Toward a Theoretical Model of Shared (Musical) Behavior—The Habitus of Singing


The commonly held expectation of silence between the starting pitch and a song’s count-off hints at the shared behavioral codes and practices in place within an a cappella group. This particular code is common, but others vary from group to group. A motivating chant performed backstage just prior to a concert might only be known to members of that particular group, for instance. Shared behaviors help shape the identity of the group and its members, and are taught to new members as they are admitted.

I suspect behaviors are shared on a musical level too. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu coined the term habitus to mean “a system of lasting, transposable dispositions which, integrating past experiences, functions at every moment as a matrix of perceptions, appreciations, and actions.”19 In other words, habitus is a set of arbitrary predispositions, learned through socialization and always guiding—but not determining—action. Jen Webb, et. al., add that habitus can apply not just to an individual, but to groups, and that it works at least partly unconsciously.20 Hand in hand with habitus is Bourdieu’s concept of field: “a network, or configuration, of objective relations between positions…which are defined by the structure of the distribution of species of power (or capital) whose possession commands access to the specific profits that are at stake in the field.”21 It is also important to realize that fields influence habitus (in some cases, the converse would also be true). Webb explains that once in a field, a person’s habitus takes on the values and norms of that field. In a field of cultural production, this allows us to talk about “an ‘artistic habitus.’”22

We can be more specific, however, when thinking about an artistic habitus in light of the complexity of the musical-social dynamic with which the collegiate a cappella group presents us: the multiplicity of opinions and choices that constitute the musical product. In her recent work on music and trance, Judith Becker describes a “habitus of listening”:

Our “habitus of listening” suggests, not a necessity nor a rule, but an inclination, a disposition to listen with a particular kind of focus, to expect and to experience particular kinds of emotion, to move with certain stylized gestures, and to interpret the meaning of the sounds and one’s emotional responses to the musical event in somewhat (never totally) predictable ways. The stance of the listener is not a given, not natural, but necessarily influenced by place, time, the shared context of culture, and the intricate and irreproducible details of one’s personal biography.23

Becker mobilizes Bourdieu’s idea to account for the effects of musical reception. To complement her “habitus of listening,” I theorize a “habitus of singing,” which would underline musical (vocal) production. This habitus would encompass an individual’s usual, predisposed manner of singing, based on past experience, and the ways in which that manner is applied to the music of the moment.

The habitus of singing would be capable of change as a result of musical and social interaction in the a cappella field, akin to the field-habitus interaction Webb describes. Whole groups can be said to have to a shared habitus of singing, which may account for what many of my interviewees describe as “a group’s sound,” as well as the relative consistency of that sound across different arrangers and time as musical knowledges (such as arranging, vocal, and performing techniques) are imparted by older to younger members. This may suggest a kind of stylistic fixity in groups whose memberships are, by definition, transient. Of course, the a cappella style is not entirely fixed, and group styles can certainly change as new members, with new musical sensibilities, are inducted each year or as members are exposed to other groups’ practices (see below). Moreover, changes in the broader collegiate a cappella style have certainly occurred over the course of its history, as will be explored below.

The interaction between group and individual habitus is a result of two processes: the unconscious observation and experience of each others’ vocal mannerisms, arranging and performing techniques, etc.; and more explicit, verbalized discourse on vocalization and those techniques. An individual’s habitus of singing would be able to effect change—albeit subtle—in the group’s habitus, while simultaneously the group’s habitus could effect change in the individual’s. Importantly, changes in habitus are the result of the observation and experience of musical events (from live performances given and observed, to exposure to other groups through recordings, see below) and social interaction. The way power is performed through both social structure and social organization largely shapes the kinds of musical events that can be observed or experienced. Thus the performance of power has ramifications for both individual and group habitus, and therefore the music.

To take another example, throughout my experience with Counterparts (January 1999 through May 2001), one member was habitually assigned the lowest alto part because of the rich quality of her lower range. The group habitus labeled her an alto, and though arrangers (such as myself) may have recognized that she was not limited to the alto part, there was little incentive to assign her higher parts when there were other female voices better suited to them. For all practical purposes, then, she was unable to sing high soprano. Soon after I left the group (I graduated and moved away), this member seized an opportunity to demonstrate her ability to sing high soprano, probably while auditioning for a solo and won a very high solo. Because solos in Counterparts are awarded by a group vote, we can see that the performance of her ability for the other members reshaped the group’s habitus with regard to the appropriate use of her voice. On one hand, this example seems like common sense—the demonstration of one’s ability is, after all, the purpose of an audition. On the other hand, her performance in the audition had not only a proximate effect (her winning the solo), but also the more long-term effect of shifting the habitus of the group (and its arrangers) regarding the best use of her voice. This resulted in a new configuration of voices on future arrangements, as she was later assigned to higher parts on other songs. In effect, the very sound of the group was changed.

Habitus does not dictate decisions, but merely predisposes certain choices. And in the dynamic process of music-making I describe, every step along the way involves choices: from song selection, to choices made in the arranging process, to decisions made regarding part assignments and vocal stylization, to the audition of soloists, to artistic decisions made in a recording studio. We can undoubtedly describe any act of music making as an aggregate of choices, as I do here. Crucially, however, the social and political structures of a cappella groups can be conceptualized as fields that determine relations between individuals occupying certain positions based on and providing capital, and thus, power. The performance of power helps to emphasize certain individual voices while de-emphasizing others as these choices are made, which has consequences for the group’s habitus and the habitus’ of its individual members, resulting in real musical effects.

The discourse from which I draw ethnographic evidence has so far seen general acknowledgements of the change in individual habitus, but specific discussion of vocal technique seems harder to come by.24 That is, many a cappella singers generally agree that they had to learn how to sing a cappella generally, and with their group in particular. But they have difficulty precisely describing the learning process and the changes it brings. Typically, they characterize a cappella singing simply as straight-toned, without vibrato (at least for background singing).25 The dearth of technical specificity is not surprising given my interviewees’ general lack of formal musical training, owing to the diversity of their courses of (mostly undergraduate) study. While many are familiar with the fundamentals of reading music and have had some prior instrumental experience (usually in grade school or high school), few possess a detailed knowledge of vocal production parlance, as would a college-level student in a vocal performance program.

But a lack of terminology does not necessarily indicate a lack of knowledge. In fact, one singer explained that she learned much about vocal stylization and its appropriateness from other, older members of her group with whom she sang on the alto part. She framed the experience of learning to sing with her group in terms of friendly competition:

  There’s definitely a level of competitiveness, like, “oh you can do that much vibrato, well this is how much vibrato I can do…oh you can do it that loud, well this is how loud I can do it.” So it becomes sort of working together and sort of not, so it’s almost like challenging yourself against the person who’s doing it with you. So even if it’s like, “well, even though it’s an a cappella song and we’re singing backup so we’re going to do it straight-tone”…it becomes, “well, if they’re putting a little something into it then maybe I should put a little something into it.”26


Crucial in this singer’s description is the non-verbalized aspect of interaction. She and the two other group members involved in the interview all agreed that this kind of non-verbalized instruction plays a significant role in learning to sing with the group, alongside more direct, verbalized instruction from the music director and arrangers. This kind of non-verbalized interaction requires both performance and observation.

A group’s musical objective, I was told during that same interview, is to support a soloist singing the song’s lead. Singers emphasized that they learned not only how to shape their own vocal production, but also to listen to others in their group (especially those also on the background parts) constantly throughout each song, in order to continually modify their own singing. It was widely agreed that they learned to listen more closely in their a cappella group than they had in any previous choral experience. This might suggest that not only is the habitus of singing undergoing reorientation, but also that that change is closely linked to a reorientation of the habitus of listening.

As members become acclimated to their group’s habitus, some start creating original arrangements. Though instructional manuals on arranging do exist, even specifically for collegiate a cappella,27 most arrangers learn from observing other arrangers in their group in the act of arranging, or from examining the finished arrangements. Because multiple arrangers within each group have the same resources on which to draw, it follows that those resources are often utilized in similar ways. And while each arranger may have his or her own idiomatic style, a shared habitus will predispose them to make similar choices, for example, with regard to texture or syllables. This is especially evident when arrangers switch groups, highlighting the differences between the habitus of the old group and that of the new.

For example, as a graduate student joining his second a cappella group, Amazin’ Blue, I brought with me ideas about the “right way” to arrange from my first group, Counterparts. Because I was already an experienced arranger, I did not need to be taught—a process that would have shown me “Amazin’ Blue’s way.” Instead I arranged for Amazin’ Blue using the ideas I had learned from Counterparts. My first arrangement for Amazin’ Blue (James Taylor’s “New Hymn,” in December 2001 and early January 2002) made prominent use of the syllable “dum” (see figure 2 and sound clip 1). When I presented it to the group, some members commented that Amazin’ Blue had never before sung this syllable (indeed this arrangement was unique in Amazin’ Blue’s repertoire at that time for that reason), yet I knew many Counterparts arrangements were founded on it—that was where I came up with the idea.28

On the other hand, I had never used the syllable “jun” in my Counterparts arrangements because of the prevailing attitude in that group (at that time) that “jun” was the province of Off the Beat, Counterparts’ main rival group on Penn’s campus. (“Jun” is used to emulate vocally the sound of a guitar strum.) Since joining Amazin’ Blue, however, my attitude (and habitus) changed to the extent that many of my later arrangements (such as Maroon 5’s “Harder to Breathe” in August 2003) make almost exclusive use of “jun” and similar syllables with a hard “j” sound (see figure 3 and sound clip 2). Moreover, an examination of Amazin’ Blue recordings from 1998 through 2004 shows frequent use of syllables “jun” and “dun” (but not “dum”) in the background parts across a variety of arrangers and through at least one complete membership turnover.29