the Grain: Bobby McFerrin, Pentatonix redefined use of vocals
February 13, 2013
By brendan hornbostel
The human voice is an extremely versatile instrument. It can bend,
run and stretch over as many as four octaves. While singing has generally
been accompanied by instruments such as the piano and the guitar,
some artists have thrown aside instruments in favor of their own voices.
Exactly how far can the human voice be taken? Just as Bobby McFerrin
showed the world in the 1980s that vocal percussion could be a form
of popular music, the a cappella group Pentatonix seems to be revitalizing
popular music made without instruments by furthering the ability to
extract the sound of music from vocal chords.
It seems that everyone knows Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 hit, “Don’t
Worry, Be Happy.” But how many people know that the only instrument
in that song is McFerrin’s voice? His ability to extract the
percussive sounds of bongos, chimes, bass guitars and claves from
his mouth, creates the semblance of a full band tune.
McFerrin was not just a novelty act. He wasn’t another barbershop
quartet or a doo-wop band, he was a reggae artist who didn’t
need instruments besides his voice. When “Don’t Worry,
Be Happy” topped the music charts, it placed McFerrin alongside
popular artists of the era, such as Guns N’ Roses, Whitney Houston
and Michael Jackson.
McFerrin’s “Drive,” which many consider a loose
cover of the Beatles’ “Drive My Car,” showcases
his talent of producing the sounds of a full rock band. The bass line,
snare drum beats and bending of an electric guitar from his vocal
inflections are put together at once to create an interesting twist
on the classic song. Moreover, McFerrin’s tremendous capability
to sing two notes simultaneously demonstrates how one person’s
voice can mimic four to five instruments at once.
Rising to fame on the NBC show, “The Sing-Off,” Pentatonix,
originating from Arlington, Texas and now based in Los Angeles, has
found a way to transform traditional a cappella music, stretching
the limits of beatboxing and vocality on a level similar to McFerrin.
The band makes it clear it is not just an amateur a cappella quintet;
Pentatonix has gained some popularity as a full-fledged band –
one without guitars and drums. The members create those sounds with
Taking to YouTube to promote its abilities through videos such as
a medley of Swedish House Mafia songs, Pentatonix has established
its talents to cover modern, electronic dance music without heavy
effects. The listener hears the electronic drum machine and the synthetic
lasers without noticing that it is coming from the mouths of Pentatonix.
Just as McFerrin voided the need for additional instruments in the
’80s, Pentatonix has brought that same against-the-grain attitude
to the era of electronic music.
Pentatonix released its first EP, “PTX Volume 1,” which
landed on popular music charts immediately. Radio generally has stood
out of reach from customary a cappella groups. Now that Pentatonix
has begun to receive airplay on major U.S. radio stations, however,
boundaries of what can be included in popular music are shifting.
The environment built throughout the album displays the raw vocal
talents of each member, especially Avi Kaplan and Kevin Olusola, who
provide the bass and drums, respectively. McFerrin’s influence
on Olusola has allowed Pentatonix to prove synthesizers and auto-tune
unnecessary, since as much can be accomplished from the human voice.
This is shown in the original song “Show You How To Love.”
What’s most evident in the original material is how each member
is vital to their specific part. It’s not just three-part harmonies
with beatboxing underneath. Pentatonix has manipulated the human voice
to incorporate hints of dubstep and industrial noise, developing a
more full sound.
Spanning genres and sounds on its albums, touring across the country
and receiving airplay on major radio stations, Pentatonix should soon
be a well-known act in popular music, one that happens not to use
Pentatonix has continued to prove that the evolution of percussive
vocality did not stop with McFerrin; there is an opening for bands
like Pentatonix to step into the lexicon of popular music and demand
their rightful spot. The human voice is a powerful instrument. Wielded
correctly, it can replicate the sounds of guitars and synthesizers,
percussion and drum machines.