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Powerful Voices

The Musical and Social World of Collegiate A Cappella

Joshua S Duchan

Publication Year: 2012

Collegiate a cappella, part of a long tradition of unaccompanied singing, is known to date back on American college campuses to at least the colonial era. Considered in the context of college glee clubs, barbershop quartets, early-twentieth-century vocal pop groups, doo-wop groups, and late-twentieth-century a cappella manifestations in pop music, collegiate a cappella is an extension of a very old tradition of close harmony singing---one that includes but also goes beyond the founding of the Yale Whiffenpoofs. Yet despite this important history, collegiate a cappella has until now never been the subject of scholarly examination. In Powerful Voices: The Musical and Social World of Collegiate A Cappella, Joshua S. Duchan offers the first thorough accounting of the music's history and reveals how the critical issues of sociability, gender, performance, and technology affect its music and experience. Just as importantly, Duchan provides a vital contribution to music scholarship more broadly, in several important ways: by expanding the small body of literature on choruses and amateur music; by addressing musical and social processes in a field where the vast majority of scholarship focuses on individuals and their products; and by highlighting a musical context long neglected by musicologists---the college campus. Ultimately, Powerful Voices is a window on a world of amateur music that has begun to expand its reach internationally, carrying this uniquely American musical form to new global audiences, while playing an important role in the social, cultural, and musical education of countless singers over the last century.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Tracking Pop

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. xi-xii

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pp. 1-8

Sometimes it seems like one can visit any American college or university and collegiate a cappella groups are easy to find. In fact, a campus visit may not even be necessary, since many groups sing at community venues, travel the country on tour, upload their latest clips to YouTube, and even appear on the occasional television show. As self-directed ensembles of student singers, they arrange, perform, and record a repertory that draws heavily from pop/rock songs of the...

Part I. Collegiate A Cappella’s Predecessors, Inception, and Historical Moment

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1. From Nineteenth-Century Glee Clubs to Barbershop Harmony

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pp. 11-22

It might be tempting to look at recent pop culture and conclude that collegiate a cappella suddenly came out of nowhere. Or in 2009, to be exact. In its eighth season that year, the hit television show American Idol featured Anoop Desai, a member of the Clef Hangers, a men’s a cappella group from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In April, piano-pop singer-songwriter Ben Folds...

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2. The Whiffenpoofs: The “First” A Cappella Group

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pp. 23-35

Collegiate a cappella is often said to have begun at Yale University with the Whiffenpoofs. 1 Indeed, the men’s ensemble holds a special place in a cappella’s history. It is the oldest group still singing today,with a long and venerable tradition spanning over a century, and its music and performances have gone farther and reached broader audiences than those of other groups. Founded near the beginning...

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3. Doo-Wop and Late-Twentieth-Century Vocal Pop

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pp. 36-44

The last two chapters outlined several forms a cappella harmony took in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and looked closely at one particular manifestation of it, the Yale University Whiffenpoofs. The kind of music the Whiffenpoofs made in their early years was both similar to and different from the kinds of vocal harmony that would develop and become popular in the mid- and late twentieth century. This chapter discusses three of...

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4. The A Cappella Explosion

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pp. 45-64

Although small, student-led vocal groups existed at certain American colleges and universities earlier, their numbers grew signi‹cantly during the twentieth century. The 1980s and 1990s, in particular, saw an explosion of collegiate a cappella groups. This dramatic rise built on a foundation laid by certain developments in music education, higher education, and popular culture. It also produced...

Part II. Contemporary Collegiate A Cappella: Performance, Technology, and Community

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5. Musical Components and Their Social Motivations

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pp. 67-86

The past few chapters argue that today’s collegiate a cappella is deeply rooted in several traditions going back at least to the beginning of the nineteenth century if not to the earlier colonial period. The remaining chapters show, then, how contemporary collegiate a cappella is contingent on its particular historical moment. It could only look, sound, and feel the way it does because it followed the advent of a relatively recent and supremely potent form of American cultural...

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6. In Rehearsal: A Cappella’s Social Performance

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pp. 87-104

Most of the time collegiate a cappella singers spend with their groups is devoted to rehearsal, usually between six and ten hours per week in two or three sessions on alternating nights. The University of Michigan Amazin’ Blue rehearsed three times per week for a total of seven hours, the Harvard University Fallen Angels for two hours three days a week, the Boston University Treblemakers for three...

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7. In Performance: Gender, Humor, Gesture, and Politics

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pp. 105-132

When I arrived at Cholmondeley’s on a crisp autumn night at about 11:00 p.m., simply entering the building was a challenge. “Chum’s,” as it was called, was a student-run lounge in the historic Usen Castle at Brandeis University, offering overstuffed couches and chairs, a bar serving coffee drinks and ice cream, and a small raised platform for a stage. The event was a “coffeehouse,” a fund-raiser featuring student performances to benefit another student organization on...

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8. Technology in Collegiate A Cappella Performance and Recording

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pp. 133-156

In collegiate a cappella, technology, especially the digital kind, is ubiquitous. When considering music and technology, much scholarship focuses on the recording studio.1 Recording is indeed a key musical technology in a cappella and popular music more generally, but before turning to the studio this chapter explores the role of technology in other areas of a cappella music making. Songs are encountered in digital format online; arranged on, shared with...

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9. Listening to Recordings: BOCA and Discourse

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pp. 157-178

Recordings are sounding records of musical events around which swirls a maelstrom of ideas, opinions, practices, and discourse. In collegiate a cappella, they can be vehicles for a group’s wider recognition in local, regional, and (inter)national scenes, especially when they are included in compilation albums, such as the annual...

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pp. 179-184

In his seminal work on American music, Richard Crawford distinguishes between “composer’s music,”which upholds the authority of the composer’s score and aims for transcendence of time and place, and “performer’s music,” in which a notated score is merely an outline for musicians as they create as accessible a performance as...


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pp. 185-222


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pp. 223-250


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pp. 251-256

E-ISBN-13: 9780472028337
E-ISBN-10: 0472028332
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472118250
Print-ISBN-10: 0472118250

Page Count: 280
Illustrations: 4 musical examples, 7 halftones, 3 figures
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Tracking Pop

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Vocal groups -- United States.
  • Music in universities and colleges -- United States.
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