The joy of making an unexpectedly beautiful sound together with friends.
Brian Eno | October 2008 issue
This is an article about singing. It’s about you singing. I’m writing this because I want to encourage you to sing.
A few years ago my friend and I realized we both loved singing but didn’t do enough of it. So we started a weekly a capella group with just four members. After a year, we invited others to join. We didn’t insist on musical experience; in fact, some of our members had never sung before. Now the group has ballooned to about 15 people.
The reason I’m going to try to persuade you that you should start your own a capella group is because I believe singing is the key to a long life, a good figure, a stable temperament, greater intelligence, new friends, increased self-confidence, heightened sexual attractiveness and a sense of humour. There! That got your attention.
What’s so good about singing? Well, there are physiological benefits: You use your lungs in a way you probably don’t the rest of the day; you breathe deeply and openly. And there are psychological benefits: Singing leaves you with a sense of levity and contentedness. And there are what I’d call “civilizational benefits.” When you sing with a group of people you learn how to subsume yourself to the group consciousness—because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That’s one of the great feelings: to stop being me for a little while, and to become us. That way lies empathy; the great virtue.
So here’s how it works. There are some drinks, some snacks, some sheets of lyrics and a strict starting time. We warm up a little together, singing the words “Oh Zimbabwe” and moving up and down the scale to stretch our vocal cords. Then we start on the songs.
The choice of songs turns out to be critical. When we started, we wanted to sing sophisticated things like “Summertime.” But songs of that genre are tricky: Everybody will know the lead melody, but the chordal progressions are complicated, so it’s hard to harmonize spontaneously. Of course, if you read music you could score out the harmony parts, but that isn’t what we wanted to do. We wanted to sing freestyle and allow it to be different every time.
The songs that seem to work well are based around the basic chords of blues, rock and country music—the same chords you hear at the beginning of “Louie Louie” or “Wild Thing.” Musicians call this chordal relationship “I, IV, V.” This limitation doesn’t reduce the repertoire significantly—thousands of great songs are written around that relationship. And because the sequences are so ingrained in us, they invite easy harmonizing. Everyone can sing something good without risk of a catastrophic harmonic train crash.
A second piece of advice is to choose songs that don’t have big empty spaces between vocal lines. Unless you’re doo-wop singers who fill the gaps with “dut doo-doo doo wah,” those big spaces will remain. You want songs that are word- and vowel-rich because it’s on the long vowels of a song such as “Bring It on Home to Me” (“You know I’ll alwaaaaays be your slaaaaave”) that your harmonies express themselves.
A capella singing isn’t only about harmony; it has two other important dimensions. The first is rhythm. It’s thrilling to get the rhythm of something tight and sing it well together. The second is tone. To hit the same vowel sound at a number of pitches seems unremarkable, but it’s beautiful when it happens.
Last thing: Notice in what key you like to sing the song. It helps when you come back to it. Just knowing the first note is enough.
If I were asked to redesign the educational system, I’d insist group singing be part of the daily routine. It builds character and encourages co-operation.
We have a simple rule in the group: We never perform for anyone or record. These exclusions give us the freedom to get it wrong. The same should be true if this becomes a central part of school curricula: You’ll do this every day, and never be tested.
Brian Eno is an English musician and record producer. This article was originally published in the July/August 2008 issue of Resurgence, a British magazine at the heart of earth, art and spirit (resurgence.org).