Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Longest Time by Billy Joel

 I don’t really like a capella music.

Well that’s kind of over-generalized statement let me fill that one out. I’m not talking about the classical music idea of singing without instrumental accompaniments, I’m talking about the vocal performance groups that have exploded around high school campuses all across America.

I respect the craft of a capella group. Transforming a pop song with the vocals and instrumentals into a all vocal performances takes a lot of hard work. The results are often range from silly and funny. . .

To musical astounding:

Don’t tell these boys couldn’t sing.

At the end of the day though, I’ve never heard an a capella version of song that I’d rather listen to than the original. Artists and composers conceive songs often with specific musical instruments in mind. You don’t write melody the same way if you know that it will be played guitar as opposed to violin or sung. By taking a song out of it’s intended musical context you are taking a chance that doesn’t always musically work.

What about songs that are conceived as a cappela sings from the start? That’s a different story. There in lies the validity of this musical style of music. From barbershop quartets to the singing on street corners, a capella music has had a profound influence on popular music in America. One of the best examples of this is “The Longest Time” by Billy Joel. Skip to 3:45 for the start of the song.

But Kingsley, there’s an electric bass in this song!! Yeah, well, maybe Billy Joel couldn’t find an astounding Melvin Franklin-like singer (bass singer of The Temptations level singer, which is really hard to find). It’s a line anyways that could be sung so I give it a pass.

“The Longest Time” simply would work in any other musical context. An electric guitar would kill this song and God knows it doesn’t need any 1980s synthesized sounds. The soul of this song and the expression is rooted not only in the lyrics, melody and harmony but the ensemble of the a cappella group itself.

I’m not saying that all a cappella music needs to be is nostalgic. I’m just saying that the sonic landscape for a song is just as critical to the expression as the song as anything other musical elements. Yes, you are fantastic at imitating drum sounds, I almost can’t decipher the different, that is an amazing musical feat. However, in the idea musical situation to get the best musical product, woudn’t you rather use a drum set?

A capella groups, take a look at what you are doing musically. You can do so much more than trying to imitate guitar lines. Compose your own music, it’s hard but give it a try. If you are going to cover pop songs chose them not for the novelty but because your voices bring something different and expressive to the song. Make a version that stands on its own and at the end of the day as something you would rather listen to than the original.

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