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A Capella Singing

Updated on June 18, 2014

History of Acapella

A capella is singing without musical instruments. The phrase means in Italian "In The Style of the Chapel". It obvious is the oldest method of singing. Songs of praise or sacred music are in many religious traditions, Gregorian chants, Byzantine Chants and hymns to name a few. Songs were used for work like sea shanties, field hollers and the like. We sing lullabies to babies, we sing in the shower ( great echo), we sing while we work, children sing when they play. We sing at happy events and sad ones also.

Street Corner Harmony

They used to sing to us

Watching the television program sing- off reminded me back to the days of my youth in the 60's when many of the guys would be (as the song says) "looking for an echo. The best places to harmonize with good acoustics would be school stairwells, bathrooms (public and private), hallways, subways anywhere that would make the sound better. Of course there would be the group by the street light at night singing, huddled in a doorway or on the playground. Sometimes they would be shooed away by supers or police. Other times people would gather around to listen. Even at parties the guys would huddle together and "harmonize". Each one had their part to sing be it tenor, bass or baritone. The term is an old one. Years ago the term "curbside harmony " or "streetlight harmony" was used for barbershop style singers also.

When you walked down the street and pass by groups of young men, they could be on the stoop or under the street light. And if you were a young lady you might hear a song just for you. Sometimes catcalls but sometimes a song.

Acapella On Television

Many of the new music shows on TV are showcasing acapella. Some in a not so good fashion that has people laughing at contestants toneless voices. Others are different where contestants seem to have talent and are serious about their craft. And their craft is singing and their vehicle is the voice.

A capella on Amazon

Barber Shop Quartet

In The Style Of The Barber Shop

A barbershop quartet is a four person vocal group without musical instruments. There usually are three voices harmonizing to the melody of a fourth. The second tenor sings the melody and lead, the first tenor harmonizes above the lead, the bass harmonizes below the lead and the baritone in between. Then there is the ringing cord which distinguishes barber shop quartet from other types of groups. The ringing cord is something that is sort after by groups. It is when four voices harmonize with great precision in such a way that there is the illusion of a fifth voice and expanded sound that fills the space.

In Europe barber music was said to have been in the 16th century as an informal mode of entertainment, it included instruments like a lute and some vocals. Men would gather in or near a barber shop and kill time while waiting for their turn or just socializing together in this method. During this time barber-surgeons did blood letting, minor surgery and teeth extractions along with cutting hair and maybe the music was to calm the potential patient before their ordeal.

The term Barber Shop music was probably coined around 1910. And as with other music genre the term was used after the fact. The music had evolved and then a definition was made. The barber shop was (and still is in some communities) what we now call a third place. That means it is not work or home but a gathering place to go to in the neighborhood. Years ago many of them had quartets like many businesses sponsored baseball teams for adults. Later, informal groups singing for fun were known as curb side harmony, lamp post harmony or close harmony. These singers would sing at different functions like parties, festivals, fairs and picnics. Then of course there were the professional street musicians.

The Barbershop and Blues

There are also choruses that sing in the barbershop style which can become quite large. Many different types of music was played in barbershops not just that style. The legendary jazz bandleader Buddy Bolden practiced with his band at a barbershop of his friend or his depending on whose telling the story. Texas blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson started as a street musician playing in front of barbershops and on corne, either above or below the lead to make chords (specifically, dominant-type or "barbershop" sevenths) that give barbershop its distinctive, "full" sound.

Barbershop singing

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Acapella and Popular Music

Minstrel shows often had a vocal quartet among their number who sang in between acts.

One interesting connection is that the famous Four Mills brothers father was a barber and a member of a barbershop quartet called the "Four Kings of Harmony." He later became a part of the group after the death of his eldest son. They each also became proficient in imitating different musical instruments. They went on to sing jazz and pop songs but retained some of their barbershop style. Many R&B singers who sang doo-wop considered them a great inspiration. Many acappella singers cover doo-wop songs as they have good harmonies.

Acapella Singing

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Acapella Groups

What is your opinion?

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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      When acappella began as a urban pop genre in the early 60's, little did we know that it would become what it is today.It began as an R&B vocal group harmony style of singing, consisting of three and four part harmony. Young teenagers from various ethnic groups would sing in the style of Black groups from the 50's. It didn't have a name like acappella or doo wop even though they sang raw with no musical backround. Today acappella as sung by vocal groups add beat boring or vocal percussions to create an instrumental musical sound.

      Today almost 50 years later acappella is finally becoming recgonized by the public. The credit goes chiefly to those early pioneer groups that created the new pop urban genre in the 1960's. If anything it is their journey of hope and chasing their elusive dream of becoming recording stars. We all owe a debt to those early pioneer groups and advocates of acappella vocal group singing.

      The documentary film Street Corner Harmony gives us a historical view of how it all began. Acappella will continue to grow maybe a bit different from how it began 50 years ago, but its growing. We are all thankful for those who support acappella music.

    • mariaamoroso profile image


      6 years ago from Sweden

      I wish I could join in a group


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