A Cappella

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.

Somebody that I used to know

We Are Young

And if you want to hear just how clever these Pentatonix guys really are listen to their ‘Evolution of Music’ medley.


One of the toughest parts I’ve found about being a parent is striking the right balance between my desire to protect my children, and encouraging them to be brave and try new things.

Often when they embark on a new skill: a complicated maths problem, a new violin piece, or more recently rollerblading, there’s a period of anxiety when it’s all a bit of a struggle and they feel like it’s too difficult to master. Then it’s my job to reassure them that it’s normal to feel like that; encourage them to practice; push them outside of their comfort zone a little; praise their efforts when they make progress, and generally guide them until they feel confident that they’ve ‘got’ it. Once they reach that point they’re off and running, or even rollerblading.

On Tuesday it occurred to me that being a choir director is a bit like being mum or dad to a large bunch of kids. It was when we were practising ‘Home’ and struggling a bit with it. A sizeable number of us, including me, didn’t want to risk it in the forthcoming concert. We didn’t feel confident and thought we might mess it up. But Sally reassured us that this was normal; encouraged us to practice the bits we didn’t feel we knew well; pushed us to consider putting it into the concert; praised our efforts, and guided us until suddenly it started to come together.

I struggle to do this with my own children, and there are only two of them, so I’m always in awe of how Sally and Chris manage to pull off that trick with so many of us.

I like Home, it’s a lovely piece of music, and I think we all felt more confident with the rhythm and tune by the end. It would be lovely to put it in the concert, and I have to say, from recent personal experience it really is not as difficult as rollerblading!

A couple of people suggested listening to the recorded version so we could learn to feel the rhythm a bit better. Mike sent a link recently which is on the site but I’ve linked to it again below.

Home, with lyrics

Ears and Brains!

One of my regular patients is a voice coach. He coaches actors and singers but also business men and women, and lecturers who have to speak frequently in public. He’s an interesting man. He’s also partially sighted.

When he attended last week I asked him if he felt losing his central vision had made his ears more acute, or if that was just a cliché.

He said, “I’ve turned it to my advantage because I now don’t have the facial cues that sighted people have to go on. In order to hold my attention you have to do it with your voice.”

With a view to our Tuesday night sessions I asked if he had any general advice for singers. I thought you might be interested in his response.

He said, “Singers of all levels should develop their ears and their brain!

He went on to say that most singers (even some professionals) sing without either listening or thinking. He said that only rarely does he hear someone sing live in a way that really impresses him, but when he does he knows they’ve put the practice time in.

He went on to say that good ears are extremely important because it is our ears that tell us when we are solidly in the middle of a note. Many singers come in flat or sharp on a note but don’t realise it. He suggested practising with a tuned instrument to help develop our ears and keep our voices locked into the tune, and that we should always try to listen to our own voice as we practice on our own, and then listen to the people either side of us as we practice together.

He said that he particularly picks up on ‘vocal runs’…where a vowel is carried up or down a few notes of a scale. He said a good singer will practice note for note until they are positive that it is perfect. If it isn’t note-perfect a run sounds lazy and amateurish.

Finally he said, “Think about what you are singing. What is the story behind the words? Is the tone of the song bright and carefree or melancholy; are the words funny and alliterative, or more reflective. Try to imagine what the song-writer wanted to communicate and let that come through when you sing.

I believe he usually charges rather lot for his advice and coaching sessions so I think it’s lovely that he shared all that with me. I hope you enjoyed it too.

Ears and brains folks!

Saxon Hall Concert

Neil kindly wrote a lovely piece for the blog a couple of weeks ago and I apologise for only just now having the time to sit down and upload it.

”                                  The New Boy’s Point of View

I have enjoyed singing all my life but have only recently committed to singing with the Raunds Community Choir. What better way of bringing together a group of completely different characters enjoying a common interest in producing good music and entertaining other people in the process. Ever since joining the choir I have been impressed with the way that I was immediately made to feel welcome. There is no pretentiousness and everyone is treated in the same way. We are part of a group of people all trying our best to produce the sort of sound that is worthy of being shared with other people.

My first concert with the choir was on the Saturday the 2nd May 2015 as part of the Raunds Music Festival. Performing to a packed audience in the Saxon Hall, Raunds the choir sang a variety of music with arrangements from many well known artistes. My wife Rosamund, who is my most honest and straightforward critic, enjoyed the music along with many other appreciative local people who came to listen to the show.

No group of singers, no matter how good they are, can hope to perform well without 2 very important ingredients: Enthusiasm and a very discerning and talented musical director. The Raunds Community Choir has 2 very professional musical directors in Sally and Chris who put together a varied repertoire which is both demanding and entertaining. The enthusiasm is clearly evident in the way that people interpret the music and enjoy the company of the other choir members.

I am sure there are many people out there who enjoy singing but have never been brave enough to join a choir. The Raunds Community Choir is a great place to start and you will be made to feel very welcome.”

Neil Sheppard