The Late Movies: Collegiate A Cappella

College students have been forming a cappella groups since at least the late 1800s, with the Rensselyrics of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute being the oldest known group. (They started out as the RPI Glee Club in 1873.) Women's collegiate groups, though, weren't formed until 1936. (Smith College's Smiffenpoofs were the first.)

Today, college a cappella groups are increasingly popular—Northwestern University has at least 15—and usually known for their fun renditions of classics and current hits. The videos below are just a small sampling of the many collegiate a cappella groups across the country—and the world.

The Rensselyrics

Formed in 1873, RPI's Rensselyrics is the oldest known college a cappella group. Here they're performing Feist's "1234."

The Whiffenpoofs

Yale's Whiffenpoofs is the longest continuously performing college a cappella group. Cole Porter was a member in 1913. Here they're performing "Haven't Met You Yet" by Michael Bublé.

The Smiffenpoofs

The Smiffenpoofs formed in 1936 at Smith College after some Smith students were inspired by a Whiffenpoofs performance; they chose a similar name in honor of Yale's group. Here they perform The Beatles' "Because."

The V8s

Mount Holyoke College's Victory Eights, or V8s, founded in 1942, is the longest continuously performing all-female college a cappella group. Here they perform "Come On Eileen," the Dexys Midnight Runners hit.

The Beelzebubs

Tufts University's oldest a cappella group is The Beelzebubs, an all-male group that formed in 1962. Here they perform Styx's "Come Sail Away."

The Amalgamates

The Amalgamates is the oldest co-ed a cappella group at Tufts University; they've released 11 albums since their formation in 1984. Here they perform Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance."

Straight No Chaser

Straight No Chaser formed as a student a cappella group at Indiana University in 1996. After a recording of one of their 1998 performances went viral in 2006, the original members landed a record deal. Today, the original members perform and record as Straight No Chaser, while the university's a cappella group performs and records as Indiana Unviersity's Straight No Chaser. Here the original members sing Solomon Linda's "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" in a 1998 school performance.


Redefined is a co-ed a cappella group at University of Wisconsin-Madison known for their "Nintendo Medley." This performance of the medley is from their 2009 spring show.

Out of the Blue

Out of the Blue is an all-male a cappella group at the University of Oxford, although membership is not limited to Oxford students. Here they perform Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls." (Look out for the "Harry Potter" at the 00:39 mark.)

Rhythm and Jews

Rhythm and Jews is the University of Chicago's Jewish a cappella group. Here they perform "Schneinu B'Yachad," a variation of The Turtles' "So Happy Together.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

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Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]


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