What is 'A Cappella' and How to Sing It (with song ideas)
You may have heard the term ‘A Cappella’ in the music world, or maybe even in the movies. If you’re anything like me, you’re now interested in seeing whether you too can sing A Cappella.
‘A Cappella’ is a term used to define singing without music and instruments. The only tool used is a single voice, or group of voices. Singing A Cappella requires you to have musical skill, including adequate pitch, rhythm and tempo, as well as an element of expression to captivate your audience.
I will explain in more detail what each of these skills mean. If you are planning on singing A Cappella in a group, there are additional skills you will require. You also might be interested in some songs to get you started.
Singing A Cappella
A Cappella is the formal version of singing in the shower. It is singing without any music or instruments in the background. Your voice will be the only thing the audience can hear. This is very common in singing auditions as the panel are most interested in hearing the quality of your voice by itself.
The first checklist you will need to work through is your musical skills. These are the bare minimum you require to be able to sing A Cappella.
Musical Skills Required
A Cappella is a skill taught in classical singing. There are a number of skills taught in this training, but below are some of the key concepts required to sing A Cappella, specifically.
Pitch is a key element to A Cappella music. This is the ability to sing the correct notes of the song. For example, if you sing along with your favorite artist and you notice you hit a lower note than them, you are not singing the correct pitch. The note must be the same.
To practice your pitch, play the melody (the notes you are supposed to be singing) on a piano, note-by-note, or have someone else help you. Try to match each sound with your voice as you sing through the song. If you do this repeatedly, taking it as slowly as you need, you should notice some improvement each time.
Once you are hitting the same notes as the piano with your voice, try singing the song without the piano. If you are unsure of whether or not you hit all the notes correctly, you may need to record your voice and then play the recording through with the piano.
Rhythm is the next important skill required in A Cappella music. This is how long you hold each note. If you listen to any song, you will notice that some notes are held longer than others. Sometimes this is obvious, but more often it’s only very slight differences.
The key to knowing rhythm is to understand that music is driven by a beat. A bit like the steady tick of a clock on the wall. You sing the notes in time to that tick. The ‘clock’ of the music industry is known as a metronome. A a metronome will tick regularly, but instead of every second like a clock, it will tick regularly at whatever time interval the music sets.
That constant ticking is our beat. The time it takes to sing each note will be any given fraction of one beat(or tick). Some notes you will hold for the one whole tick, some might be a quarter of a beat (so you could sing four of these notes in one beat).
If you try to think too hard about the rhythm, you may get lost in the technical side of this.
The easiest way to practice keeping rhythm, is to find a recording of the song you are going to sing and sing along in time with the track. Sing each note at the same time as the singer you are listening to. Once you can do this easily, try singing without the recording.
Again, if you record yourself and listen back, you should notice if you are singing it correctly.
Finally, we have the tempo of the song. This is how fast or slow you sing.
A very common mistake in A Cappella singing is changing the tempo (speeding up or slowing down) while you are singing. This means that, by the time you finish the song, you are singing at a different speed to when you started.
You can still hold each note for the right amount of time in relation to the other notes (therefore having the right rhythm), but overall you could be singing twice as fast. Usually a singer will be able to keep tempo by staying in time with the instruments that accompany them, particularly the drums. This is not possible in A Cappella music, where there are no other instruments.
This is something that is very challenging to correct, but practice makes perfect. If you sing your song to a metronome multiple times, your body should start to develop that internal pace. You could start by singing it three times in a row with the metronome.
Then record yourself singing without the metronome. Once you have done this, start the metronome again and play your recording back. If you find that your recording is going faster or slower than the beat of the metronome, repeat the process.
Even when you finally get to a point where your recording is in time with the metronome, keep practicing. You don’t want to think you’ve got it, only to wake up the next day having lost that sense of time.
Captivating the Audience
If you are happy with your musical ability to sing a song A Cappella, it’s now time to make the song your own. You need to add your own expression. This is done by altering a variety of other elements of your voice.
This step is vital, it’s what separates you from a robot. A robot can have perfect pitch, rhythm and a steady tempo, but it cannot feel anything or connect with the audience in a way that a person can.
It’s what separates you from a robot.
One thing you can play with is the volume that you are singing each phrase. More often than not, a singer will start the song with a quieter voice to bring a gentle feel to the lyrics. They may then get louder as they reach the middle of the song, or at the very end to add power or finish with a bang.
Sometimes the lyrics you are singing will guide you as to whether you might sing loudly or softly. Whatever way you choose to make the song your own, you will need to have a good level of control over your voice. Click here for some tips to gaining this control and delivering an amazing performance.
Another element to consider is ‘decorating’ notes that are held for a long time. One example would be adding some vibrato to the note. This means that the pitch of your voice is altered slightly above and below the correct pitch to create a wobbling sound. This technique is used by many singers and can sound very beautiful.
You may even want to add your own ‘oos’ and ‘ohs’ within the song to fill in dead space, if you think it adds a bit of flavor.
If you are struggling for ideas to add expression to your song, listen to a few different singers in a few different styles and try to copy some of the sounds they make. The voice really is quite amazing in what sounds it can produce!
Overall, adding expression is what is going to keep your audience captivated, and will turn your song into a performance, not just someone singing to themselves in the kitchen.
Singing A Cappella in a Group
Singing in a group always adds an element of teamwork to the mix. This means that there are other techniques that you will need to consider.
Firstly, the expression you use within the song is no longer something that you decide, but what the group decides. It must also be done uniformly. If you think something should be sung louder, then everyone in the group must sing it at the same volume. Otherwise some voices will overpower others and you lose the beauty of singing in balance as a group.
We also can introduce the concept of harmonies. This is when different members of the group are singing a different pitch at the same time, but in a way that they compliment one another.
Harmonies are usually determined by each singer’s vocal range (how high and low they can sing). Those with a lower vocal range will sing a lower note in the harmony and those with a higher vocal range will sing a higher note. There are six categories for vocal range:
- Bass (low voice for males)
- Baritone (medium voice for males)
- Tenor (high voice for males)
- Alto (low voice for females)
- Mezzo soprano (medium voice for females)
- Soprano (high voice for females)
Some females may be able to reach notes in the male vocal range and vice versa, but above are generalizations. You will need to find out which range you fit into so that you can be assigned higher or lower harmonies in an A Cappella group. Here is a great article on finding your singing range.
The final important technique in group singing is being in sync (blending) with everyone else. This means that the tempo and rhythm that you sing should be the same as everyone else. To do this, you will need to be actively listening while you sing so that you can make minor adjustments if you are not singing in time with everyone else.
A Cappella Songs for Beginners
Technically you could sing any song A Capella. You just sing it without any backing track. But some songs just don’t sound good without that backing. Here’s a selection of some songs that can be sung well A Cappella, and are good if you’re just starting out:
- Amazing Grace (Hymn)
(most hymns sound good A Cappella)
- Somewhere Over the Rainbow – Judy Garland
- Piano Man – Billy Joel
- Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon & Garfunkle
- Let it Be – The Beatles
- Silent Night (Christmas Carol)
- Imagine – John Lennon
For more information on finding the best song for your voice, click here.