What is Barbershop Harmony?

Barbershop harmony is close, unaccompanied vocal harmony and ringing chords produced by four parts:  tenor, lead, baritone, and bass.  The lead usually sings the melody, with the tenor harmonizing above the lead.  The bass sings the lowest harmonizing notes and the baritone sings the all-important missing note to complete the chord.  From four singers in a quartet – to hundreds of voices in a chorus – you’ll always find these four voice parts in female and male barbershop groups.

If you’ve never sung barbershop before, click here for tips on selecting a voice part.  If you register for the Harmony Festival, you’ll receive sheet music and a learning CD that will contain all four voice parts – so you’ll have the opportunity to experiment and find the perfect voice part for you.

Why is Barbershop different?

One of the distinctive qualities of barbershop is that the melody, sung by the lead voice, is below the tenor harmony.  This follows the pattern of many early American hymns written for men and women, with the melody in the male tenor voice and the women singing harmony above.

The other unique – and exciting – quality of barbershop is the phenomenon known as  expanded sound.  This is created when the harmonics in the individually sung tones reinforce each other to produce audible overtones or undertones.  Barbershoppers call  this “ringing a chord.”  Singing in a quartet or chorus and creating that “fifth voice” is one of the most thrilling musical sensations you’ll ever experience.  It might even give you goose bumps.

History of Barbershop

Barbershop music is a unique and genuine American folk art.  Although no one can say exactly when or where barbershop music began, the growth of the tradition was aided between the 1860s and 1920s by the types of songs popular at the time – songs characterized by sentimental lyrics and simple melodies that could be harmonized with a variety of four-part chords.

At the turn of the century, amateur singers (usually men) could often be heard singing improvised barbershop harmony at parties, on street corners – and in barber shops, which were popular gathering places.   Many historians point to a strong African American influence in barbershop, and minstrel shows in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and, thereafter, Vaudeville, also featured barbershop quartets who sang in front of the curtain while performers and stage hands prepared for the next act.

All in all, barbershop is a “melting pot” product of African-American musical devices, European hymn-singing culture, and an American tradition of recreational music.

Barbershop Today

As the popularity of barbershop harmony has grown, so has the type of participation.  Barbershop singing has broadened from male quartets to female quartets – and to men’s and women’s choruses.  In fact, there are approximately 60,000 men and women who belong to the Barbershop Harmony Society (formerly the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America) and Sweet Adelines International in chapters around the world including the U.K., Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia.  Across many miles and cultures, they all share a common bond in their delight in learning and performing barbershop style harmony.

Increasingly, young people are discovering the joys of singing barbershop, as well.  With the rising popularity of a cappella harmony groups in the mainstream musical world, many young men and women have turned to barbershop to learn how to sing unaccompanied harmony.  They have found there’s nothing quite like the challenge and fun of using just their voices to ring chords and make music with their friends.

Want to know more?

Visit these websites:

The men’s Barbershop Harmony Society (www.barbershop.org)

The ladies’ Sweet Adelines International (www.sweetadelineintl.org)

The Greater Harmony Chorus (www.greaterharmony.org)

The North Hills Harmony Line Chorus (www.harmonize.com/harmonyline)