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I'm not sure how I feel about: a)the custom to refrain from listening to recorded music during Sefirah or b)the assumption that recorded a cappella music is not considered instrumental (despite the fact that there is nobody sitting in front of you singing; ie., the recording is itself an instrument). OK, I'm pretty sure we all can tell how I feel about b. Anyone disagree, though? And any thoughts on a?

I'm also not entirely sure why live singing isn't a problem during Sefirah (assuming it's done for the sake of making people happy and spreading joy).

I understand that refraining from listening to music appears to be Minhag Yisrael, but it's not mentioned anywhere before later Aḥaronim - even the RaM"A doesn't mention it: http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=9008&st&pgnum=292 (or does someone else contemporaneous to or preceding the MeḤaber mention it?).

To be clear, I'm operating on a couple of assumptions, so please correct me if I'm wrong:

  1. The practice to refrain from listening to music during the period - not discussing the prohibition the rest of the year, which is clearly not followed by most - is a (comparatively) recent trend.
  2. I don't believe the prohibition was ever an issue of personal joy, so much as public expressions of joy/celebration.
  3. Live performance of music is one of many forms of expression/manifestation of public joy and celebration, especially when accompanied by dancing.

So, considering all of the above, why is live a cappella ok? And if instrumental music itself is a problem why is recorded a cappella ok?

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Apparently it is not.

There are basically three types of a cappella.

One is where the musical sounds originate from human voices but the natural properties are digitally modified with computer software to attain quality of sounds that are not humanly possible, thus making it sound more like regular music. Such a cappella is halachically not viewed as being any different from regular music.

There are other forms of a cappella which sound very similar to regular music, although no digital modification is done to the voices. These types of a cappella should also not be listened to during Sefirah and The Three Weeks, as will be explained shortly.

The third type of a cappella is where regular songs are sung by an individual or choir. There is nothing halachically objectionable about listening to such a cappella during Sefirah and The Three Weeks.

See here for more information.

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I like this paragraph, because it reinforces my questions: "There is a common misconception that music is ossur during Sefirah. Nowhere in Hilchos Sefirah or the halachos of The Three Weeks does it mention that there is a minhag not to listen to music. All that is mentioned by the earlier poskim is that there is a minhag to abstain from rikkudim u’mecholos, dancing." Unfortunately, although the article goes on to state that it is now "our Minhag", it does not elaborate very much (it does a bit, I admit) as to why, or when this became the case, or corroborate it with sources. – Seth J Apr 29 '11 at 14:17
One of my Rabbanim once told me that HaRav Belsky Shalit"a is matir listening to slow tempo a capella music, and that there are Matirim of a capella nowadays. – Hacham Gabriel May 31 '13 at 22:20

(1). It's not that recent. The באר היטב in סימן תצג - דינים הנוהגים בימי העמר says:

רק לעשות שמחות יתירות בריקודין ומחולות נהגו איסור. מ''א וח''י ע''ש

So a source would be the Magen Avraham who died in 1682.

As you see, the issue is dancing, so any music that is not conducive to dancing should - in theory - be permissible.

Since cappella is not music (i.e. not produced by an instrument, see below) and not conducive to dancing, some Poskim have allowed it during Sefira.

(2). The earlier Poskim don't mention singing and music during the Sefira, because singing and music is forbidden during the entire year - except for Mitzva reasons like at weddings. This is one of the decrees instituted to remind us of the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash.

We learn in Shulchan Aruch in סימן תקס - לעשות זכר לחרבן:

ג וְכֵן גָּזְרוּ שֶׁלֹּא לְנַגֵּן בִּכְלֵי שִׁיר וְכָל מִינֵי זֶמֶר וְכָל מַשְׁמִיעֵי קוֹל שֶׁל שִׁיר לְשַׂמֵּחַ בָּהֶם; הגה: וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים דַּוְקָא מִי שֶׁרָגִיל בָּהֶם, כְּגוֹן הַמְּלָכִים שֶׁעוֹמְדִים וְשׁוֹכְבִים בִּכְלֵי שִׁיר אוֹ בְּבֵית הַמִּשְׁתֶּה (טוּר), וְאָסוּר לְשָׁמְעָם מִפְּנֵי הַחֻרְבָּן; וַאֲפִלּוּ שִׁיר בַּפֶּה עַל הַיַּיִן, אֲסוּרָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: בַּשִּׁיר לֹא יִשְׁתּוּ יָיִן (יְשַׁעְיָה כד, ט) וּכְבָר נָהֲגוּ כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל לוֹמַר דִּבְרֵי תִּשְׁבָּחוֹת אוֹ שִׁיר שֶׁל הוֹדָאוֹת וְזִכְרוֹן חַסְדֵי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, עַל הַיַּיִן. הגה: וְכֵן לְצֹרֶךְ מִצְוָה, כְּגוֹן, בְּבֵית חָתָן וְכַלָּה, הַכֹּל שָׁרֵי (תּוֹסָפוֹת וּסְמַ''ג וְהַגָּהוֹת מַיְמוֹנִי). ‏

Recently some Poskim seem to have found loopholes around the above Halacha; prompted -probably - by the invention of the phonograph.

(3). Recorded music. Obviously you will not find Poskim before 1877 dealing with that issue. The phonograph was invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison. (Source: WP)

This should give you some information to revise [some of] your assumptions.

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"Obviously you will not find Poskim before 1877 dealing with that issue." What are you talking about? You just quoted sources that deal with music created by instruments in the previous section! – Double AA Sep 2 '14 at 15:38
@DoubleAA, misquote? "(3). Recorded music. Obviously you will not find Poskim before 1877 dealing with that issue. The phonograph was invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison. (Source: WP)" – Seth J Sep 2 '14 at 15:50
@SethJ What did I misquote? – Double AA Sep 2 '14 at 15:51
He's referring to recorded music. I suggested in my question that perhaps that counts as an instrument. He is saying that that was not directly addressed by anyone prior to Edison. You are saying it's a fact that it is an instrument. On what basis? – Seth J Sep 2 '14 at 18:53
@SethJ It's a thing. It makes music. I don't understand what else you need to know. How do you know a piano is an instrument? It was only invented in 1700. (Please remember to ping me @DoubleAA.) – Double AA Sep 3 '14 at 5:59

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