Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Inside A cappella: A glossary

Tim is one of the few professional acappellaheads in the nation, so I'm in on a LOT of a cappella stuff. Recently, I took a step back and listened as Tim talked to a friend about a cappella, and I had to laugh.

A cappella, like every other field, has it's own jargon. But the a cappella jargon strikes me as funny. A glossary of a cappella terms:

Instrumental Parts: In a field with no instruments, it's a little startling to hear musicians talk about the instrumental parts, especially when you realize the phrase has two meanings. "Instrumental parts" can be the sections ("parts") of songs that have no lyrics OR they are the vocal parts (akin to Soprano or Bass parts) that don't sing recognizable linguistic sounds/lyrics. This song is mostly instrumental parts:

Instruments: Every good acappella ensemble is made up of soloists and "instruments"--vocalists who sing non-linguistic parts. Sometimes they refer to specific instruments. For example, one of the women "does a saxophone" in the previous clip. This one has lots of "instruments":

Vocal Percussion: The use of voices to fill percussion parts of songs, mimicking traditional percussion instruments (sometimes augmented with electronic percussion/DJ sounds like scratching). See the below example. Hear how the percussion exists to fill in the drum parts of the song?

VP: Vocal Percussionist

Beatboxing: Using rhythmic sounds plus vocals to create a stand-alone "song" or rap. Most diehard acapellaheads don't use beatboxing, but sometimes tell other people they do because other people give them weird blank stares when they say, "VP" or "Vocal Percussion".  Also, to be honest, Bb and Vp do cross over quite a lot, and most Vocal Percussionists can do beatbox solos, although I doubt most beatboxers can sing with a group like Vocal Percussionists do. The difference is in what the human is mimicking: a beatbox (electronic/dj drum kit) or percussion (drum kit plus the full range of percussion instruments used in orchestras and bands):

The Acappella section: Acappellaheads also rather hilariously talk about "going to the a cappella section" (of an entirely a cappella song!). They  mean the section where EVERYONE is singing linguistic parts--where they are going to sing tight harmony with everyone singing lyrics. This song starts with an acappella section:

Bass Vocal Percussionist: Someone who sings bass and does vocal percussion at the same time.
Skip on this video to 3:05 for an example:

Jenga Jengas: Term used to refer to the nonsense syllables and sounds the "instrumental parts" use in an acappella song, whether they sound like "jenga jenga" or not. For example, "That group's jenga jengas were really harsh." The jenga jengas are actually one of the most clear tags that distinguish between pro groups and college groups. When people write down a cappella sheet music, they often will spell out a close proximity to the non-linguistic sound they want made in the background. Pro groups look at those "words" (like Jenga jenga, or bap bap bap) and "translate" them into appropriate non-linguistic sounds. College and amateur groups sing them as written, totally changing the final product. In this first two videos, you can hear the "linguistic" syllables being sung in the background--clearly enough that you can spell the words "Down Down Diggy Down" or "Dough wat'n dee dot", for example. In the third example, the group is "singing" instrumental sounds--non-linguistic.

Bum chicks, Doom Chicks, or Doom Psh:  The Vocal Percussion equivalent of jenga jengas. Pro groups make percussion sounds; amateur groups usually say percussive words/syllables. For years (until he heard pro vocal percussionists work, starting with meeting Wes Carroll), Tim HATED vocal percussion because all he ever heard was Doom Chicks and Doom Psh, and it sounded stupid. (And it does sound stupid). But good vocal percussionists don't sound stupid. The guys in this video aren't bad, but the "Psh" is really really obvious.

The Acappella Shuffle: College and other amateur a cappella groups tend to stand around in a semi-circle and do the a cappella shuffle, and kind of shuffly "dance" that is intended to show they are into the music but actually tags them as a) amateur and b) nervous. The semi-circle and shuffle are among the first things a cappella producers and coaches get rid of when working with groups. Prime example:

Arranging: While this usually means taking a song and writing a new version to be performed by a specific ensemble (generally keeping the bass progression and melody recognizable, but filling in everything else and structuring the song afresh), in most of the a cappella world, it means making a transcription (writing down the actual notes performed by another group) or a vocal reduction (taking many more parts than you have available and smashing the general chords into what you've got, but keeping it as close to the original as possible) of a musical piece as close to the original as possible.What acappellaheads call an "arrangement," most people call a "cover".

Original (which is actually an arrangement of an older song):



Blew the pitch: This always makes me think he totally messed up the song (he "blew it"), but really it means he used his pitch pipe. Pro groups try to keep this an invisible as possible; amateur groups just blow the pitch. It usually happens at the beginning of the song:

I'm sure there are more...you'll get them in another post!

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