Barbershop harmony is a musical singing style. It has origins in black folk singing, although those origins were largely forgotten until their rediscovery by musicologists in the mid-1990s. It is best known in the United States through the efforts of the Barbershop Harmony Society, formerly known as SPEBSQSA, which was founded in 1938.
Barbershop quartets invoke a sense of nostalgic Americana. A barbershop quartet, the Dapper Dans, make regular appearance on Walt Disney World's Main Street. The musical comedy, The Music Man uses a barbershop quartet to great effect.
Barbershop harmony is primarily a male vocal quartet style. It is sung unaccompanied. It emphasizes the sound of "ringing chords," a psychoacoustic effect that occurs when consonant chords are sung with great precision. The effect, also called "expanded sound," is of a chord growing and filling the room. It does not reproduce well in recordings, and is best appreciated in live performance.
The barbershop style consists of four voice parts, named bass, baritone, lead, and tenor. Although the tenor part is highest in pitch, it does not carry the melody; the melody is carried by the lead, with the tenor harmonizing above the lead.
Most aspects of the style are best understood in terms of giving the opportunity to ring perfect chords. Thus, barbershop is sung without vibrato, and with steady pitches that "lock in" to produce ringing chords. Major chords and, particularly, sevenths are emphasized. Although barbershop music encompasses songs of all eras, there is a tendency to stress turn-of-the-century songs that have simple harmonies that emphasize ringing chords, and avoiding later songs if their harmonic vocabulary relies too much on augmented, diminished, suspended chords and other chords that "aren't barbershop."
Because of the need for precise tuning, barbershop quartets invariably "take a pitch" before starting a song, first sounding a note on a pitch pipe, then singing a major chord and bringing it into perfect tune before beginning the song.
The style is supported in the United States by three organized groups: the Barbershop Harmony Society, a male group; and two female groups, Sweet Adelines International and Harmony, Incorporated. The Barbershop Harmony Society has approximately thirty thousand members, organized into eight hundred local chapters somewhat on the pattern of a fraternal organization.
The Barbershop Harmony society maintains a website that makes it easy to find upcoming nearby shows that give an opportunity to hear the style performed live, and to locate local chapters that afford an opportunity for participation. Chapters support both quartet and chorus singing. Notable New Jersey choruses include the Pine Barons of Cherry Hill, the Jerseyaires of Rahway, and the Chorus of the Atlantic, of Red Bank. The delivery of Singing Valentines is a popular activity for most chapters, and the three barbershop societies maintain a joint website that facilitates locating and booking a quartet to deliver one.
Notes and references
- "The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America." The name was created by Society founder O. C. Cash as a parody of the "alphabet agencies" of the New Deal.