What Is the Definition of A Cappella?

By Kent Ninomiya

  • Overview

    "A cappella" is defined as a style of music composed only of voices producing sounds. The phrase is Latin and means "in the chapel." There are no musical instruments in "a cappella" music, although voices are often used to mimic the sounds of musical instruments. The style of music originated in churches and has since spread to other genres.
  • Identification

    The term "a cappella" is pronounced "ah kaw-pel-la." It is often mispronounced and misspelled. It is erroneously written as "a capella" or "a cappela." The 2 words are also erroneously combined into the single word "acappella" or "occapella." None of these spellings are proper Latin. A cappella music is also incorrectly identified at times. Some people call any multi-part vocal harmony a cappella, even if there are musical instruments backing up the voices. Even a drum beat disqualifies a song from being a cappella.
  • Origins

    A cappella music started in the churches of many organized Western religions. Ancient religious ceremonies of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths utilize a cappella music. Holy men were the first performers of a cappella music. Gregorian chanting may be the most recognized a capella music today. It became popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the release of the album "Chant" by the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos.


  • Styles

    There are many different styles of a cappella music. It can be produced by a single voice or several voices singing in harmony. A cappella music is performed by church choirs, barbershop quartets, doo wop groups and some contemporary musicians. A cappella music is not about the particular genre of songs being sung. Instead it refers to the use of voices to produce the music without the accompaniment of musical instruments.
  • Artists

    There have been several popular musicians who have had success marketing a cappella music. Bobby McFerrin's 1988 a cappella song, "Don't Worry, Be Happy" reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Musicians like The Manhattan Transfer, Boyz II Men and Huey Lewis and the News have also produced popular a cappella songs. In 2002, singer Christina Aguilera had a hit with her song "Beautiful." She sang it both a cappella and accompanied by instruments.
  • College A Capella

    A cappella singing has long been prominent on American college campuses. Collegiate a cappella evolved from barbershop quartets in the early 20th century, to doo wop in the 1950s and 1960s, to beat box and rap in the late 20th century. There are now hundreds of a cappella groups on college campuses across the country. A cappella festivals like the Georgetown Chimes' Cherry Tree Massacre in Washington D.C. are held every year.
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