Barbershop music

From New World Encyclopedia
A barbershop quartet performs in the early 1940s.

Barbershop music is a style of a cappella, 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, usually between the lead and the bass, completes the chord. These voice parts do not correspond closely to the correspondingly named voice parts in classical music. 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.

Barbershop music is famous and renowned for its "ringing" chords, produced by singing a particular combination of notes that are perfectly tuned. This effect is so powerful and delightful to the listeners (and singers) that it has been called "the angel's voice," and has been described in almost religious terms.

Barbershop music is a musical form originally developed by African-Americans, and was commandeered by Caucasian Americans once record companies began making sizable profits on the recordings in the late nineteenth century. However, it continues to be popular with both white and African-American music lovers in the United States, as well as in many other countries.


Did you know?
Barbershop music is a four-part a cappella style of singing famous for its "ringing" chords in which an overtone is produced that sounds like a fifth note

The hymns, psalms, and folk songs that immigrants to the United States brought with them typically consisted of four parts, with the melody set in the second-lowest voice. The barbershop style of music was first associated with black southern quartets of the 1870s,[1] evolving from the traditional close-harmony quartets of the mid-1800s. Examples of early African-American groups include the American Four and the Hamtown Students. Their influence is particularly prevalent in the improvisational nature of the harmonization, as well as the flexible melody that produces harmonies in "swipes" and "snakes."[1] Such quartets became a common sight at shaving parlors and barbershops (hence the name), and, according to historian James Weldom Johnson, "every barbershop seemed to have its own quartet."[1] The first written use of the word "barbershop" when referring to harmonizing came in 1910, with the publication of the song, "Play That Barbershop Chord," evidence that the term was in common parlance by that time. [1]

Other acts, like the Mills Brothers even learned to harmonize in their father's barbershop barbershop in Piqua, Ohio. Several other well-known African American gospel quartets were founded in neighborhood barber shops, among them the New Orleans Humming Four, the Southern Stars and the The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartette."[2] Although the Mills Brothers are primarily known as jazz and pop artists and usually performed with instrumental accompaniment, the affinity of their harmonic style with that of the barbershop quartet is clearly in evidence in their music and most notably, perhaps, in their best-known gospel recording, "Jesus Met the Woman at the Well," performed a cappella. Their father founded a barbershop quartet, the Four Kings of Harmony, and the Mills Brothers produced at least three records in which they sang a cappella and performed traditional barbershop material.

However, as Thomas Edison's phonograph grew in popularity, phonograph records, or phonograms, began generating more profits than sheet music, and phonograph companies were eager to find groups to record. The small space of the recording studio made barbershop quartets a perfect fit. By the end of the nineteenth century, phonogram companies were presenting competing quartets. And in order to improve sales, the quartets they presented were typically made up of white men, as they were the people who had the most disposable income. According to Gage Averill, chairman of the music department at New York University, "…it was the promotion of these groups and their dissemination everywhere in North America and beyond that really fixed the identity of the barbershop in a white context."[3]

White America took such a strong hold on barbershop music that, for a while, the genre's origin was mistakenly traced back to England. In the 1930s, influence historian Percy Skoals came upon the phrase "barber's music" in the Oxford English Dictionary, and so assumed that barbershop music, thus, came from England.

Barbershop music remained extremely popular until the 1930s, when, with the advent of radio, the demand for public performances began to fade. Concerned that the style of music might become lost forever, lovers of barbershop music began working on ways to promote and preserve the genre.[4] Barbershop harmonies remain in evidence in the a cappella music of the black church. The popular Christian a cappella group Take 6[5] started in 1980, as The Gentleman's Estate Quartet with the tight, four-part harmony by which barbershop music is known. Members of modern barbershop quartet often belong to a revival association so that they can network with fellow musicians with like interests.


Barbershop music is a style of a cappella singing with four parts. These parts are as follows:

[T]he Lead who carries the melody, the Bass who sings the lowest harmonising note, the Baritone who completes the chord and the Tenor who harmonises above the melody. When all 4-parts in a quartet or chorus are in perfect balance, a “ringing” or overtone sound is produced.[6]

The melody is not usually sung by the tenor or bass, 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 brief passages may be sung by fewer than four voice parts.

Ringing chords

The defining characteristic of the barbershop style is the "ringing" chord. This is a name for one specific and well-defined acoustical effect, also referred to as "expanded sound," "the angel's voice," "the fifth voice," or "the overtone." (The barbershopper's "overtone" is not the same as the acoustic physicist's overtone, which is known as heterodyning).

When a chord "rings" it produces an acoustic effect called an "overtone." If the four voices (Bass, Baritone, Lead, Tenor) sing properly tuned chords on the right combination of notes, the frequencies and harmonics in their sounds combine to create an overtone, which sounds like an extra note being sung. 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. In order to understand ringing chords, one must understand the physics of tuning and note frequencies and the difference between the tempered chords of the piano, which has equal tempered tuning, and the "just" or perfectly tuned chords of the Barbershop singers.

With a calculator it is easy to determine the frequencies of the notes of the equally tempered scale. First of all, the frequency ratio of an octave is 2:1. That is, the frequency of the note A on the piano is 55, 110, 220, 440, 880 Hz, etc. with the frequency doubling for each octave. All of the notes in between are found by starting on any known note and multiplying that frequency by the 1/12 root of two, or 1.059463. After twelve such semitone steps the frequency is doubled.

Starting from A = 440 Hz and taking seven steps the interval of a "perfect fifth" is 659.2548 to 440. Actually, that is pretty close. The Just ratio should be 660 to 440. The "perfect fourth" is also very close. The problem lies with almost all of the other intervals within the span of an octave all of which are worse and in some cases much worse. Major thirds should be flatter (yes, flatter) than the equal tempered equivalent, and harmonic minor ("Barbershop") sevenths should be much flatter that the equally tempered equivalent. For example, in a C dominant seventh chord consisting of C - E - G - Bb, the E is slightly too sharp on the piano, and the Bb is too sharp by almost a third of a semitone! Since baritones and tenors are called upon most often to sing those parts of the chords they strive to become skilled at making those subtle adjustments on the fly.[7]

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 the 1940s) have self-consciously tuned their dominant seventh and tonic chords in just intonation to maximize the overlap of common overtones."[8]

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…" arrangers from SPEBSQSA, a barbershop organization (now known as 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" (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!

Emotional effects

The use of the "ringing" chord is more than the production of a fifth note. At the same time, the four voices combine into one blended, unified sound. The result is a musical sound that is incredibly exciting and pleasing to the ear, both for the singer and the listener.

Averill notes the hints of rapture, "quasi-religion," and 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, also, 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.[8]

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,' and 'swipe…' …vocal harmony… is interpreted as an embodied musicking. Barbershoppers never lose sight (or sound) of its physicality."[8]


Barbershop Harmony Society

The revision of a cappella singing was taken up again when a tax lawyer named Owen C. Cash decided to help preserve barbershop music for future generations, garnering support from an investment banker named Rupert I. Hall. Cash was a true partisan of quartet singing who advertised the fact that he did not want a cappella to fall by the wayside. 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" (SPEBSQSA) was formed. More recently, the name was changed to the simpler "Barbershop Harmony Society."

Other organizations

Singing a cappella music in the barbershop style is a hobby enjoyed by men and women worldwide. In the United States, the hobby is practiced mostly within one of the three main barbershop associations, which have a combined membership in the neighborhood of eighty thousand.

The primary men's organization in the U.S. and Canada is the Barbershop Harmony Society. Women have two organizations in North America, Sweet Adelines International and Harmony Incorporated. Sweet Adelines, Inc was founded in 1945 by Edna Mae Anderson of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Harmony, Incorporated was formed in 1959 by 5 chapters that split from Sweet Adelines in 1957 over a dispute regarding admission of non-Caucasian members. SPEBSQSA and Sweet Adelines at that time restricted their membership to whites, but both opened membership to all races a few years later. All three organizations comprise choruses and quartets that perform and compete regularly throughout the U.S. and Canada, and Sweet Adelines International also has a portion of its membership outside North America.

Organizations affiliated with the Barbershop Harmony Society and Harmony Incorporated exist in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany, Ireland, South Africa, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and elsewhere. Some national and regional barbershop groups include:

  • Sweet Adelines International (SAI)
  • Harmony, Inc. (HI)
  • Barbershop in Germany (BinG)
  • British Association of Barbershop Singers (BABS)
  • Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers (LABBS)
  • Dutch Association of Barbershop Singers (DABS)
  • Ladies Association of Dutch Barbershop Singers (Holland Harmony)
  • Society of Nordic Barbershop Singers (SNOBS)
  • Southern Part of Africa Tonsorial Singers (SPATS)
  • New Zealand Association of Barbershop Singers (NZABS)
  • Australian Association of Men's Barbershop Singers (AAMBS)
  • Irish Association of Barbershop Singers (IABS)

A worldwide association for mixed groups, the Mixed Harmony Barbershop Quartet Association, was established in 1995 to reflect the growing popularity of male-female barbershop singing.

Types of Barbershop music


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

While the form is accessible to nearly anyone who can carry their part, the best quartets are formed of singers with a very uniform sound, particularly for vowels. With few exceptions, quartets are all-male or all-female in order to better match voices. Often siblings are naturally well-matched, as they grow up using the same accent. In other cases, disciplined practice over time yields consistent use of the same vowels.

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

Famous examples

  • The Haydn Quartet, an early 1900s quartet also known as the Edison Quartet
  • American Quartet
  • The Buffalo Bills, 1950 International Quartet Champions, appeared in stage and screen productions of The Music Man, frequently appeared on Arthur Godfrey's radio show
  • The Dapper Dans of Disneyland, regularly appearing at Disneyland and Disneyworld, as The Be Sharps in a Simpsons episode, and as the Singing Busts in Disney's 2003, Haunted Mansion movie
  • The Singing Senators, a quartet of U.S. Senators


The Metro Nashville Barbershop Chorus

A barbershop chorus is a chorus that 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.

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

Famous examples

  • The Vocal Majority, based in Dallas, TX eleven-time International Chorus Champions
  • The Masters of Harmony, six-time International Chorus Champions. Based in Los Angeles County, California.
  • The Louisville Thoroughbreds, seven-time International Chorus Champions from Louisville, Kentucky.
  • The Alexandria Harmonizers, based in Alexandria, VA. four-time International Chorus Champions.
  • Chorus of the Chesapeake, two-time International Champion chorus, based in the Baltimore, MD area.
  • The Westminster Chorus, a youth barbershop chorus in California started by young members of the Masters of Harmony are the 2007 International Chorus Champion.
  • The Great Western Chorus, seven times British champions and current British Association of Barbershop Singers (BABS) gold medalists, Radio 3 "Choir of the Year" 2006 Finalists. Based in the South West of England.
  • Cambridge Chord Company, twice European champion barbershop chorus and British Association of Barbershop Singers gold medalists, "Choir of the World" International Eisteddfod 2004. Based in England.
  • Gem City Chorus, five-time Sweet Adelines International Chorus Champions from Dayton, OH.
  • North Metro Chorus, three-time Sweet Adelines International Chorus Champions from Toronto, Ontario.
  • The Rich-Tone Chorus, four-time Sweet Adelines International Chorus Champions from Richardson, Texas.
  • Melodeers Chorus, four-time Sweet Adelines International Gold Medal chorus from Northbrook, Illinois.
  • Surrey Harmony Chorus, five-time Sweet Adelines Region 31 Gold Medal chorus from Coulsdon, United Kingdom.

Typical barbershop songs

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

  • "Down Our Way"
  • "Down by the Old Mill Stream"
  • "Honey/Li'l Lize Medley"
  • "Let Me Call You Sweetheart"
  • "My Wild Irish Rose"
  • "Shine on Me"
  • "The Story of the Rose" ("Heart of My Heart")
  • "Sweet Adeline"
  • "Sweet and Lovely"
  • "Sweet, Sweet Roses of Morn"
  • "Wait 'Til the Sun Shines, Nellie"
  • "You Tell Me Your Dream (I'll Tell You Mine)"

There are also several other well-known songs in the genre. Some are considered standards, such as "From the First Hello" and "Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby," while others are well-known because notable quartets are associated with them. An example of the latter is "Come Fly with Me," which gained popularity through association with the 2005 international quartet champion, Realtime.

Examples of other songs popular in the barbershop genre are:

  • "Alexander's Ragtime Band"
  • "Bright Was the Night"
  • "Come Fly with Me"
  • "Darkness on the Delta"
  • "From the First Hello to the Last Goodbye"
  • "Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby"
  • "Hello My Baby"
  • "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen"
  • "Shine On Harvest Moon"
  • "Sweet Georgia Brown"
  • "When My Baby Smiles at Me"
  • "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby"

References in popular culture

  • "Lida Rose" is a song beloved to barbershoppers from Meredith Willson's musical comedy The Music Man. A barbershop quartet forms an integral part of the story, and was played by the Buffalo Bills on stage and in the screen adaptation.
  • Popular American rock band, Phish, often would display barbershop styles during live shows, with songs such as "Hello! Ma Baby," "Sweet Adeline," and "Amazing Grace."

In television

  • In The Simpsons episode, "Homer's Barbershop Quartet," Homer Simpson, Seymour Skinner, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, and Barney Gumble have their own barbershop quartet.
  • In the popular TV show Scrubs, four of the employees of the hospital form a barbershop quartet which has been called "Ted's Band," "The Worthless Peons," and most recently, "Foghat." The quartet is played by the real-life group The Blanks.[9]
  • In Mystery Science Theater 3000 season 8, episode 7 "Terror From The Year 5000" a host segment features a Barbershop-style song "When I Held Your Brain In My Arms" spoofing the recurring character Brain Guy's species whose members carry their brains in jars.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Acapella Foundation, The Origins of Barbershop Harmony. Retrieved October 9, 2008.
  2. James Earl Henry, The historical roots of barbershop harmony. Retrieved October 9, 2008.
  3. Jim Wildman, Barbershop Quartets, National Public Radio. Retrieved October 9, 2008.
  4. Wise Geek, What is a Barbershop Quartet? Retrieved October 9, 2008.
  5. Primarily A Cappella, Take 6. Retrieved October 9, 2008.
  6. Sydney Harmony, A Background to Barbershop. Retrieved August 8, 2011.
  7. Jim Richards, Ringing Chords and Physics. Sydney Harmony. Retrieved August 8, 2011.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Gage Averill, Four Parts, No Waiting: A Social History of American Barbershop Harmony (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 9780195328936).
  9. Patrick Blais, Scrubbing out the high notes, Woburn Daily Times Inc., April 28, 2004. Retrieved October 9, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Kaplan, Max. Barbershopping: Musical and Social Harmony. London : Associated University Presses, 1993. ISBN 0838635040
  • Mook, Richard. White Masculinity in Barbershop Quartet Singing. Journal of the Society for American Music. Cambridge University Press, 2007. Retrieved July 27, 2019.
  • Murane, Cindy E. The History, Harmony, and Production of Barbershop Music. Thesis (Undergraduate)—Maryville College, 1976. OCLC 30600734
  • Richards, Jim. The Physics of Barbershop Sound. Kenosha, WI: Barbershop Harmony Society, 2001.
  • Stebbins, Robert A. The Barbershop Singer: Inside the Social World of a Musical Hobby. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996. ISBN 9780802078292.
  • Wright, David. Barbershop Harmony A Cappella Foundation. Retrieved July 27, 2019.

External links

All links retrieved September 20, 2023.

Audio video clips


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