Barbershop music

WPA poster, 1936

Barbershop vocal harmony, as codified during the barbershop revival era (1930s–present), is a style of a cappella close harmony, or unaccompanied vocal music, characterized by consonant four-part chords for every melody note in a predominantly homophonic texture. Each of the four parts has its own role: generally, the lead sings the melody, the tenor harmonizes above the melody, the bass sings the lowest harmonizing notes, and the baritone completes the chord, usually below the lead. The melody is not usually sung by the tenor or baritone, except for an infrequent note or two to avoid awkward voice leading, in tags or codas, or when some appropriate embellishment can be created. Occasional passages may be sung by fewer than four voice parts.

Barbershop music is generally performed by either a barbershop quartet, a group of four singers with one on each vocal part, or a barbershop chorus, which closely resembles a choir with the notable exception of the genre of music. Female barbershop quartets are sometimes referred to as Sweet Adelines quartets, in association with the organization of that name.

According to the Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS), "Barbershop music features songs with understandable lyrics and easily singable melodies, whose tones clearly define a tonal center and imply major and minor chords and barbershop (dominant and secondary dominant) seventh chords that resolve primarily around the circle of fifths, while making frequent use of other resolutions."[1] Slower barbershop songs, especially ballads, often eschew a continuous beat, and notes are often held (or sped up) ad libitum.

Except for the bass, the voice parts in barbershop singing do not correspond closely to their classical music counterparts; the tenor range and tessitura are similar to those of the classical countertenor, the baritone resembles the Heldentenor or lyric baritone in range and a tenor in tessitura, and the lead generally corresponds to the tenor of classical repertoire, with some singers possessing a tessitura more similar to that of a high baritone. Barbershop singing is performed both by men's and women's groups; the elements of the barbershop style and the names of the voice parts are the same for both.

Ringing chords

The defining characteristic of the barbershop style is the ringing chord, one in which certain overtones of the four voices reinforce each other, sometimes so strongly that the overtone is perceived by the listener as a distinct tone, even though none of the voices are perceived as singing that tone. This effect occurs when the chord, as voiced, contains intervals which have strongly reinforcing overtones (fifths and octaves, for example) that fall in the audible range; and when the chord is sung in perfect just tuning without excessive vibrato. Both of these characteristics are important in many styles of singing, but in Barbershop there is an extreme emphasis on them that tends to override other musical values. For example, favored chords in the jazz style are characterized by intervals which don't audibly ring, such as diminished or augmented fifths. For another example, Barbershop music is always a cappella, because the presence of fixed-pitch instruments (tuned to equal-temperament rather than just temperament), which is so highly prized in other choral styles, makes perfect just tuning of chords impossible.

The physics and psychophysics of the effect are fairly well understood; it occurs when the upper harmonics in the individual voice notes, and the sum and difference frequencies resulting from nonlinear combinations within the ear, reinforce each other at a particular frequency, strengthening it so that it stands out separately above the blended sound. The effect is audible only on certain kinds of chords, and only when all voices are equally rich in harmonics and justly tuned and balanced. It is not heard in chords sounded on modern keyboard instruments, due to the slight tuning imperfection of the equal-tempered scale.

Gage Averill writes that "Barbershoppers have become partisans of this acoustic phenomenon" and that "the more experienced singers of the barbershop revival (at least after 1938) have self-consciously tuned their dominant seventh and tonic chords in just intonation to maximize the overlap of common overtones." However, "In practice, it seems that most leads rely on an approximation of an equal-tempered scale for the melody, to which the other voices adjust vertically in just intonation."[2]

What is prized is not so much the "overtone" itself, but a unique sound whose achievement is most easily recognized by the presence of the "overtone". The precise synchrony of the waveforms of the four voices simultaneously creates the perception of a "fifth voice" while at the same time melding the four voices into a unified sound. The ringing chord is qualitatively different in sound from an ordinary musical chord e.g. as sounded on a tempered-scale keyboard instrument.

Most elements of the "revivalist" style are related to the desire to produce these ringing chords. Performance is a cappella to prevent the distracting introduction of equal-tempered intonation, and because listening to anything but the other three voices interferes with a performer's ability to tune with the precision required. Barbershop arrangements stress chords and chord progressions that favor "ringing", at the expense of suspended and diminished chords and other harmonic vocabulary of the ragtime and jazz forms.

The dominant seventh-type chord is so important to barbershop harmony that it is called the "barbershop seventh". BHS arrangers believe that a song should contain dominant seventh chords anywhere from 35 to 60 percent of the time (measured as a percentage of the duration of the song rather than a percentage of the chords present) to sound "barbershop".

Historically barbershoppers may have used the word "minor chord" in a way that is confusing to those with musical training. Averill suggests that it was "a shorthand for chord types other than major triads", and says that the use of the word for "dominant seventh-type chords and diminished chords" was common in the late nineteenth century. A 1910 song called "Play That Barber Shop Chord"[3] (often cited as an early example of "barbershop" in reference to music) contains the lines:

'Cause Mister when you start that minor part
I feel your fingers slipping and a grasping at my heart,
Oh Lord play that Barber shop chord!

Averill notes the hints of rapture, "quasi-religion" and erotic passion in the language used by barbershoppers to describe the emotional effect. He quotes Jim Ewin as reporting "a tingling of the spine, the raising of the hairs on the back of the neck, the spontaneous arrival of goose flesh on the forearm ... the fifth note has almost mysterious propensities. It's the consummation devoutly wished by those of us who love Barbershop harmony. If you ask us to explain why we love it so, we are hard put to answer; that's where our faith takes over." Averill notes too the use of the language of addiction, "there's this great big chord that gets people hooked." An early manual was entitled "A Handbook for Adeline Addicts".[2]

He notes too that "barbershoppers almost never speak of 'singing' a chord, but almost always draw on a discourse of physical work and exertion; thus, they 'hit', 'chop', 'ring', 'crack', 'swipe', and 'bust.' Vocal harmony is interpreted as an embodied musicking. Barbershoppers never lose sight (or sound) of its physicality."[2]

Historical origins

While the modern era of barbershop music is accepted to have begun with a 1940s revival, opinions as to the genre's origins vary with respect to race, gender, region and context.[4]

Historical memoirs and journalism indicate a strong tradition of quartet singing among young African American men, gathering informally to "crack up a chord".[5] This was acknowledged as early as 1882, when a New York Age writer traced the development of singing as a home-grown amusement, arising from the exclusion of Blacks from theaters and concert halls.[5]

Barbershops have a long history of serving as community centers, where men would gather for a variety of activities. English "barber's music", for example, was described in the 17th century by Samuel Pepys as amateur instrumental music.[5] In the United States, the role of the barbershop continued, particularly for African American men, who passed time there singing spirituals, folk songs and popular songs. This generated a new style, consisting of unaccompanied, four-part, close-harmony singing. Later, white minstrel singers adopted the style, and in the early days of the recording industry their performances were recorded and sold. Early standards included songs such as "Shine On, Harvest Moon", "Hello, Ma Baby", and "Sweet Adeline".

Barbershop music was very popular between 1900 and 1919, and modern barbershop quartets often costume themselves in gaudy versions of the dress of this time, with boaters and vertically striped vests.[6] The music gradually faded into obscurity in the 1920s, although barbershop-style harmonies remained in evidence in a cappella forms of traditional black gospel and white gospel.[5][7][8]

Other researchers argue that today's barbershop music is an invented tradition related to several musical features popular around 1900, including quartet singing[9] and the use of the barbershop chord,[10][11] but effectively created during the 1940s in the ranks of the Barbershop Harmony Society whilst creating a system of singing contests and its contest rules.[11][12][13]


Barbershop Harmony Society

The revival of a cappella singing took place around 1938 when a tax lawyer named Owen C. Cash sought to save the art form from a threat by radio.[14] He garnered support from an investment banker named Rupert I. Hall. Both came from Tulsa, Oklahoma.[15] Cash was a true partisan of quartet singing who advertised the fact that he did not want a cappella to fall by the wayside.

Cash had struck a chord, albeit unwittingly, and soon, across North America, men responded in their thousands and later in the same year the "Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America" was set up, known by the abbreviation S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A.[16] at a time when many institutions in the United States were in the habit of using multiple initials to denote their function. The group adopted the alternate name "Barbershop Harmony Society" early in its history. While its legal name has never changed, it changed its official brand name to "Barbershop Harmony Society" in 2004.

Sharp Harmony, a Norman Rockwell painting, appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post magazine issue dated September 26, 1936; it depicts a barber and three clients enjoying a cappella song. The image was adopted by SPEBSQSA in its promotion of the art.

Female barbershop music

Rönninge Show, the highest ever scoring Sweet Adelines International barbershop chorus.

Traditionally, the word "barbershop" has been used to encompass both men's and women's singing in the barbershop style – in quartets and choruses. Sweet Adelines International and Harmony, Inc. are two women's barbershop singing organizations.

Notable artists


Main article: Barbershop quartet

A barbershop quartet is an ensemble of four people who sing a cappella in the exacting barbershop music genre.

In North America most male barbershop quartet singers belong to the Barbershop Harmony Society, while most female barbershop quartet singers are in either Sweet Adelines International or Harmony, Inc. Similar organizations have sprung up in many other countries.

Most barbershop quartet singers also choose to sing in a chorus.


A barbershop chorus sings a cappella music in the barbershop style. Most barbershop choruses belong to a larger association of practitioners such as the Barbershop Harmony Society, Sweet Adelines International or Harmony, Inc.

In the Barbershop Harmony Society, a chorus is the main performing aspect of each chapter. Choruses may have as few as 12 or as many as 150 members singing. Choruses normally sing with a director, as distinct from quartets. It is not uncommon for a new quartet to form within a chorus, or for an established quartet affiliated with a given chorus to lose a member (to death, retirement, or relocation) and recruit a replacement from the ranks of the chorus. Choruses can also provide "spare parts" to temporarily replace a quartet member who is ill or temporarily out of town.

Unlike a quartet, a chorus need not have equal numbers singing each voice part. The ideal balance in a chorus is about 40% bass, 30% lead, 20% baritone and 10% tenor singers.

Filling the gap between the chorus and the quartet is what is known as a VLQ or Very Large Quartet, in which more than four singers perform together, with two or more voices on some or all of the four parts. A VLQ possesses greater flexibility than a standard quartet, since they can perform even with one or more singers missing, as long as all four parts are covered. Like a normal quartet, a VLQ usually performs without a director.


British Association of Barbershop Singers

Sweet Adelines International

Barbershop Harmony New Zealand

Sweet Adelines Australia

31 chartered women's barbershop choruses all around Australia, including champions:[19]

Irish Association of Barbershop Singers


The Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers


Typical barbershop songs

Barbershop Harmony Society's Barberpole Cat Songs "Polecats"—12 songs which all Barbershop Harmony Society members are encouraged to learn as a shared canonic repertoire—all famous, traditional examples of the barbershop genre:

The Barbershop Harmony Society announced on May 28, 2015, that the "Polecat" program would be expanded to include the following songs:

Examples of other songs popular in the barbershop genre are:

While these traditional songs still play a part in barbershop today, barbershop music also includes more current titles. Most music can be arranged in the barbershop style, and there are many arrangers within the aforementioned societies with the skills to include the barbershop chord structure in their arrangements. Today's barbershop quartets and choruses sing a variety of music from all eras—show tunes, pop, and even rock music has been arranged for choruses and quartets, making them more attractive to younger singers.

See also


  1. "Definition of the Barbershop Style, from the Contest and Judging Handbook". Barbershop Harmony Society. 2002-07-11. Archived from the original on 7 June 2007. Retrieved 2007-06-06.
  2. 1 2 3 Averill, Gage (2003). Four Parts, No Waiting: A Social History of American Barbershop Harmony. Oxford University Press. p. 164 and 166. ISBN 0-19-511672-0.
  3. Muir, Lewis (music); Tracy, William (lyrics) (1910). Play That Barber Shop Chord. New York: J. Fred Helf.
  4. Döhl, Frédéric (2014): From Harmonic Style to Genre. The Early History (1890s–1940s) of the Uniquely American Musical Term Barbershop. American Music 32, no. 2, 123–171, here 123–124. "In recent years, new insights and greater clarity have been acquired, which include aesthetic issues relating to sound, some answers to questions of race, gender, and other social factors shaping the genre, and exploration of the ideology surrounding the so-called revival around 1940. Still, the debate about the origins of this genre seems to be widely unsettled. The current models that chart the birth of barbershop harmony are diverse and often contradictory with regard to categories such as race, gender, regional context, social environment, amateur or professional, impromptu or composed-arranged, and highbrow or lowbrow."
  5. 1 2 3 4 Abbott, Lynn (1992). "'Play That Barber Shop Chord': A Case for the African-American Origin of Barbershop Harmony". American Music. University of Illinois Press. 10 (3): 289–325. doi:10.2307/3051597.
  6. "History of the Barbershop Quartet, A Time-Honored Tradition". May 8, 2012. Retrieved July 23, 2012.
  7. "Take 6". Primarily A Cappella.
  8. Henry, James Earl (2000). The Origins of Barbershop Harmony: A Study of Barbershop's Links to Other African American Musics as Evidenced through Recordings and Arrangements of Early Black and White Quartets. Washington University.
  9. Brooks, Tim (2005): Lost Sounds. Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890–1919. Urbana-Champaign/IL: University of Illinois Press
  10. Abbott, Lynn (1992): Play That Barber Shop Chord: A Case for the African-American Origin of Barbershop Harmony. American Music 10, no. 3 (1992), 289–325.
  11. 1 2 Döhl, Frédéric (2014): From Harmonic Style to Genre. The Early History (1890s–1940s) of the Uniquely American Musical Term Barbershop. American Music 32, no. 2, 123–171.
  12. Averill, Gage (2003): Four Parts, No Waiting. A Social History of American Barbershop Harmony. New York: Oxford University Press.
  13. Garnett, Liz (2005): The British Barbershopper: A Study in Socio-musical Values. London: Ashgate.
  14. Triplett, Gene (March 10, 1985). "Barbershop Quartets To Trim Tunes at Show". NewsOK. Retrieved January 13, 2014.
  15. "Keeping The World In Harmony". CBS News. October 18, 1999. Retrieved January 13, 2014.
  16. "Who is the Barbershop Harmony Society?". Barbershop Harmony Society. Archived from the original on January 14, 2014. Retrieved January 13, 2014.
  17. "Chorus Contest Scores". Barbershop Music Database. Retrieved 14 October 2016.
  18. "Chorus Locator". British Association of Barbershop Singers. Retrieved August 8, 2016.
  19. "Past Convention Results". Sweet Adelines Australia. Retrieved October 31, 2016.
  20. "Irish Association of Barbershop Singers". Irish Association of Barbershop Singers. Retrieved October 31, 2016.
  21. Crutchley, Alison (December 11, 2015). "More blusher, less beatboxing: inside the Ladies' British Barbershop Convention". Music. The Guardian. Retrieved October 31, 2016.
  22. "LABBS Chorus Champions Table". Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers. Retrieved October 31, 2016.

Further reading

External links

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