This article has no real opinions on what the Rules are, or Should Be. I’d rather explore why people seem to need them in the first place.

A long-time a cappella fan and friend sent a post to me and a few other singers. It was my friends Lukas Teske and Patrick Hirsche, aka Hartmuth & die Hitmaschine, at their recent set in Graz. They did a cappella live looping, with the looping controlled offstage by their sound engineer. Not knowing how this stuff worked, my friend asked “How are they doing that? And, in the a cappella world, is this considered ‘kosher’”? Jon Minkoff at started an online poll “What do you consider ‘cheating’ in a cappella?” which brought out plenty of responses. My friend’s “kosher” question, and the resulting snowball effect, inspired me to write.

So, who does give a fa-la-la? Not me. But apparently a lot of people do, so let’s break it open and see what it means.

My position is this: there are no Rules in music. Music evolves when current musical conventions are stretched, challenged and even broken. Without it, music is static. If you like anything new, innovative or different, you must be OK with having a few conventions smashed here and there. However, the idea of “Rules” can be used creatively, as a structure or a prism to force your creativity into places you wouldn’t go otherwise. This in some ways is the definition of “a cappella”: being creative by restricting your “instrumentation” to the human voice.

But I think just about everybody buys that about music in general. So why do people get in a tizzy about it in the a cappella world?

Perhaps it’s the same reason people are drawn to a cappella in the first place: the intimacy, the human-ness, the realness of the human voice. As artists and listeners, we’re fascinated by the technical ability to expand the “limits” of vocal music, and conversely repulsed when we feel it’s gone too far. And with such a personal art form as all-vocal music, people feel it even more intensely.

Art and Orthodoxy

Beware the word “should”. Should implies a belief in an External Right and Wrong, a legalistic Code of Conduct. If a sentence starts with “a cappella music should/should not…”, you’re listening to A Cappella Orthodoxy. My friend’s “is this considered ‘kosher?’” question, posed to a few so-called authorities on a cappella music, reminded me of a religious follower looking to the Elders for guidance, or at least another sounding-board for his own beliefs.

The funny thing is, it’s rarely the creators of the music who care much about Rules, or make music based on ideology – they’re usually too busy breaking the Rules! More often, it seems to be the listener. And sometimes, the more devout the fan, the more specific are their beliefs in Rules. It almost seems that people need Rules to help them enjoy and appreciate music. Take the Rules away, and what defines the music?

The Rules Are Your Own

When a person tells you about how things “should/shouldn’t be”, they’re really telling you about themselves.

If you find yourself saying “I don’t like it when” (a more sensible version of “Should”, acknowledging that it’s merely your opinion), ask “why?”, and then take a hard look at your own answers. You may find that you challenge (and perhaps expand) your own beliefs about music. Or, you might gain positive insight about what is really meaningful to you in music. A little self-reflection will tell you a lot.

I’m just as susceptible to this as anyone: for all my theoretical openmindedness, there are plenty of things that I personally don’t like. So, here are a couple of my own examples, put to my own “why?” test:

#1. I don’t like backing tracks in live performances.

Why? Because, for me, the beauty of a live performance is not just the sounds reaching my ears: it’s the uniqueness of a moment that can never be truly repeated. As a listener, I get to be part of a moment in time. For me, fixed backing tracks (inflexible and not in-the-moment) dilute that magic. Moreover, I like the idea of “what you see is what you get”: if the backing tracks are used in a way to convince singers that it’s all live, it feels a little deceptive to me.

Well, most people know that the Nylons sing live to backing tracks, allowing for more-than-four-part harmony. When I produced their new record, I also produced their backing tracks. If I was ideological, if I was a believer in A Cappella Orthodoxy, perhaps I wouldn’t have made tracks for them out of Some Sense of Principle. But when I see them live, with the tracks, I think it’s a helluva show. I even think the backing tracks make it better.

#2. I don’t like Autotune.

Mostly I don’t like hearing it: check out my article “Shiny Happy Robots” for my thoughts on this. That said, I use Autotune on every project I work on… except my own.  So, why not? Well, I’d better be honest here. I can’t claim any sense of higher principle: basically, it’s ego and snobbery.

As a performer who has worked very hard at technical proficiency and accuracy, I’m turned on by singers who can sing in tune on their own, and Autotune feels a little like “cheating” to me. If Bobby McFerrin, Take Six and M-Pact don’t need it, well then I should aspire to such a standard for myself. I sing (mostly) in tune, I’m proud of it, and want the record to show it.

Product Versus Process

What does this tell me? It seems that I’m interested in process as much as product: I care as much about how the music’s being made as much as the final result. I think for most people who talk about Rules and Cheating, this is what they really mean.

So for all of us (and I’m talking to myself here as well!): open your head, your ears and your heart. You’ll still have likes and dislikes, but they’ll be yours alone, and they’ll be meaningful to you. And above all, listen not with Rules, but with joy.

–    Dylan Bell

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