Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Well over ten years ago, I remember watching the a cappella competition show The Sing Off and being blown away by Pentatonix. As the show progressed, Pentatonix covered Florence and the Machine, Britney Spears, David Guetta, Kanye West, Katy Perry, Janis Joplin, and more. Each time they sang, the group seemed to make magic, using nothing but the voices of its five members.
Years later, Pentatonix has won mainstream success, Grammy Awards, and tens of millions of YouTube views. There’s much musical wisdom in what they do, and even if you’ll never perform an a cappella vocal song in your life, indie artists of all styles and genres can glean some valuable musical lessons and learn a lot from the group.
Do a lot with a little
Even though the group consists of only five singers, they make a huge, lush, vibrant sound. That’s proof positive that you don’t need the loudest guitar, the most expensive drum kit, the fanciest new synth, or the biggest horn section to move an audience. Just like Pentatonix, try working with what you have and see how you can expand the boundaries of what any given instrument, voice, or ensemble can do.
Master your instrument
Even if you’re not a fan of Pentatonix, it’s hard to argue that all members are accomplished singers. Their pitch, tone, timing, and overall musicality are outstanding. Whenever I listen to Pentatonix, I get the sense that their technique is so polished and ingrained that I never hear them struggling, or as I sometimes describe it, “singers trying to sing” — I just hear beautiful, skillful performances.
What musical lesson can you glean from this as an indie music artist? Whether you’re a tabla player, mumblecore rapper, or anything in between, the more time you invest in mastering your instrument(s) and making your technique second nature, the more you can put into saying something profound through that technique — and the more tools you’ll have to deliver a standout performance.
Get creative with arrangements
I love Pentatonix arrangements. They always seem to capture the soul of the song they’re adapting while taking it in exciting and unexpected directions. Their version of Simon and Garfunkel’s classic “The Sound of Silence” is a great example.
In their adaptation, Pentatonix stays true to the melody, overall harmonic structure, and haunting themes of the original, but also weaves in elements of the popular (and divisive) Disturbed cover. Disturbed’s piano interlude motif between verses is featured in Pentatonix version, for example, as are the metal band’s variations on the vocal melody, like the descending phrase “…and the words that it was forming.”
At the same time, Pentatonix infuse the song with their own flavor that’s beyond the bittersweet folk of the original and the dramatic intensity of Disturbed’s version — this “Sound of Silence” has an uplifting electronica-meets-gospel-choir vibe that gives the classic song yet another compelling reinvention.
As you work on your own arrangements, never underestimate your abilitiy to reimagine a song in compelling new ways, no matter how many times it’s been done before.
Share the spotlight
Whenever I watch Pentatonix, I never get the sense that there’s a single star. Sure, baritone Scott Hoying often sings lead, but all members take turns being the focus of the audience’s attention and deliver skillful and charismatic performances when they do. In other words, Pentatonix never seems like it falls into the frontperson-plus-backup band formula; the members truly perform like a team of equal partners.
Why is this an important musical lesson? First off, it’s an unconventional vibe that makes them stand out. Second, it keeps things interesting. With a group of five capable lead singers who all seem more interested in supporting each other than hogging the spotlight, Pentatonix has a tremendous and vibrant palate of musical possibilities to work with.
Craft a distinct sound
Popular Pentatonix releases include versions of Imagine Dragon’s “Radioactive,” Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own,” Camila Cabello’s “Havana,” Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and a whole bunch of Christmas songs. But despite delving into such stylistically diverse material, their sound is unique and distinctive throughout.
There’s no formula when it comes to developing a compelling signature sound, but following Pentatonix’s example can help you get there. Try making music in a wide variety of styles, see what sounds the most powerful and compelling across all your experiments, and keep those aspects of your music-making in mind as you move forward.
Niche can be mainstream
A cappella singing has plenty of devotees, but it’s not what many would call a mainstream genre. Even so, Pentatonix has managed to find a wide and varied mass audience for its music. The lesson here for indie musicians? Don’t limit yourself by thinking you have to adhere to certain genre expectations just so you can find an audience, and don’t shy away from making more obscure styles of music. Make the music you want to make, do it at the highest level you can, and work hard to connect with listeners who will love it.
To learn more musical lessons from Pentatonix, check out this excellent Sound on Sound article about their mixing process, NPR’s feature on the band’s creative process, and Time magazine’s look into how Pentatonix crafts its arrangements.
Michael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.