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  • Chris Anderson

Music Revision - Vocal Music - A Cappella & Anthems

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

There are so many different types of vocal music that rather than do them all in one big hit, I’ll take a couple (or so) at a time, alphabetically. Today we start with A Capella and Anthems.


A Capella

Literally meaning “In the Church style”. The original, Italian term was two words. The Americanised version is one word “Acappella”. Essentially they are the same thing…songs sung without instrumental accompaniment.


Back in the 15th century sacred music wold be sung in church without instrumental accompaniment…or so they thought! Everyone assumed that because there were no written instrumental parts that the singers sang alone, but scholars now believe that the organ, or other instruments, would exactly double the vocal parts.


Sacred music is still often sung a cappella, especially in church. However, secular music was also sung unaccompanied. Madrigals and motets (later ones) were early examples of a cappella songs and I’ll got into more detail about these in a future blog.


In America during the 19th century the barbershop quartet came to prominence. Though the origins are actually quite vague. There is one school of thought that it may date from an era when American barbershops formed social and musical centres for men. Another thought is that it refers to Britain where patrons would extemporise music while waiting to be shaved…barber’s music! A barbershop will consist of a tenor (countertenor), a lead tenor, baritone and a bass. The music would usually be in a ragtime style with the music being largely homophonic. Here are some examples of barbershop quartets from The Music Man and The Simpsons (though this example isn't strict Barbershop but the episode features barbershop heavily).


Now-a-days the a cappella genre has grown to be full choirs. Many of these have members imitating musical instruments and beat boxing as seen in Pitch Perfect. There are also some very clever people like Mike Tompkins, who will record an entire song on their own performing every single part themselves. Just fun here he is with The Muppets (what's not to like). A Cappella groups such as Naturally Seven produce a good mix of harmonising fully as well as mimicking instruments. My favourite A Capella version of a song is Viva La Vida by The Buffalo Chips.


Anthem

An Anthem is a religious piece, sung by a choir. But unlike the original motet (future blog) they weren’t sung in Latin. Here's a good example.


Choirs

A choir is a group of people singing together. The size of a choir varies. For example, Baroque choirs would be fairly small (often one singer per part). Also, the Baroque choir would be all male as women were banned from singing in Church at the time.


By the time the Victorian era came, choirs had grown substantially in size often with 100 or more singers.


A choir can be all male, all female, or mixed.


A mixed choir will often be Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass (SATB)

An all female choir will be Soprano, Soprano, Alto, Alto (SSAA), or,

Soprano, Soprano, Alto (SSA)

An all male choir will usually be Tenor, Tenor, Baritone, Bass (TTBB)

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