HomeBlogscaptaindownbeat's blog“Rules” in A Cappella: Who Gives a Fa-La-La

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A long-time a cappella fan and friend sent a post to me and a few other singers. It was my friends Lukas Teske and Patrick Hirsche, aka Hartmuth & die Hitmaschine, at their recent set in Graz. They did a cappella live looping, with the looping controlled offstage by their sound engineer. Not knowing how this stuff worked, my friend asked “How are they doing that? And, in the a cappella world, is this considered ‘kosher’”? Jon Minkoff started an online poll “What do you consider ‘cheating’ in a cappella?” which brought out plenty of responses. My friend’s “kosher” question, and the resulting snowball effect, inspired me to write.

This article has no real opinions on what the Rules are, or Should Be. I’d rather explore why people seem to need them in the first place.

So, who does give a fa-la-la? Not me. But apparently a lot of people do, so let’s break it open and see what it means.

My position is this: there are no Rules in music. Music evolves when current musical conventions are stretched, challenged and even broken. Without it, music is static. If you like anything new, innovative or different, you must be OK with having a few conventions smashed here and there. However, the idea of “Rules” can be used creatively, as a structure or a prism to force your creativity into places you wouldn’t go otherwise. This in some ways is the definition of “a cappella”: being creative by restricting your “instrumentation” to the human voice.

But I think just about everybody buys that about music in general. So why do people get in a tizzy about it in the a cappella world?

Perhaps it’s the same reason people are drawn to a cappella in the first place: the intimacy, the human-ness, the realness of the human voice. As artists and listeners, we’re fascinated by the technical ability to expand the “limits” of vocal music, and conversely repulsed when we feel it’s gone too far. And with such a personal art form as all-vocal music, people feel it even more intensely.

Art and Orthodoxy

Beware the word “should”. Should implies a belief in an External Right and Wrong, a legalistic Code of Conduct. If a sentence starts with “a cappella music should/should not…”, you’re listening to A Cappella Orthodoxy. My friend’s “is this considered ‘kosher?’” question, posed to a few so-called authorities on a cappella music, reminded me of a religious follower looking to the Elders for guidance, or at least another sounding-board for his own beliefs.

The funny thing is, it’s rarely the creators of the music who care much about Rules, or make music based on ideology – they’re usually too busy breaking the Rules! More often, it seems to be the listener. And sometimes, the more devout the fan, the more specific are their beliefs in Rules. It almost seems that people need Rules to help them enjoy and appreciate music. Take the Rules away, and what defines the music?

The Rules Are Your Own

When a person tells you about how things “should/shouldn’t be”, they’re really telling you about themselves.

If you find yourself saying “I don’t like it when” (a more sensible version of “Should”, acknowledging that it’s merely your opinion), ask “why?”, and then take a hard look at your own answers. You may find that you challenge (and perhaps expand) your own beliefs about music. Or, you might gain positive insight about what is really meaningful to you in music. A little self-reflection will tell you a lot.

I’m just as susceptible to this as anyone: for all my theoretical openmindedness, there are plenty of things that I personally don’t like. So, here are a couple of my own examples, put to my own “why?” test:

#1. I don’t like backing tracks in live performances.

Why? Because, for me, the beauty of a live performance is not just the sounds reaching my ears: it’s the uniqueness of a moment that can never be truly repeated. As a listener, I get to be part of a moment in time. For me, fixed backing tracks (inflexible and not in-the-moment) dilute that magic.

Well, most people know that the Nylons sing live to backing tracks, allowing for more-than-four-part harmony. When I produced their new record, I also produced their backing tracks. If I was ideological, if I was a believer in A Cappella Orthodoxy, perhaps I wouldn’t have made tracks for them out of Some Sense of Principle. But when I see them live, with the tracks, I think it’s a helluva show. I even think the backing tracks make it better.

#2. I don’t like AutoTune.

Mostly I don’t like hearing it: check out my article “Shiny Happy Robots” for my thoughts on this. That said, I use AutoTune on every project I work on… except my own.  So, why not? Well, I’d better be honest here. I can’t claim any sense of higher principle: basically, it’s ego and snobbery.

As a performer who has worked very hard at technical proficiency and accuracy, I’m turned on by singers who can sing in tune on their own, and AutoTune feels a little like “cheating” to me. If Bobby McFerrin, Take Six and m-pact don’t need it, well then I should aspire to such a standard for myself. I sing (mostly) in tune, I’m proud of it, and want the record to show it.

Product Versus Process

What does this tell me? It seems that I’m interested in process as much as product: I care as much about how the music’s being made as much as the final result. I think for most people who talk about Rules and Cheating, this is what they really mean.

So for all of us (and I’m talking to myself here as well!): open your head, your ears and your heart. You’ll still have likes and dislikes, but they’ll be yours alone, and they’ll be meaningful to you. And above all, listen not with Rules, but with joy.

-Dylan Bell

About the author:
In a word…multifaceted. Juno-nominated, multiple-CARA-winning Dylan Bell is a performer, composer/arranger, music director and producer/engineer. As an a cappella singer, arranger and producer, Dylan has worked with many of the world's renowned vocal groups including Cadence, the Swingle Singers and the Nylons, as well as his own groups Retrocity and the FreePlay Duo. He’s played stages across the world from his native Toronto, Canada to Stockholm, Sweden, to Calcutta, India, and his compositions and vocal arrangements are performed everywhere from Arnprior to Zurich. Dylan also has a secret life as a freelance multi-instrumentalist, touring internationally as a pianist, bassist, and guitarist. Visit Dylan at www.dylanbell.ca.



Rules? We don't need no stinking rules!!!

What? No rules? How are going to have music without rules?

· * Tell me what an octave is without using or creating rules.

· * Why are there no brass instruments in an a cappella group?

· *Why is it that singing groups that sing with bland faces and unemotional music really aren’t entertaining?

In trying to answer those 3 questions, you will find rules. Rules are a necessary part of music.

And then… you add the words….. “contest” and “winner”.

If you are going to have the first, leading to the second, there have got to be restricting rules, ones that truly define what the contest is. You can disagree with what the rules are and change the rules, but you can’t eliminate them.

As a “contest”-ant, you need to understand the rules or you will never be the “winner.” One of most frustrating things I experienced in school was answering a question on a test only to find the teacher want a different understanding of the question. I didn’t understand the rules.

“Music evolves when current musical conventions are stretched, challenged and even broken. Without it, music is static.” I totally agree. “Rap is not music, but poetry.” That was the thinking when it first began. “Pianist walks onstage, sits at piano exactly 120 second, stand, bows and leaves.” What? Well, In the 1950’s this was a form of music. The thinking was that whatever sounds occurred during the 120 seconds were the “melody and its harmony.”

But these were outside the established rules of music. We’ve changed the rules to accommodate them. Now we even give them awards, such as the Grammy Awards for Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song.

So (especially in music) there will always be rules and if there is a contest the rules will be even more restrictive rules. We can change the rules but it will be a different contest.

I believe...

I think the examples of your rules are not exactly what Dylan was touching on. 

Your first rule about the Octave actually isn't a rule at all.  Everything object in nature has a natural frequency, and if doubled you get the same pitch but an octave higher (slightly more complicated than that, but that's basically it).  The "rule" that we, as musicians following the Western philosophy, divide that naturally-occuring octave into twelve steps.  If you look at Indian ragas, music from Japan, or other non-western cultures, they divide it differently (16 divisions in an octave I think, not positive).  Instruments like a theramin, non-fretted string instruments, trombone, and many others (including the voice) can play every frequency between the octave including our C's and D's and F#'s, and techniques like slides and glisses break that rule all the time.  Also, I think with your piano composition of silence reference, you're thinking of John Cage's 4'33'' which is four minutes and thirty three seconds of exactly that - a pianist sitting at the piano and forcing the audience to listen to the creaks, sighs, breathing, and other ambient noise, challenging their definition of music.  Not exactly contest-winning material but he has influenced more composers than every American Idol winner combined. 

And in reference to your comment about bland faces, one of my favorite groups, The Real Group, does little to no choreography and is absolutely a legendary group.  And if relatively emotionless music isn't good music at all, then where does ambient music, some electronic music, or aleatory music fit in?  I think you're basing your rules on the assumption that music is purely for entertainment value - to be played on big rock stages with the band members smiling for the camera.  Some music, if not most music that isn't delivered in a main-stream channel, is also meant to make you think.  To engage in what the artists are delivering and to take your own interpretation and appreciation from it.  I could be wrong but I think people like Miles Davis or John Coltrane could've cared less about "entertaining" their audience.  They want us to engage in the stories they were telling and encourage us to derive something deeper than just a superficial way to pass the time. 

In reference to your "brass instrument" rule, I think that's more of a rule about language and catagorization than music.  A capella just means with accompaniment, if we threw a harmonica solo in the middle of a Real Group song, we'd probably just have to call it "vocal music" instead.  It wouldn't break any sort of musical rule, just a language one.  Speaking of harmonica thrown into a Real Group song - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0vABlV0cWQ

I think I understand where you're coming from overall though.  Yes, a group doing an stirring a capella rendition of 4'33' probably isn't going to make it on the Sing Off (It would personally make me really happy though).  And I guarantee the producers of that show are basing their decisions on a lose set of rules most likely similar in spirit to the ones you laid down.  But I feel this culture of tournament-bracket-style music not only horribly discourages our freedom as musicians, but also implies a certain objectivity about art that is completely false.  Most songs you hear on any music tv show is some hit single that you know back to front.  This creativity-by-committee is going to eventually drive such fear in the heart of every singer that unless you're belting some top 40 hit, you'll never make it.  If we're told that there is a certain set of "commandments" to never be broken, then what do we tell him?


Or him?


Or him?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8akmP6Sjv2o (love his expressive facial expressions though!)

Or her?



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=paJS3QX4HIk&ob=av2e  (don't even get me started with their "rule-breaking")


I could keep going, but I won't.  Personally, my best memories of listening to music have always been from expecting one thing and getting another.


Great Post, Dylan!

Autotune sometimes bugs me - backing tracks, more so. However, I'm happy to let other performers throw them in under the a cappella umbrella if they want. The coolest things I've seen accomplished a cappella were often the things that made me wonder if they mightn't break some 'rules': Kid Beyond's live looping show, female groups using an octave pedal, SONOS, barbershop quartets involving a fifth member for vocal percussion, and the list goes on. For that reason, I'm happy to witness the experimentation, strive to have an open mind, and quibble later.

And, bmcswain, it sounds like you're saying that the existence of rules explains their necessary role in defining an art. I think rules are great, but not for that reason! I am an a cappella performer and have been for a decade now. I've been in competitions that entire time, and I've accepted whatever rules are imposed within those competitions. I also embrace the greater creative freedom that independently booked gigs can afford me. Rules never define art. They simply approximate it, and create a context that allows a sizable number of artists to find common ground.

I think there are people who run to check the rulebooks regarding any sort of art, when they feel that their beloved art is in jeopardy of dilution into something inferior. I agree with Dylan - those opinions are more often within the minds of the listeners and not of the creators. Such attitudes can often lead to falsely imposed dividing lines, which weaken a community with more in common than otherwise. I think that this is the case with the Barbershop Harmony Society and the more mainstream, CASA-affiliated world of a cappella, for example. BHS needs to learn how to merge itself into the broader world of a cappella without fear of losing its identity and traditional musical structure. It'll be a boon for the more mainstream a cappella world as well, because it will build a more fully represented universe of a cappella. I think we're entering an exciting period where the perceived* range of a cappella interpretation is widely distributed, and acts like barbershop can find a healthy, unpoliced niche next to jazz, pop, hip hop, vocal band, gospel, etc.

Better to let everybody who believes they have an idea for a cappella performance do their thing, and ask questions afterward. No one artist is going to sully the "pristine" standard of whatever a cappella really is in this day and age. Who knows - the blaspheming artist might end up further defining it.

*I say perceived because the distribution has always been there, but there has recently seemed to be a certain idea of a cappella performance getting a lot of the spotlight: the vocal band (and that's a different tangent entirely).


-Joseph Livesey | Fermata Nowhere | SoundStage

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