“A capella” is a Latin term which was brought into English usage (via Italian, which spells it "a cappella"). We use it to refer to singing without instrumental accompaniment. A cappella literally means “in the chapel” or “of the chapel”, as church music originally was distinctively different to music outside church, and for good reason. A key characteristic of church music for about six centuries was that it did not use musical instruments—hence, the meaning of the term a cappella—and historians say that use of musical instruments in churches only became prevalent in the last 300 years.
A simpler English word for a cappella is “singing” — just plain singing. Singing is a human trait. We do it when we’re happy, we do it when we’re sad. We sing when we’re working...sometimes. Some sing while they’re watching sport, and English soccer fans show how good that can sound.
But why do we sing? Because it gives expression to how we feel. “Sad songs say so much.” It’s true. We’re emotional beings, and we have a need to express our emotions. No one disputes that. It’s just the way God has made us. (Of course, many dispute that, but they’ve yet to explain how singing would help Homo Sapiens survive better than rival species.)
The Psalms are an excellent example of God’s people expressing, in song, how they feel through the ups and downs of life. They cover the whole range of emotions and sentiments. Our designer and creator knows the value of singing our hearts out, and he has commanded that our worship of him include song. It's a prescription from the Great Physician.
God has always required that those who worship him do so in the way he directs, and he has shown that he does not accept worship which he has not ordained. (Read Leviticus 10:1-3 and 1 Samuel 15:22-24 to see this demonstrated.) This is one of the messages most consistently present throughout history, from Cain's day onwards: if we’re to approach God, we must do it on his terms, not our own. And when we see what God says is acceptable worship to him under the New Covenant, singing stands as one thing he desires—one thing he requires.
As God’s people, we seek to please him in all respects (Colossians 1:10), trying to learn what is pleasing to him (Ephesians 5:10). We are urged in Hebrews 13:15, “Let's continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” If singing pleases God, it pleases us. And if that's the only kind of music he has called us to offer him, we're happy with that too.
Hearts and Voices
But it’s not just our voices we use. Our hearts are singing too! As Ephesians 5:19 says, when we sing we are “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” Yes, there’s a melody in our hearts! You may not hear it, but God does.
Singing is a reflection of our love and adoration for God. It flows from the heart. Like everything we do in obedience to God, it comes from love: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” Christ himself said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (1 John 5:3; John 14:15).
Obedience is an important subject in itself, but with regards to singing (as with anything God has commanded) we should bear in mind Christ’s words in Matthew 15:6-9:
“…you have nullified the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying, ‘These people draw near to me with their mouth, and they honour me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. And in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ ”
The New Living Translation puts that last sentence like this: “Their worship is a farce, for they replace God’s commands with their own man-made teachings.” That gets across just how displeased God is when we do things our own way, rather than the way God has directed. If we think God likes that kind of worship, we’re not listening to him, and only fooling ourselves.
So when we sing to God, we take him seriously about doing it his way—the way he wants it, and to achieve what he wants it to. He says our songs are to teach, admonish and encourage us spiritually, as well as giving thanks and praise to him (Colossians 3:16; 1 Corinthians 14:26). So we don't use songs merely because they have a catchy tune; the words are the most important consideration, and nothing should detract or distract from them.
Yes, church music should indeed be different to other music. We know that’s the way God meant it to be, because he gave specific instructions on it. It serves a divinely intended purpose, and we must never lose sight of that. We dare not add to it or take away from it.
Looking at church music today, it's a fair question to ask:
Where did the a cappella go?