Those of us involved in visual psychology know that the human brain is finely evolved to seek out human faces. If there is just a single face in a large painting then that is what we home in on. We can pick out the faces of those we know even in a large crowd of strangers. We even have a specialist area of the brain called the fusiform face area which is predominantly tasked with seeking out and recognising human faces.
I was listening to the a cappella group Pentatonix recently and I wondered whether there was a similar area of the brain involved in recognising the human voice and it turns out that there is.
The human hearing system has evolved in a similar way, and is able to pick out a single human voice among other noises. And just like human faces the human voice has a powerful effect on us in that it taps directly into our emotions.
So music consisting of human voices tends to make us take notice and particularly so when that music is a cappella (without instrumental accompaniment).
Sally often talks about us getting sustained chords right and making them sound beautiful. What she is talking about is harmony and that is the feature which most characterises a cappella music – rich and varied harmonies.
Voices in an a cappella group work together, blending and contrasting. They create and release harmonic tension (those crunchy chords that Chris loves so much!) to weave a tapestry of sound.
A professional a cappella group can blend and control their pitches so well they can create music far more subtle, nuanced and sophisticated than any group of instruments could accomplish.
And while barber shop quartets are what many people think of when a cappella music is mentioned, modern a cappella music moves way beyond traditional choral techiques and includes instrument imitations and beatboxing. I’ve included a link to a couple of my favourite a cappella songs below. I hope you enjoy them.
And if you want to hear just how clever these Pentatonix guys really are listen to their ‘Evolution of Music’ medley.