Barbershop Music – Beware of a highly contagious virus!

For more than a century a highly contagious virus, known as the barbershop bug, has made the rounds, unchecked and so far with no effective antidote.

All attempts to understand this phenomenon by comparison to other musical styles have failed. Barbershop, a unique conglomeration of Euro-American and Afro-American music styles, is different in every respect.

Different from typical choir music. Different in the arrangement and balance of the four voice parts. Different in its distinct and clever blend of rhythms, swipes, embellishments, dynamics, tags and close harmonies. Different also in its powerful chord-based sound and ubiquitous chord affinity.

Even though bass, baritone, lead (tenor2) and tenor(1) share names with their classical counterparts, they fulfill harmonic functions which are different than in a typical SATB arrangement. This is illustrated by the barbershop cone: Analogous to the shape of a cone, the lowest, most powerful rhythmic sound is produced in the bass, whereas volume and weight of the sound decrease in the higher voice parts (baritone, lead and tenor).

In a classical SATB arrangement the soprano usually carries the melody. In barbershop this role is taken by the lead, the second highest voice. The tenor, the highest voice, adds lightness, luster and sparkle to the chords. The rather temperamental baritone, oscillating above and below the lead acts as the glue within the ensemble by filling the gaps in the chords – with an unfailing musical ear. The bass, for the most part, abides by its traditional role as a powerful sonic foundation, providing rhythm and a rich, velvety depth of sound.

Infected barbershoppers never allow instrumental accompaniment: That would distract them from eartuning, i.e. listening closely to the other parts to lock in the chord.

The lock ‘n’ ring of a well-tuned chord is what an infected barbershopper craves for. It is achieved through close harmonies arranged in a suitable chord: the barbershop chord or barbershop seventh, among the non-infected also known as the dominant seventh chord. When barbershoppers produce a ringing chord, they are in seventh heaven and actually perceive a fifth voice, the angel’s voice, which in more mundane terms would be referred to as the overtone effect or expanded sound.

At the end of the 19th century barbershops offered a social and cultural meeting place for both white and black men: For white men who couldn’t afford to join pricy men’s clubs and for whom the notorious saloons were no alternative. For black men barbershops offered a modest entrepreneurial opportunity to create an economic basis for themselves and their families. Initially, only a wealthy white clientele was served in black-owned barbershops; later black men were also accepted. As a result, black barbershops emerged in the South as  social and cultural sanctuaries and meeting places for black men of all generations in which black identities were forged. This is where the barbershop chord originated.

Close harmonies, however, were not only sung in barbershops: So-called harmonizers – mainly young people – gathered in quartets on street corners and in the streets of New Orleans to sing lamppost and curbstone harmonies. One of them was Louis Armstrong, who sang as a ten-year-old tenor in such a quartet. Many other ragtime and later jazz greats also started out as enthusiastic harmonizers.

To provide the full picture, it should be mentioned that by the end of the 1920s the obstinate virus had almost met its demise after going rampant and thriving for decades. Barbershop quartets had become a fixture in the program of the widespread and very popular vaudeville shows at the turn of the twentieth century.

However, time moved on and brought about changes. Musical tastes shifted away from barbershop harmonies to jazz and, fostered by the advent of the microphone, to crooning in the style of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.

By 1938 barbershop quartets were rarely to be heard. What a pity, thought two businessmen from Arizona, when that year they accidentally met at a hotel and discovered their mutual love of harmonizing. Owen C. Cash und Rupert Hall drummed up a group of twenty-five songsters and initiated a full-force revival of the dormant virus, now also infecting women who so far had been spared: The Sweet Adelines came into existence. This time the virus spread round the world. Step by step a key global organization arose: the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA). Many country-specific associations have been established throughout the world. Founded in 1991, BiNG! (Barbershop in Germany) is one of the many flourishing organizations promoting the preservation and advancement of barbershop singing.

There is no end in sight…

…. at best an afterglow.


(text: Beatrix Pocklington, tenor)

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