden on those days. (This prohibition has been relaxed in many Reform and some Conservative congregations.) Similarly, when Jewish families and larger groups sing traditional Sabbath songs known as zemerot outside the context of formal religious services, they usually do so a cappella, and Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations on the Sabbath sometimes feature entertainment by a cappella ensembles. During the Three Weeks use of musical instruments is traditionally prohibited. Many Jews consider a portion of the 49-day period of the counting of the omer between Passover and Shavuot to be a time of semi-mourning and instrumental music is not allowed during that time. This has led to a tradition of a cappella singing sometimes known as sefirah music.

The popularization of the Jewish chant may be found in the writings of the Jewish philosopher Philo, born 20 BCE. Weaving together Jewish and Greek thought, Philo promoted praise without instruments, and taught that "silent singing" (without even vocal chords) was better still. So strong was his influence that the Jewish sect of the Pharisees even came to oppose the temple instruments. This view parted with the Jewish scriptures, where Israel offered praise with instruments by God's own command (e.g.: 2 Chronicles 29:25). The shofar or keren (horn) is the only temple instrument still being used today in the synagogue, and it is only used from Rosh Chodesh Elul through the end of Yom Kippur. The shofar is used by itself, without any vocal accompaniment, and is limited to a very strictly defined set of sounds and specific places in the synagogue service.


Many Muslim musicians also perform a form of a cappella music called nasheed.

A cappella in the United States

Peter Christian Lutkin, Dean of the Northwestern University School of Music, helped popularize a cappella music in the United States by founding the Northwestern A Cappella Choir in 1906. The A Cappella Choir was "the first permanent organization of its kind in America."

A strong and prominent a cappella tradition was begun in the midwest part of the United States in 1911 by F. Melius Christiansen, a music faculty member at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. The St. Olaf College Choir was established as an outgrowth of the local St. John's Lutheran Church, where Christiansen was organist and the choir was composed at least partially of students from the nearby St. Olaf campus. The success of the ensemble was emulated by other regional conductors, and a rich tradition of a cappella choral music was born in the region at colleges like Concordia College (Moorhead, Minnesota), Augustana College (Rock Island, Illinois), Wartburg College (Waverly, Iowa), Luther College (Decorah, Iowa), Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, Minnesota), Augustana College (Sioux Falls, South Dakota), and Augsburg College (Minneapolis, Minnesota). The choirs typically range from 40 to 80 singers and are recognized for their efforts to perfect blend, intonation, phrasing and pitch in a large choral setting.

Major movements in modern a cappella over the past century include Barbershop and doo wop. The Barbershop Harmony Society, Sweet Adelines International, and Harmony Inc. host educational events including Harmony University, Directors University, and the International Educational Symposium, and international contests and conventions, recognizing international champion choruses and quartets.

In the 1950s several recording groups, notably The Hi-Los and the Four Freshmen, introduced complex jazz harmonies to a cappella performances.

The King's Singers are credited with promoting interest in small-group a cappella performances in the 1960s. In 1983 an a cappella group known as The Flying Pickets had a Christmas 'number one' in the UK with a cover of Yazoo's (known in the US as Yaz) Only You. A cappella music attained renewed prominence from the late 1980s onward, spurred by the success of Top 40 recordings by artists such as The Manhattan Transfer, but it was The Persuasions who saved the dying art and opened the door for such artists as Bobby McFerrin, Huey Lewis and the News, All 4 One, The Nylons and Boyz II Men.

In 2005, Bo Bice performed an a cappella version of "In A Dream" by Badlands when he was one of three contestants remaining on season 4 of American Idol. The show's producers warned him that it was a risky move, but his performance got great reviews from the judges and Bice advanced to the finals.

Recording artists

One of the 1950s R&B groups were the Nutmegs, who were also known as the "Rajahs of a cappella". They were the first of these groups to proudly showcase an a cappella format which became their trademark. Later, many other groups recorded at least one a cappella song. The Classics, singers of "Till then", scored a very popular a cappella hit, "I Apologize". Janis Joplin recorded the a cappella song "Mercedes Benz" in October 1970, just three days before she died. Later in the 1970s, The Belmonts released a seminal a cappella album entitled Cigars, Acappella, Candy, which is representative of the genre. In the 1980s the UK a cappella group The Flying Pickets had a number 1 hit.

Contemporary a cappella includes many vocal bands who add vocal percussion or beatboxing to create a pop/rock sound, in some cases very similar to bands with instruments. One such group is Rockapella. There also remains a strong a cappella presence within Christian music, as some denominations purposefully do not use instruments during worship. Examples of such groups are Take 6 and Acappella.

Arrangements of popular music for small a cappella ensembles typically include one voice singing the lead melody, one singing a rhythmic bass line, and the remaining voices contributing chordal or polyphonic accompaniment.

A cappella can also describe the practice of using just the vocal track(s) from a multitrack, instrumental recording to be remixed or put onto vinyl records for DJs. Artists sometimes release the vocal tracks of their popular songs so that fans can remix them. One such example is the a cappella release of Jay-Z's Black Album, which Danger Mouse mixed with the Beatles' White Album to create The Grey Album.

A cappella's growth is not limited to live performance, with hundreds of recorded a cappella albums produced over the past decade. As of December 2006, the Recorded A Cappella Review Board (RARB) had reviewed over 660 a cappella albums since 1994, and its popular discussion forum had over 900 users and 19,000 articles. The first a cappella song ever to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 was Bobby McFerrin's Don't Worry, Be Happy.

Barbershop style
Main article: Barbershop music

Barbershop music is one of the few uniquely American art forms. The earliest reports of this style of a cappella music involved African Americans. The earliest documented quartets all began in barbershops. In 1938, the first formal organization was formed, known as the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America (S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A), and in 2004 rebranded itself and officially changed its public name to the Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS). Today the BHS has over 30,000 members in 800 chapters across the United States, and the barbershop style has spread around the world with organizations in many other countries. The Barbershop Harmony Society provides a highly organized competition structure for a cappella quartets and choruses singing in the barbershop style.

Collegiate a cappella

Main article: Collegiate a cappella
See also: List of collegiate a cappella groups

It is not clear exactly where collegiate a cappella began. The Rensselyrics of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (formerly known as the RPI Glee Club), established in 1873 is perhaps the oldest known collegiate a cappella group. However the longest continuously-singing group is probably The Whiffenpoofs of Yale University, which was formed in 1909 and once included Cole Porter as a member. Collegiate a cappella groups grew throughout the twentieth century. Some renowned, notable historical groups formed along the way include Cornell University's Cayuga's Waiters (1949), the Columbia Kingsmen (1949) and the University of Rochester YellowJackets (1956). Women's a cappella groups followed shortly, frequently as a parody of the men's groups: the Smiffenpoofs of Smith College (1936),The Shwiffs of Connecticut College (The She-Whiffenpoofs, 1944), and The Chattertocks of Brown University (1951). The numbers of these groups exploded beginning in the 1990s, fueled in part by a change in style popularized by the Beelzebubs of Tufts University. The new style used voices to emulate modern rock instruments, including vocal percussion/"beatboxing." Some larger universities now have a dozen groups or more and the total number of college groups grew from 250 circa 1990 to over 1,000 now. The groups often join one another in on-campus concerts, such as the Georgetown Chimes' Cherry Tree Massacre, a 3-weekend a cappella festival held each February since 1975, where over a hundred collegiate groups have appeared, as well as International Quartet Champions The Boston Common and the contemporary commercial a cappella group Rockapella. Co-ed groups have produced many up-and-coming artists including solo musician John Legend, an alumnus of the Counterparts at the University of Pennsylvania, and Siddhartha Khosla, lead singer of the band Goldspot, an alumnus of both Off the Beat and Penn Masala at the University of Pennsylvania

A cappella is gaining popularity among South Asian youth with the emergence of primarily Hindi-English College groups. Examples of prominent groups include Penn Masala in the University of Pennsylvania, Chai-Town from the University of Illinois, Dil Se from UC Berkeley, Swaram from Texas A&M University, and Raagapella in Stanford. All-female groups are less common, but still exist. Examples of all-female groups are Illini Chandani, from the University of Illinois, Awaaz, from Wellesley College and Kal Ki Awaaz from UC Berkeley. Ektaal, founded in 1999 within the University of Virginia, recently went co-ed in 2006, but prior to that, was an all-female group. While up and coming all-male groups are becoming a rarity among Desi a cappella groups, Carnegie Mellon University's Deewane (started in 2007) is hoping to reverse that trend. Co-ed South Asian a cappella groups are also gaining popularity like Northwestern University's Brown Sugar, Case Western's Dhamakapella, Johns Hopkins Kranti, University of Maryland Anokha, Drexel Shor, UCSD Sur Taal, GWU Geet, UCLA Naya Zamaana, Michigan's Maize Mirchi and Rutgers R.A.A.G. These groups have attained significant critical acclaim with their distinct style of mixing songs and applying a cappella to styles of different cultures. Penn Masala has songs in Hindi, Arabic, English, Punjabi and Gujarati, with lyrics from different languages in the same song. Currently the only South Asian a cappella competition takes place annually at the University of California, Berkeley, known as "Anahat." In 2009, Johns Hopkins Kranti plans to break tradition and host a Hindi A Cappella Charity Showcase with the Association for India's Development on the East Coast for all Hindi A Cappella groups on the other side of the country.

Increased interest in modern a cappella (particularly collegiate a cappella) can be seen in the growth of awards such as the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards (overseen by the Contemporary A Cappella Society) and competitions such as the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella for college groups and the Harmony Sweepstakes for all groups.

Emulating instruments

In addition to singing words, some a cappella singers also emulate instrumentation by reproducing the melody with their vocal cords. One of the first 20th century practitioners of this method was The Mills Brothers whose early recordings of the 1930s clearly stated on the label that all instrumentation was done vocally. More recently, "Twilight Zone" by 2 Unlimited was sung a cappella to the instrumentation on the comedy television series Tompkins Square. Another famous example of emulating instrumentation instead of singing the words is the theme song for The New Addams Family series on Fox Family Channel (now ABC Family). Groups such as Vocal Sampling and (Undivided) emulate Latin rhythms a cappella. In the 1960s, the Swingle Singers used their voices to emulate musical instruments to Baroque and Classical music. Vocal artist Bobby McFerrin is famous for his instrumental emulation, and Deke Sharon has taught seminars on how to sing a variety of instrumental sounds.

The Swingle Singers used nonsense words to sound like instruments, but have been known to produce non-verbal versions of musical instruments. Like the other groups, examples of their music can be found on YouTube. Beatboxing is a form of a cappella music popular in the hip-hop community, where rap is often performed a cappella also.

Christian rock group Relient K recorded the song "Plead the Fifth" a cappella on their album Five Score and Seven Years Ago. The group recorded lead singer Matt Thiessen making drum noises and played them with electronic drums to make the song. Even synthesizer sounds can be expressed a cappella, which is demonstrated by the Swedish vocal ensemble Visa R?¶ster and their computer music, hymns and jazz.

See also

Collegiate a cappella
List of collegiate a cappella groups
List of professional a cappella groups
Barbershop music - 4-part a cappella close harmony


^ The absence of instrumental music is rooted in various hermeneutic principles restricting the appropriateness of worship. Such views are the regulative principle of worship, Sola scriptura, the history of hymn in Christianity. The Hebrew writer spent a great deal of time contrasting Old Testament and New Testament worship, which brings forth a theological understanding. In short, all of the Old Testament and its practices have been replaced by New Testament and teachings of Jesus.
^ McKinnon maintained that the organ was the first instrument to be introduced into worship service and the next was the trumpet. He noted accounts of an organ being sent from Byzantium to Pippin in 757, and another to Charlemagne in 812. See McKinnon (1965), The Church Fathers and Musical Instruments (Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University) p265
^ This is true even if the instruments in John???s Revelation were symbolic, as some who oppose instruments suggest as possible.

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