What Does "a Cappella" Mean?

M.C. Huguelet

A cappella, sometimes also written as acappella, is an Italian musical term which means “in the style of the chapel,” and which describes songs sung without any instrumental accompaniment. The literal meaning of the term provides a good clue about the history of this type of music, as it was predominantly associated with worship in centuries past. During the 20th century, however, the style was appropriated by secular singing groups, and as of the early 21st century, it is commonly applied to many different genres of music.

No instruments accompany a singer performing a capella.
No instruments accompany a singer performing a capella.

On a basic level, the term a cappella refers to singing which is not accompanied by any instrumentation. In theory, this may include songs performed by a solo singer or by a number of singers, although many people associate this kind of music with a group of singers. Further, while technically the style can be monophonic, or made up of only a single tune, it is more often associated with a polyphonic sound comprising multiple melodies blended together.

A cappella is typically associated with multiple singers.
A cappella is typically associated with multiple singers.

Translating the term a cappella from Italian provides a clear hint about the style’s history. The term means “in the style of the chapel.” This is an accurate descriptor, as this style of music was traditionally associated with religious worship. Throughout history, a number of religions, such as Christianity and Judaism, have employed some form of a cappella music during services.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the a cappella style increasingly began to be appropriated by non-religious singing groups, particularly in the United States. Groups of students at a number of American universities formed non-instrumental singing groups, many of which adopted names that were irreverent or that punned on some aspect of musical terminology. Additionally, men formed small groups called barbershop quartets. Rather than being religious in nature, these groups were usually social, and as such, they tended to perform secular songs from the ragtime or jazz traditions.

While as of the early 21st century, some religious services continue to feature a cappella music, as a whole the style has progressed a significant distance from its historical roots. A cappella groups continue to thrive on college campuses and in high schools. Yet rather than performing spiritual or even traditional jazz selections, contemporary groups tend to favor various types of popular music, from rock and country to rhythm and blues and rap.

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