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Against 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 their voices.

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 instruments.

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.