Acapella Hymns: History

The term acapella is of fairly recent origin. It first began to be used around 1875, and it is an Italian term meaning “in the manner of a chapel.” It referred to singing without instrumental accompaniment, the normal practice in the Middles Ages. So acapella hymns are hymns sung without musical accompaniment. Actually, the preferred spelling of the term is a cappella, but both acappella and acapella are common variations.

From all of the evidence we have, it appears that the early Christians sang hymns in their congregational meetings without musical accompaniment. (See the quotations under Early Christian Music.) In the early Middle Ages, all church hymns were sung acapella by choirs. The dominant form of church music in the west was Gregorian chant. This was sung a cappella and featured a monophonic sound. That is, all voices sang the same tune; there were not different parts.

The Introduction of Musical Instruments

In the high Middle Ages, the organ was first introduced into some Roman Catholic churches. It was not a new invention. The organ was actually invented by the ancient Greeks before the time of Christ. The Romans had used organs in their music, although their organs were hydraulic (water driven), rather than driven by air and bellows, as were late medieval organs.

Despite the introduction of the organ in some churches, most choirs still sang their hymns acappella during the Middle Ages. During the period of the Renaissance and beyond, church music underwent a number of changes. The Italian church composer, Giovanni Gabrieli, wrote motets that featured choirs and small orchestras. After the Reformation, many Lutheran and Anglican churches used organs, while Reformed churches and Puritan congregations normally rejected them, singing only acapella hymns (normally just the Psalms).

During the Baroque era and into the nineteenth century, more and more churches began adopting instrumental accompaniment to their hymn singing. Congregations with more resources typically used organs, while congregations with lesser finances began using pianos for musical accompaniment. Sometimes congregations with abundant finances still adopted pianos instead of organs, as they viewed the enormous cost of a pipe organ as a waste of the church’s money.

During the late twentieth century, some congregations introduced acoustic guitars for musical accompaniment, especially for praise songs. Over time, most evangelical churches dropped their objections to acoustical guitars. Today, electric guitars and full rock bands are common in many evangelical churches, and even in some Catholic churches. Churches that still retain acappella hymn singing are often viewed as odd or legalistic by other churches, even though they have the solid testimony of history on their side.

Today, the two main church groups that have retained acapella hymns are the Church of Christ and the conservative Anabaptists (Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites). To see a selection of CDs featuring a cappella hymns and praise songs from both Church of Christ and Mennonite groups, simply click on the button below.

Acapella Hymns