What Does A Capella Mean? Traditional and Modern Voice Music Explained

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Trio Lescano in 1938

The Italian group Trio Lescano in 1938, singing a capella. Image by sconosciuto.

The term a capella has a long history of definitions, including the one from 1847 which states that it means, “in the manner of the chapel.”

Musicians over the centuries have used this word to mean something very distinct and sometimes quite different.

What Does A Capella Mean?

In spite of popular perception, could a capella really be defined as “something’s missing?” Well, not really. It might take a big stretch of the imagination to that, since mancante di qualcosa is the correction translation for “something’s missing.”

Capella actually translates as “chapel.” A capella translates as “at chapel.” So what does this mean in relationship to music?

Basically, a capella means unaccompanied music, usually vocal music without accompaniment (without other instruments providing the background, the harmony).

A capella in the Renaissance was purely vocal music, which Joseph Machlis describes in his Enjoyment of Music as being “marked by smoothly gliding melodies conceived entirely in relation to the voice.”

The melodies being sung would wander, he said, “from vocal line to vocal line within the texture, the voices imitating one another so that the same theme or motive was heard now in the soprano or alto, now in the tenor or bass.”

The result of a capella music is a compelling fabric of sound, both subtle and complex in its varied effects.

A Capella Music in Culture and Life

The purity of sound emanating from human voices without instrumental accompaniment has attracted not only fervent religious groups, but secular groups as well. And, the popularity of a capella music continues to grow. The fad has even hit the reality show circuit.

NBC’s reality show, The Sing-Off, is a singing competition which features a capella groups. Cari Nierenberg of NBC News describes it as “vocal gymnastics.” She continues, “it’s incredible to hear how full a sound the singers can produce with just their pure voices and no musical accompaniment.”

There are today choral groups that only sing a capella. Just about every large community in North America has an a capella choir. 

Television shows like Glee help the growing surge of a capella groups, particularly in the public school system.

Sometimes the a capella choir is all male (as in this case) or all female, and there may be two or more voices singing the same voice, such as two tenors and two basses, as in this case. Image by Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.

Sometimes the a capella choir is all male (as in this case) or all female, and there may be two or more voices singing the same voice, such as two tenors and two basses, as in this case. Image by Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.

What Does A Capella Sheet Music Look Like?

A capella sheet music basically looks like choir music without accompaniment. The score would be written for solo (one voice) or multiple voices, perhaps even SATB (soprano-alto-tenor-bass), the four main voices of a choir (although there are other voices that cross-over these voices or reach beyond the normal scope of these voices).

Soprano is the highest voice in the choir, like the violin in an orchestra; alto is the second highest voice, like the viola in the orchestra; tenor is the third highest voice and usually the highest male voice, like the cello in an orchestra (Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) is perhaps one of the best known tenors); and finally, the bass which is the lowest voice in the choir, like the double bass in an orchestra.

The composer writes the four voices on the musical score with soprano on the top line, followed by the alto, then tenor and then bass. Usually on the left side, at the beginning of the musical score, the voice identifies each line: S for soprano; A for alto; T for tenor; and B for bass.

Unaccompanied Vocal Music

A capella, unaccompanied vocal music, once attached exclusively to religious music, inspires new interest in the modern music scene. Musical groups of all ages and ethnic backgrounds realize the complex and compelling potential of a capella music. A capella, at the chapel, is reaching a wider range of audiences than just those found in a church.

© Copyright 2014 Emily-Jane Hills Orford, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Arts

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