If you’re a fan of the Pitch Perfect films and many fantastic a cappella groups, you may be thinking about performing a cappella music yourself. But when does an a cappella performance work best?
Performing a cappella as a singer: A cappella music is sung without the accompaniment of instruments or a backing track, performed within a group or as a solo. The more traditional a capella music focuses more on harmonising, modern a cappella songs often than trying to emulate instruments.
We take a look at a capella singing styles, a cappella artists, easy a capella songs for beginners and the myths and mistakes surrounding a cappella music. Here’s everything you need to know, tor performing a cappella as a singer.
How to sing a capella
What does a capella mean?
A capella means to sing without the aid of musical instruments or backing track. All the sounds in a cappella music are made up of the natural human voice – even if some of those vocal sounds sound just like a real instrument.
The term a cappella serves two grammatical purposes. It is used to describe something you do (adverb), as well as being a descriptive name (adjective). So you can sing a cappella, and you can describe a song or group as a cappella.
A Cappella music history
A cappella comes from the Italian meaning: ‘in chapel or choir style’ and began being used in the UK in the 1800s. Of course, unaccompanied music is as old as time and international. But this gave us a terminology to use, specifically relating to groups of singers.
Back in the 1600s, when a cappella music was first named, it may have had instruments in the mix (albeit a limited selection to what we have now). However, today, a cappella or a capella means singing without instruments. And what about those two spellings…?
A capella spelling – is it a cappella or acapella?
There are two different spellings of this word/phrase. This isn’t a mistake but reflects the two common spellings in circulation, both of which are correct.
The original Italian version of ‘a cappella’ is the traditional spelling. However, ‘acapella’ is a Latin version, which is especially widely used in the US. While traditionalists prefer to use the former, you’ll no doubt encounter both in the music industry.
Knowing when to use A cappella music performance
Doing an a cappella music performance can be a way to showcase your vocal talent. However, this form of singing can leave you very exposed and if you’re not confident and practised enough this can put more pressure on your a cappella music performance. So only try and sing a capella like Pitch Perfect in public, if you have spent some time working on your numbers and have managed to make them tight.
Industry Tip: Work with a choreographer to make your act really pop.
Easy A capella songs for beginners
Unless you have amazing natural perfect pitch (the ability to hit the right note, spot-on), you’ll need to start off with some simple a capella songs. Popular starter songs for unaccompanied singers that lend themselves to being sung without any instruments are:
- Somewhere Over the Rainbow
- My Way
- Amazing Grace
- I Say a Little Prayer
- I Will Always Love You
Everyone’s voice is different, so what may be easy for you, may not be for someone else. Discover what works for you. Begin with some melodies you already know very well and can sing fully in tune. Or start with an online tutorial.
Be picky about the song you want to sing. Just because a song may sound good on the radio does not mean it will sound good as an a cappella music performance. Song choice is important.
You ideally want to choose a song that has a good melody to it, will be remembered and has emotional depth. It also needs to be a song that doesn’t rely on a complicated arrangement, to sound good. The easy a capella songs for beginners we’ve listed above, are often used because of their strong melodies, that work well even without exciting chords or beats going on in the background.
If, however, you plan on forming an a cappella group that mimics those instruments, then many more options open up. It’s also exciting to take a simple song and make it even more complex with added flourishes, made with new vocal sounds that emulate instruments.
How to sing a capella like Pitch Perfect: a capella singing techniques
So, you want to sound like this:
There are a few routes to learn a capella singing techniques for how to sing a capella like Pitch Perfect. We’ll look at the digital options further in the article, but you can also hire a vocal coach with a cappella experience to work with you individually, or as a group. If singing a cappella as a group, you’ll need those with different range to singing the various harmonies.
Here are some of the main techniques you’ll need to learn, as an individual, to be able to sing a capella:
You’ll need to be able to sing and hold onto your part or melody, and this is a challenge without any backing and with others singing different notes to you. Record yourself singing a song without music, then play it back, along with the original song. This is a great way to test and work on your pitch.
Once you’re ‘pitch-perfect’, you can start to work on harmony. Learn a harmony to a song, record yourself singing it, then play it back against the melody of the same song. Does it sound lovely and mellifluous? Or does it clash? Keep learning and trying until you’re complementing the tune with your harmony.
If you’re singing a solo, you can condense the song to remove instrumental sections and chop it to an arrangement that suits your voice – not a luxury you have when singing to a pre-set backing track.
If singing in a group, you’ll need to take a bass, alto, falsetto or high soprano part. And if auditioning for a group, the ability to sing high or low will be a boon.
Here are the techniques needed to extend your range.
Pitch Perfect has been part of a contemporary craze for a capella singing. Previously it had been quite an old fashioned genre, with technically excellent groups like the King’s Singers leading the way with more classical and traditional numbers.
Now universities all over have their own all singing all dancing all beatboxing funky a capella groups. Oxford University’s own Out of the Blue is made of students – meaning the members change regularly as they move on and graduate. They sell-out shows with their super fun pop-rock a cappella and even made it to Britain’s Got Talent.
Using an a capella app
Apps are great tools for singers and musicians. Having one that helps you create a cappella music is very helpful, not least as you can layer the sounds to create an a capella chorus all by yourself. Head to iTunes or Google Play to check out the apps available to you.
Industry Tip: Read the user reviews on iTunes or Google Play to help you pick the most suitable option for your needs.
Here are three of the top a capella apps available for Android and iOS download.
A capella from PicPlayPost
With this app, you can create a capella music (each song can be up to 10 minutes) using your voice and any instruments you might play. It enables you to create videos too. You can collaborate with other artists via the app too. There’s a built-in metronome and you can share your tracks straight to social media and streaming sites. This app is free to download.
A capella Mix Pro by Vidstitch
Another very popular free app is Vidstich’s a capella Mix Pro. It has much the same spec as a capella, including the metronome and video and sharing capability – with a watermark for professionalism. Multi screens can be used, as well as your own tracks. It’s user-friendly and simple to set up. There is a very small fee to download this app, however,
A capella Mix Free by Vidstitch
If you’d rather not shell out a few pounds until you know the deal, but like the look of a capella Mix Pro, try their free version first.
A capella YouTube channels
Once you’ve created an ace video via one of these apps – or of your live performances, upload them to YouTube. Setting up your own channel is easy and means fans can subscribe. This can be a great way to be seen by influential people, so make sure you share your content far and wide with a strong social media campaign.
If you get enough subscribers, you can land very lucrative endorsement deals with sponsors.
A capella singing YouTube tutorials
YouTube is also a fantastic place to start when learning to sing a capella. There are many tutorials you can work through, on all types of singing technique, not just a cappella music. Watch lots and lots of videos of top groups and a cappella artists too, so you can learn how it’s done.
A cappella artists: a capella group names to look out for
Who should you be listening to for your a capella inspiration and a cappella tips and tricks?
Here are some of the best international artists and groups in the industry – both new and old.
The name says it all really. It’s rock music and it’s a capella. These guys are American faves and also do pop covers.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo
This South African choral group has been taking the world by storm since 1960, with their joyful upbeats sounds and emotive slower pieces. A lot of gospel-style music and African music is sung a cappella. It makes for powerful listening.
The Rolling Tones
A great group name. This all-female group from King’s College London are the current UK champions of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (yes, they’re real-life Pitch Perfect ladies). They also won Voice Festival in 2017.
This three times Grammy award-winning group hails from Texas. They’ve sold over 10 million albums since their rise to fame, after winning NBC’s The Sing-Off in 2011.
Now for a solo artist. Peter Hollens specialises in a cappella singing and has over 5 million subscribers on YouTube, with his legendary covers. Hollens collaborates with other a cappella artists and producers to create his videos.
Industry Tip: Find an a cappella artist you relate to and watch them over and over. That’ll help you get a full picture of what the genre involves.
How to sing bass in a capella music
The ability to sing very low, in a bass voice is in demand in a capella groups.
The technique to reach low notes beyond your regular range is known as the subharmonic register voice or vocal fry. This is a technique that can be learned but is not a technique for beginners.
If you’re just starting out, first work on your modal register (your ‘natural’ voice). Once you’ve got good breath control down and have started to increase your range, you can move into more involved techniques such as this.
David Larson is an expert in this method of singing, so if you are looking to learn to vocal fry, you can follow his step by step coaching here.
Once you’ve mastered a good bass sound, you can start approaching and auditioning for a cappella groups. Your lower range will still sound good as a solo artist, but it will really shine in an environment where you’re hitting the audience with those winning harmonies. A bass voice sounds even more impressive against the backdrop of higher voices too.
A cappella music stage performance techniques
Doing an a cappella music performance in a competition if you are doing one song is a huge risk; fail to engage the audience from the start and it will fail.
Without backing music, you are performing without your strongest tool, i.e the music! With backing music, it makes the performance more full, fills the gaps, hides your breathy bits and helps with your tuning and timing. Singing a cappella leaves you very exposed and bare which under pressure is extremely risky.
When to use a cappella music performance
If you are a confident singer and your timings are on point then singing a cappella can create a special moment within your performance, which can help you stand out. However, it is important to know the song inside and out and your timings and vocals have to be on point. In an a cappella group, a single beat can throw the whole group out – dance moves as well as singing. This is why timing is everything – even more than usual – in this type of music.
A cappella music performance – more tips
When not to use a cappella music performance
To sing a cappella it is important to know how to stay in key without any aid of a musical instrument or backing track. If you feel like you have not put in enough practise and rehearsal then this can lead to an embarrassing music a cappella performance.
The use of backing music can help fill the gaps in performance and can help hide any breathy bits. If you’re not overly confident in your tuning and timings then backing music can help hide this. Once you add in a track or instruments it’s technically not a cappella any more. So while you can’t enter any competitions or market yourself as a capella this way, it’s a good way to ease yourself toward a full a cappella performance.
Once you’ve picked your song and have decided which bit is going to be sung a cappella, then practice, practice and practice some more. Your voice will be bare on stage and there is no room for mistakes.
By now it’s pretty clear that performing a cappella as a singer isn’t quite as easy as it might look in the movies. But if you’re pitch-perfect (or on the way to becoming pitch-perfect) and can belt out a tune with gusto, it’s well worth finding a nearby group to work with. Singing a cappella as part of a chorus is rewarding, a whole lot of fun and can bring opportunities for touring and appearances at festivals or events.
How many singers are required before the group is considered an a cappella chorus?
Two singers is a duet, three is a trio, four is a quartet, five is a quintet, six is a sextet, seven is a septet, eight is an octet. Anything above that may be a choir, ensemble, or chorus. But there’s much debate around names and numbers and the style of music will affect what you call yourself too.
What makes a good live music performance?
Energy, talent, practice and passion all contribute to a good live music performance. As an a capella music group, you might want to seek some performance coaching to ensure your delivery is as good as your harmony. Dance and movement as part of the set work well when performing a cappella songs.
Do you capitalize a capella?
The ‘a’ in a cappella (or a capella) only needs to be capitalised if it’s at the beginning of a sentence or as part of a heading. If it forms part of the name of something (ie. a group, a venue or an organisation), like the Edinburgh University A Cappella Society, then it also takes on a capital A.
Do you love a capella music and have some hints and tips for performing a cappella as a singer? If so, tell us about it in the comments section below.