In one of my previous posts I briefly mentioned a cappella music, but as with so many musical topics I’ve mentioned in passing, I’ve never written a full post about it. That is, until now. In this particular post I intend to explore the interesting musical world of a cappella music.
The term “a cappella” comes from Latin, and it describes the musical practice of singing without accompanying instruments. At the start of an a cappella performance, a reference pitch is typically given, which establishes the key of the song to be sung. Usually this pitch is played on a piano, organ, or in some musical contexts a harpsichord. In some extreme cases, such as the Primitive Baptists of the southern United States, the reference note is sung. Based on this pitch, the song continues just as it would with instruments.
Except when it doesn’t.
And this is where the most important flaw in a cappella singing lies.
There are quite a few instances of singers singing a cappella, who, in the course of a song, end up drifting from their original key into a nearby key. For example, if a group started out in E-flat but then slowly drifted downwards into D. I’ve heard that exact musical phenomenon happen on a recording somewhere in the musical depths of YouTube. That recording has forever left a sour taste in my mouth for a cappella music, and it is that recording which I often like to use to cite a cappella music’s flaws.
One should understand, though, that the human voice, more than perhaps any other instrument, is capable of sliding from one pitch to another, and from one key to another without compromising timbre. The only other instrument with this ability to slide between pitches as easily as the voice is, brace yourselves, the theremin.
So all of this begs the question: what to do about tuning slippage? Use musical instruments. Instruments are your first line of defense if you want to protect yourself against the drift from one key to another. And finally, to the choir on that recording I mentioned, thank you. You all taught me, a former music education major, an important musical lesson about the fundamental flaws inherent in a cappella.