Social Dynamics and Musical Sensibilities: The Case of Collegiate A cappella

by Joshua S. Duchan


Introduction: Not Your Parents’ Doo-Wop (or Your Grandparents’ Barbershop)


On evenings throughout the academic year, in auditoria and theaters on college and university campuses across the country, a blend of centuries-old musical technique and this year’s chart-topping pop hits is performed by student vocal ensembles who call themselves "a capella groups." Growing in numbers and prominence over the past twenty years or so, there are now nearly a thousand collegiate a cappella groups in the United States (of male, female, and mixed types), and they have received flattering press coverage in major media outlets including print, radio, and television.1 Largely student-run and independent of faculty control, such groups are becoming a staple music-making opportunity at many institutions of higher learning. They are, to borrow ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin’s term, “affinity groups”—some might even argue, a subculture unto itself—that have not yet received scholarly attention.2

A distinguishing feature of collegiate a cappella groups is their highly social nature. Interaction among a group’s twelve to sixteen members is constant, and its ultimate goal—the performance of its music—is the result not simply of written arrangements and directions taken from elected officials within the group, but of intense, musically-oriented social interaction balancing political and social structures, and individual sensibilities, around performances of power. Understanding this interaction in the collegiate a cappella context can be fruitful for understanding more general intersections between musical and social performance, and music and power, in youth music and subcultures in a way that foregrounds the individual and his or her relationship to a musical group. This article aims to serve as an introduction to this music and an argument for the efficacy of certain theoretical approaches to its study.

Of course, there are rich vocal and a cappella traditions on university campuses and in the American national imaginary, as Gage Averill’s recent book on barbershop demonstrates.3 Glee clubs and campus choirs predate the collegiate a cappella movement as I frame it, and their history is rife with examples of vocal harmony groups drawing on popular songs of their day for material. There is also reason to believe that those groups and the ones I study are historically related. For example, the Whiffenpoofs, frequently cited as the oldest a cappella group in the nation, were founded in 1909 as an outgrowth of the Varsity Quartet, a subset of Yale University’s glee club.4

But collegiate a cappella groups are also different from barbershop quartets and glee clubs, and deserving of a fresh perspective for many reasons. First, the “exercise in nostalgia” Averill associates with barbershop harmony does not apply to today’s collegiate a cappella scene, which is generally focused on the performance of contemporary popular music for youthful, college audiences.5 Second, the independent and amateur nature of these groups sets them apart from glee clubs or other choral ensembles, which are frequently conducted by a non-performing faculty member. In fact, rarely is a connection with a school of music or music department an audition requirement, and some groups have even found themselves in contentious relationships with academic units at their institutions.6 Others proactively embrace social or cultural causes.7 Finally, aspects of instrumentation differ markedly, as collegiate a cappella groups limit themselves to a particular number of singers that sets them apart from barbershop quartets and larger choirs. Moreover, they use their voices differently: they consciously emulate pop or rock recordings, resulting in a distinct sound, the hallmarks of which include the use of unconventional vocables8 and vocal percussion. These distinctive stylistic characteristics are motivated by a cappella’s use of recordings as primary musical source material (upon which arrangements are based), rather than scores (as one would find in many other choral traditions).9 For these reasons, collegiate a cappella should be viewed as an independent tradition.

My research has involved over ten a cappella groups (at nearly as many universities) since 1999. I participated as a full-fledged member and leader in two of those groups, the University of Pennsylvania Counterparts and the University of Michigan Amazin’ Blue (both are mixed ensembles), investing myself personally and emotionally in them. Thus I cannot deny that my actions, even my presence, may have had an effect on the kinds of data I gathered or was able to gather, illustrating Michelle Kisliuk’s comments regarding fieldwork: “The deeper our commitment in the field, the more our life stories intersect with our ‘subject’s,’ until Self-Other boundaries are blurred.”10

For those unfamiliar with this music and its performance, here is a brief description of a typical collegiate a cappella performance: The group’s members stand in a crescent shape (sometimes in two rows), facing the audience (see figure 1). A soloist stands in front of this “arc,” and might be joined at certain points in a song by other members who step forward to sing featured harmony lines. The arrangements (whether provided by group members or purchased from other groups or commercial sources) usually consist of three to five background parts, though more are not unusual, up to and including separate parts for each individual. These background parts—referred to collectively by a variety of terms (depending on the group and campus), such as “lorax,” “block” or “bell”—are considered distinct from the soloist, vocal percussion and other featured harmony lines, and they provide the song’s primary rhythmic and harmonic content. They are commonly homophonic and aim to emulate the original recordings on which they are based.11 Contemporary collegiate a cappella arrangements use vocables like “dum,” “jun,” “den,” “jen,” “get” and “doh,” in addition to those closer to older barbershop and Doo-Wop traditions, such as “doo,” “ba,” “da,” “bop” and “wop.” (Singers usually call these vocables “syllables,” so I will use that term hereafter.) The bass line emulates that of the source recording, employing syllables like “doom” and “dum.” Meanwhile, the vocal percussion keeps a steady rhythm behind the background parts with kick drums, snares, hi hats and crashes produced vocally. A cappella performances are usually highly energetic, and singers will often bend their knees or snap aggressively to the beat as they sing.