So, what is this music called “barbershop”, anyway? We could not possibly provide a comprehensive description in this limited space – there’s just so much to be said! – but here is perhaps the most basic introduction to the barbershop style that you can find. Let’s take it one concept at a time.
Barbershop music is sung a cappella. That is, there are no accompanying instruments – the singers simply listen to a starting pitch and go from there with just their voices. Singers depend on their ability to hear and sing accurate intervals (to go from one note to the next with accuracy) in order to keep the song in tune and in harmony.
Barbershop music is sung in four-part harmony. There are four voices in the barbershop style, and together they sing four notes in a music chord:
- The melody of the song is sung by the Lead voice.
- The Tenor voice sings the harmony part higher than the melody.
- The Bass voice sings the lowest notes in the chord.
- The Baritone voice sings those notes which are needed to fill out the chord. Sometimes the Baritone sings higher than the Lead, but usually sings lower than the Lead.
The names of the voice parts (Tenor, Lead, Baritone and Bass) are taken from the men’s choral voice ranges. Even when women sing barbershop, we still call the voice parts Tenor, Lead, Baritone and Bass, rather than using the more common choral voice names of Soprano or Alto.
Barbershop music has a certain musical structure. In order to be considered true barbershop, the musical arrangement must adhere to certain rules and guidelines. Without getting too deep into music theory technicalities, here’s a very simplified summary:
- The lyrics are understandable.
- The melodies are easily singable and recognizable, and you can easily hear what key the song is in.
- The harmonies and chords used in the song’s arrangement come from a specifically defined list of options. Chords that are not on the list are used sparingly, if at all.
Perhaps it is this last bullet that makes a barbershop arrangement so distinctive. Modern Western music has evolved into some very elaborate harmonic structures. Many chords found in pop, jazz, blues, or other modern styles of Western music are not included in the barbershop style, so when we hear barbershop, we can recognize it as being unique. This limitation on chords has a very good reason, and that is that…
Barbershop music contains “ringing chords.” In fact, this could be called the defining characteristic of barbershop. When a chord “rings”, it produces a specific acoustical effect called an “overtone”. If the four voices sing with proper vocal technique, properly tuned, on the right combination of notes (i.e., the right chord), then the frequencies and harmonics in their sounds combine to create an overtone, which sounds (somewhat magically) like a fifth note being sung. 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.
It all boils down to the Ringing Chord. The goal of barbershop singers is to create this ringing sound as much as possible – to ring as many chords as possible. That’s why we rehearse, take vocal training, hire coaches, and attend workshops to learn how to sing with this vocal quality. That’s why barbershop arrangements only use a limited set of chords – because only those certain chords can combine to create that ringing sound. That’s why barbershop is sung a cappella – to eliminate any sound frequencies that might ruin the vocal effects of the ringing sound.
Barbershop is so much more! I wish we had space to more fully describe the origins and traditions of barbershop, the ways that barbershop is different from other a cappella styles, the ways that the voice parts differ from choral music, the science of the overtone effect, the music theory behind the barbershop arrangement, and so on… there’s just so much! Maybe we can cover some of that info in later articles. In the meantime, if you are interested in learning more, we encourage you to check out the resources below. Or better yet, hire a barbershop performance group, or attend a barbershop show, contest or educational event. You’ll be glad you did! We’ll see you there!