Include a cappella music in your ear training and you’ll become more sensitive to pitch, harmony and timbre. Why?
The power of the voice
The human hearing system has naturally developed over thousands of years to be particularly attuned to the human voice. Speaking, shouting or singing, the human voice has a powerful effect on us in a way that no other instrument can manage.
This means that music consisting solely of human voices tends to engage our ears in a particularly effective way. As you practice active listening you may find it easier to pay careful attention when the music in question is a cappella.
If you find 4-piece rock bands get a bit boring to listen to, or you find your usual genre of choice doesn’t leave much to be discovered on repeat listening, try a cappella. You may well find your ears perk up like never before!
Rich and varied harmonies
Although a cappella music crosses all genres and styles of music, there is one thing that most characterises wonderful a cappella music: harmony.
The way the voices in an a cappella or barbershop group work together, blending and contrasting, creating and releasing harmonic tension, painting amazing soundscapes… there’s nothing quite like it!
It’s one thing to do harmony ear training with clear simple sounds like piano notes or guitar chords. It’s quite another to listen to a professional a cappella group expertly control their pitches to move from one chord to another, creating a harmonic journey far more subtle and sophisticated than other instruments can accomplish.
If you want a truly powerful ear for harmony, extend your chord ear training to listening to a cappella music and discover just how rich and interesting a chord or chord progression can be!
Traditionally choral music had limited control over timbre. Singers were expected to sing in a certain style (e.g. church choir, rock choir, operatic voices, etc.) and variation in timbre was achieved by varying the singers’ volume (soft quiet voices vs brash loud voices) and varying which parts were singing (women only, just the basses, etc.)
A cappella music does of course use these strategies too, but modern a cappella includes instrument imitations and beatboxing techniques that branch far beyond traditional choral timbres. You can hear as wide a variety of sounds and textures in a contemporary a cappella song as you can across all genres of instrumental music. In fact, a cappella often demonstrates a wider variety of timbres in one track than many bands manage across their entire career!
If you want an ear that’s aware of the vast range of musical timbres possible and deftly sensitive to hearing them in use, explore the sounds of a cappella.
Your own singing
The ear is intimately connected to the voice. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a singer and have no intention of becoming an a cappella performer, listening intently to a cappella music as part of your ear training will help develop the ear/voice connection.
This will work best if you try singing along. Don’t worry about the quality of your voice – just its pitch. Try to sing along with the most prominent vocal part, and then once you’ve mastered that, try singing one of the harmony parts. Start with 3- or 4-part a cappella recordings so it’s not too overwhelming.
This truly is one of the most effective ways to explore aurally and learn to pick apart music by ear. Once you can easily sing along with any part in an a cappella recording, you know you’re hearing it in full – and your ears will thank you for it!
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