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Barbershop music

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Barbershop harmony is a style of unaccompanied vocal music characterized by consonant four-part chords for every melody note in a predominantly homophonic texture. The melody is consistently sung by the lead, with the tenor harmonizing above the melody, the bass singing the lowest harmonizing notes, and the baritone completing the chord. The melody is not sung by the tenor except for an infrequent note or two to avoid awkward voice leading, in tags or codas, or when some appropriate embellishing effect can be created. Occasional brief passages may be sung by fewer than four voice parts.

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. What sets barbershop apart from other musical styles is the predominant use of the dominant-type seventh chords. Barbershop music also features a balanced and symmetrical form, and a standard meter. The basic song and its harmonization are embellished by the arranger to provide appropriate support of the song's theme and to close the song effectively.

Barbershop singers adjust pitches to achieve perfectly tuned chords in just intonation while remaining true to the established tonal center. Artistic singing in the barbershop style exhibits a fullness or expansion of sound, precise intonation, a high degree of vocal skill, and a high level of unity and consistency within the ensemble. Ideally, these elements are natural, unmanufactured, and free from apparent effort.

The presentation of barbershop music uses appropriate musical and visual methods to convey the theme of the song and provide the audience with an emotionally satisfying and entertaining experience. The musical and visual delivery is from the heart, believable, and sensitive to the song and its arrangement throughout. The most stylistic presentation artistically melds together the musical and visual aspects to create and sustain the illusions suggested by the music.


Historical origins

As a result of scholarship by Lynn Abbott and Jim Henry it is now generally accepted that barbershop singing originated in African-American communities in the U.S. around the turn of the century, where barbershops were social gathering-places.

The first uses of the term were associated with African-Americans. Henry notes that "The Mills Brothers learned to harmonize in their father's barber shop in Piqua, Ohio, and several well known black gospel quartets were founded in neighborhood barber shops, among them the New Orleans Humming Four, the Southern Stars and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartette."


Singing a cappella music in the barbershop style is a hobby enjoyed by men and women worldwide. 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 is the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A.), now becoming known as the Barbershop Harmony Society, while women have two organizations, Sweet Adelines International and Harmony Incorporated .

All three organizations consist of choruses and quartets that perform and compete regularly throughout North America. In addition, affiliate organizations, for both men and women, exist in the UK, Germany, South Africa, Sweden, Australia, Japan, and many other countries.

SPEBSQSA was founded in 1938 by Tulsa, Oklahoma tax attorney O. C. Cash. The name was a lampoon on the New Deal "alphabet agencies". Sweet Adelines, Inc was founded in 1945 by Edna Mae Anderson of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Harmony, Incorporated split from Sweet Adelines in 1957 over a dispute regarding admission of black members (SPEBSQSA and Sweet Adelines at that time restricted their membership to whites, but both opened membership to all races a few years later).

The British equivalent of SPEBSQSA is BABS (British Association of Barbershop Singers).

Notable artists

  • The Thoroughbred Chorus [1]—7 time International Champions
  • Acoustix [2]—1990 International Quartet Champions
  • The Buffalo Bills [3]—1950 international champions, appeared in stage and screen productions of The Music Man, frequently appeared on Arthur Godfrey's radio show.
  • The Chordettes, women's quartet, recorded a number of mainstream popular hits during the 1950s, notably Mr. Sandman
  • The Haydn Quartet [4], early 1900's quartet
  • The Vocal Majority [5]—Barbershop chorus, based in Dallas, Texas; ten-time (as of July 2003) international champions.
  • The Dapper Dans [6] of Disney, who regularly sing to visitors at Disneyland, and who sung as the B-Sharps in a Simpsons episode, and, more recently, as the animated heads-on-pedestals statues quartet in Disney's Haunted Mansion movie.
  • Cambridge Chord Company (from England) European champion barbershop chorus and British Association of Barbershop Singers gold medallists.
  • Gas House Gang 1993 International Quartet Champions from St. Louis, Missouri.
  • Bluegrass Student Union International Quartet Champions of the Barbershop Harmony Society.
  • Grandma's Boys 1979 International Quartet Champions known for their Toy Soldier and Football Hero sets.
  • Toronto Northern Lights [7] Four time international silver medallist chorus from Toronto, Ontario.
  • North Metro Chorus Three time Sweet Adelines International chorus Champions from Toronto, Ontario.

Typical Barbershop Songs

  • SPEBSQSA "Polecats:" songs which all SPEBSQSA members are encouraged to learn as a shared repertoire, these are 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 Roses Of Morn
    • Wait 'Til The Sun Shines, Nellie
  • Other good, typical examples of the genre:
    • Alexander's Ragtime Band
    • Baby On Board
    • Bright Was The Night
    • From The First Hello
    • Goodbye My Coney Island Baby
    • I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen
    • Yes Sir, That's My Baby


  • MyBabyNeedsaNewPairofShoes.ogg - "My Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes" barbershop quartet song from the Library of Congress' John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip; performed by Ray Wood on April 13, 1939 in Houston, Texas

See also

External links

Last updated: 08-13-2005 17:26:11
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