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A cappella

A Cappella? Is That How You Spell It?

The phrase a cappella is among the most butchered and misunderstood musical

terms. The predominant, and most "correct" spelling, is ...

a cappella - two words, two "p's", two "l's."

A Cappella, A Picky Definition

Musicologists have fun debating the extent to which a cappella, 'in the style of

the chapel,' can include instrumental accompaniment. Some argue that early

sacred a cappella performances would sometimes include instruments that double a

human voice part. So, the correct definition of a cappella should be something

like 'singing without independent instrumental accompaniment.'

At Primarily A Cappella, we are trying to popularize this style of music, so we

like to keep it simple.

a cappella - two words, two "p's", two "l's."

singing without instruments

A Capella?

Some musical dictionaries indicate that the Italian a cappella is preferred over

the Latin a capella (one "p") yet both are technically correct. Why do those

dictionaries muddy the waters with two spellings?

The phrase was first used in Italian Catholic churches, where Latin was the

language for sacred text. Thus, the Latin spelling for 'in the style of the

chapel' - a capella - has some historical basis. However, most other musical

terms - forte, accelerando, and many others - are Italian in origin. Since the

Italian spelling is more consistent with other musical terms, it has been used

more frequently.

Given the difficulty of spelling our favorite style of music, we'd like to

endorse the simplicity of a single spelling:

a cappella - two words, two "p's", two "l's."

singing without instruments


Joining the two Italian words together to make Acappella is a popular variation

in the U.S. For many streetcorner singing fans, Acappella means unaccompanied

singing of 'fifties (and early 'sixties) songs. There were a series of

recordings released in the early 1960's of Mid-Atlantic unaccompanied doo-wop

groups called "The Best of Acappella." The liner notes on the first LP noted

that Acappella means "singing without music." In this matter we do tend towards

being picky - instruments do not alone music make! A cappella (or Acappella)

singers make music while they are ...

singing without instruments

A more recent, second meaning of Acappella has emerged. The Contemporary

Christian group Acappella is the first formed by prolific songwriter Keith

Lancaster. In the early 1990's he added Acappella Vocal Band (now mostly known

as AVB) and "Acappella: The Series" which uses studio singers (plus LOTS of

electronic help) to perform songs around specific themes. All of these efforts

are now combined in The Acappella Company. The good news is they have sold

millions of recordings and have contributed greatly to the awareness of a

cappella. The bad news is they have popularized a spelling variation, and

through the heavy use of electronically manipulated voice (which can sound like

any other synthesized instrument) have chipped away at the idea of ...

singing without instruments.

A Capela

This spelling is totally wrong, and yet has been used by those who should know

better. The most prominent occurrence is on the re-release of first album by the

Singers Unlimited. Originally titled "Try to Remember," this very popular

collection of vocal jazz arrangements by Gene Puerling has no doubt led some to

misspell, or at least question the correct spelling of ...

a cappella - two words, two "p's", two "l's."

singing without instruments


The Manhattan Transfer sang a song with this title on their debut, eponymous

album. Ironically, the whole song is accompanied, as are most of their songs by

this group, so one can only guess at the intended meaning. The lyrics

"Everything's gonna be mellow, Listen while we sing it occapella" precede a

refrain of scat-like harmony (with the band receding into the background but

still audible).

Also ironically, The Manhattan Transfer are often the group music lovers think

of when they hear the phrase "a cappella." Many people associate "close harmony"

with "a cappella," which certainly makes a great deal of sense. Popular

twentieth century a cappella is characterized by extensive use of close harmony

- when voices separated by small intervals (seconds, thirds, fourths) sing the

same rhythm and words. The Manhattan Transfer sing great close harmony, but most

of it includes instrumental accompaniment. Only a handful of their dozens of

songs are performed a cappella.

Oxapello? (yech!)

The Blenders open their second album "From the Mouth" with a schtick by this

title. On this brief cut, the group is trying to discuss their new recording

with an unenlightened agent, who keeps referring to the style of 'Oxapello.'

Hopefully the next time you run into someone similarly confused, you'll remember

to politely tell them:

a cappella - two words, two "p's", two "l's."

singing without instruments

A Cappello

On the Trenchcoats' second album, "Your Joy," one of the fun originals is "A

Cappello Blues." The phrase is sung straight (that is, pronounced incorrectly)

until the final chorus, when a hesitating voice-over says "uh, isn't it, a

cappella, with an "a"?" By now, hopefully, you've got the correct spelling

emblazed in your brain.

Why "Primarily" A Cappella?

Singing without instruments comes in many shapes and sizes. One of the

attractions for artists is the nearly unlimited pallet the voice provides. The

same singer can sound sultry and sexy one minute, cold and machine-like the next,

then change to a trumpet, and morph again to a soft harmonic background "ooooh."

In short, a cappella enables "out of the box" music - art that defies singular


It's not surprising, then, that the artists who create breathtaking, out of the

box a cappella performances sometimes want to add instruments. The vocal pallet

does have some limitations, after all. We endorse artistic creativity, and so we

include recordings that include accompanied songs along with a cappella


Another issue debated among purists is whether a cappella allows for percussion

accompaniment. While we think the Nylons, Acappella and others should be allowed

to describe themselves as "singing without instruments" without saying 'but with

a drum track,' our 'primarily' moniker allows us to step aside and let customers


Of course, it's not always the artists that choose to add instruments. Recording

industry executives by and large don't appreciate the marketing potential of a

cappella beyond the token ballad cover. So, many groups performing luscious

close harmony capable of standing on its own are told by their record labels in

no uncertain terms that the recordings will include instruments. Still, the

music is appreciated by the same fans who love pure a cappella ... and those

fans are our customers, so we want to alert you to great harmony wherever it's


Finally, some of the best close harmony in vocal jazz and doo-wop is found on

100% accompanied recordings. Many a cappella aficionados are also fans of the

Hi-Lo's, The Four Freshmen and similar groups. We want to be your one-stop shop!

In most of our recording reviews, we mention how many of the songs are

unaccompanied by instruments so that you won't be shocked.

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