A cappella groups are chosen by audition and advanced in the competition based on judges' eliminations until the finale, where the winners are determined by viewer votes. Season 4 changed this to the judges choosing the final winner. The winning group receives a cash prize and a Sony Music recording contract.
Unlike many other music-based TV competitions, all the groups viewers see from the start of the season are made up of excellent musicians, and the entertainment value comes from the music itself rather than schadenfreude over poor performers. The judges (especially Ben Folds) often offer in-depth musical critiques, making the show a treat for knowledgeable musicians as well as general fans. Various wrinkles have been introduced into the formula, such as a genuine "Sing-Off" where two groups collaborate and compete on the same song. Season 5's wrinkle was that the entire "season" was a two-hour special, aired in its entirety on December 17, 2014; of the six groups featured, half of them sang only one song before being sent home.
It's hosted by Nick Lachey (formerly of the Boy Band 98 Degrees); with judges Ben Folds, Shawn Stockman (of the R&B vocal group Boyz II Men), and various women in the third seat: Nicole Scherzinger in Season 1, Sara Bareilles in the second and third seasons, and Jewel in Seasons 4 and 5. For Season 5, Folds was not available due to his touring obligations; Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump was brought in instead.
This show contains examples of:
- A Cappella: The show features only these groups.
- Author Appeal: More like Judge Appeal; most of the judges have a background working with a cappella (Ben produced an album of covers of his songs done by college a cappella groups, Sara was in UCLA Awaken during her college years, and Boyz II Men and 98 Degrees still regularly perform songs this way).
- Basso Profundo: Many, but season 3's Avi Kaplan from Pentatonix and season 4's Tim Foust from Home Free are the most prominent examples.
- Beauty, Brains, and Brawn: Nick describes Jewel, Ben, and Shawn as the beauty, brains, and brawn in season 4. Nicole and Sara could also qualify as the beauty in their respective seasons.
- Brain Bleach: In season 3, Shawn says he needs this after the Yellowjackets perform "Wannabe" by Spice Girls.
- Breakout Character: Season 3 winners Pentatonix have become very popular in their own right, and are part of the reason why the show eventually did end up being brought back for a fourth season.
- The Chick: despite five seasons, PTX member Kirstie Maldonaldo is the only woman to have been in a winning group.
- Color-Coded Characters: The members of each group are given coordinated outfits each week, though they switch it up so as to prevent people from identifying the group with just one particular color. Though groups with colors in their names (e.g Afro-Blue, The Yellowjackets) tend to wear the same color each week.
- Commercial Break Cliffhanger
- Consolation Prize: Averted in the conventional sense, but while Season 3's finalists sang in the finale with the judges (and Nick Lachey), almost-finalists Afro-Blue got to sing with Smokey Robinson. That's got to count for something.
- Coordinated Clothes: The members of each group are given coordinated outfits each week, though they switch it up so as to prevent people from identifying the group with just one particular color.
- Constructive Criticism: The preferred method, by far, for the judges' criticisms; they are very complimentary of the groups' strengths and, while they do point out mistakes, are never harsh or mean about it.
- The Cover Changes the Gender: Done whenever applicable.
- Crippling Overspecialization: After the least technically proficient groups have been weeded out, the groups that are very skilled in one particular style of music and have a hard time adapting that style to incorporate other influences are usually the next eliminated, as versatility is something the judges value very highly.
- Cross Counter: Used (at least, a stylized slo-mo version) by Home Free and The Filharmonic in the middle of their sing-off.
- Crowd Song:
- The opening number in each episode is done by all of the groups (in seasons 3 and 4, this was changed to all of the groups in that week's bracket when appropriate).
- Happened literally when Ben Folds and the Dartmouth Aires performed Ben's song "Not the Same" in season 3.
- Do Not Go Gentle: The "Swan Song" invokes this trope, particularly when the group being eliminated isn't likely to outlive the show; even though they are already eliminated from the competition, you can still expect a heartfelt performance as they walk off the stage.
- Dramatic Pause: Go ahead, time Nick when it comes down to seeing which of the bottom two groups is to get eliminated.
- Elimination Catchphrase: In seasons 1-3, this was variations on "And now please raise your mics one final time for your Swan Song."
- Elimination Statement: In seasons 1-3, each eliminated group gets to perform a "Swan Song," one last tune as they leave the stage.
- Follow the Leader:
- While much different in tone, plus the a cappella gimmick making it distinct, it's unmistakably following in the mold of American Idol.
- In an in-show example: Season 4's Home Free's performance of "Ring of Fire" made a big impact with the audience and judges with the ending, when their Basso Profundo Tim Foust hit (and sustained) a floor-shaking F# on the last "fire". In later episodes, a lot of their competitors started tapping their basses to do similar things.
- Funny Background Event: After the first elimination in the first episode of Season 3, while Nick Lachey is introducing the next four musicians, Shawn Stockman and Ben Folds start waving and posing for the camera behind him.
- Genre Shift: Can happen during the Ultimate Sing-Offs in season 4, due to the groups singing two halves of the same song, each in their own style. Calle Sol's battle with the acoUstiKats had the song shift between calypso and pop, and Filharmonics' battle with Street Corner Renaissance had the song shift between pop and doo-wop.
- Guilty Pleasure: The theme of a Once a Season episode, giving the groups a chance to perform some slightly embarrassing favorites (such as pop hits from The '80s).
- Incredibly Lame Pun: Nick spouts one in his introduction for every performance, normally relating to the song's title. He'll often pull another once the song is done.
- Incredibly Long Note: During a literal sing-off with another group, Michael from the Dartmouth Aires managed to belt out a high A-flat for so long it messed his own group up.
- Judge Stock Phrases: "Pitchy," "beatboxing," "you did your thing," and any instance where the singers are described like non-vocal instruments. This was lampshaded in season 4 with the "A capella dictionary" gag used in the finale.
- Meta Twist: The first four seasons crowned a group that contained five members and wasn't associated with an institute of higher learning. This led viewers of the fifth season to assume that The Exchange, which fit the mold, would clinch the title. Instead, Vanderbilt University's Melodores, 14 strong, took home the prize.
- Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly: This can happen with some of the more exotic groups.
- Season 1 winners Nota are from Puerto Rico, and it shows.
- Season 3's Pentatonix incorporated electronic influences, while Urban Method featured a "rapapella" style (mixing rapping and a cappella singing, which worked surprisingly well).
- Season 4's Home Free was the show's first a capella country group.
- Once an Episode: After about three episodes, you'll know roughly when Nick is going to say "This is a vocal competition using only their voices" and his other stock phrases.
- Once a Season: Although you can't always exactly predict when, you'll also see Nick bemoan the fact that nobody wants to sing a 98 Degrees song (usually after someone does a song by a different Boy Band).
- Perfectly Cromulent Word: Ben Folds is probably the worst offender, but all of the judges use words that sound like they're either music industry insider lingo or ones they just made up ("pitchy," borrowed from American Idol, seems to be the most popular).
- Piss Take Rap: While remarking on a performance by "rapapella" group Urban Method, Ben Folds called back to a song by his old band Majosha with an extremely nerdy rap. Hilarity Ensued.
- Power Trio: The judges.
- Product Placement: They are not shy about notifying folks as to when any of the judges are about to have another release.
- Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Ben Folds sometimes employs it for laughs. "Thumbs aloft, gentlemen." He even lampshaded it in Season 4: "Are you calling me a sesquipedalian?"
- Shown Their Work: Ben Folds in particular will show off his familiarity with the mechanics and techniques of a cappella singing, the other judges as well if less frequently.
- The '60s: The subject of another one of the theme episodes.
- Technician vs. Performer: Some elements of this, particularly with various college groups falling under the "technician" umbrella.
- That Came Out Wrong:
- Sara Bareilles has a few "why did I just say that" moments in the first episode of Season 3.Bareilles [regarding Afro Blue]: ...and I also wrote down that you're all very attractive, so... [general laughter] ...maybe I need to work on taking notes, but you're all very good looking in addition to sounding amazing — [to Ben Folds, leaning over to read her pad] — it's on there, it is on there. I know. Get over it.
- In season 4, Jewel had a huge moment of this when evaluating The Filharmonic.Jewel: You guys did a great job letting a classic be a classic. [...] At the same time, I did miss a climax, and that gets a little frustrating when you're not able to reach that - [Ben turns to her with a Fascinating Eyebrow and Shawn has a "Whoa!" face] - umm, okay, that just sounded really awful. [puts her head in her hands and laughs]
Shawn: Is it frustrating, Jewel?
Nick: (to The Filharmonic) How dare you guys not allow Jewel to reach her climax?!
- Sara Bareilles has a few "why did I just say that" moments in the first episode of Season 3.
- Title Drop:
- Season 3 introduced the first official "Sing-Off," in which the two lowest-ranked groups battled each other for elimination, each performing the same song for the judges.
- This became the new method of elimination in season 4, with the two groups mock-dueling each other by singing different parts of one song for the judges to make their final evaluations.
- Un-Cancelled: After taking a year off, it was brought back for a fourth season in 2013. The year after that, the entire season was a 2-hour special which only involved 9 performances by competitors, six in the first round and three in the second after half the groups had been sent home. (YouTube has some video of the Cut Songs from those three groups.)