Intro to Barbershop, Part 1

This is Part 1 because if I wait for myself to finish writing all I know about barbershop, we’ll all be dead by the time it gets published. So, here’s a first installment.

Barbershop can be oddly abrasive if you’re not familiar with it, as can other types of a cappella music. There are many things that make barbershop music different from other a cappella, however. I don’t know all of them, but I can share some of what I know.

I realize you could just look this up on Wikipedia, but… mine will be better. I promise. I’m also challenging myself to not look anything up in the process of writing this.

The nuts and bolts about the style and music:

  • Barbershop is four-part a cappella music.
  • “A cappella” is literally “chapel music”– meaning that there is no instrumental accompaniment.
  • Barbershop is traditionally sung by quartets or choruses made up of either all men or all women.
  • The four vocal parts in barbershop, from lowest range to highest are:
  • Bass (sings lower, foundational, sometimes rhythmic, harmony below the melody)
  • Baritone (range/register is comparable to Lead. Sings close, chord-filling harmony)
  • Lead (sings melody)
  • Tenor (sings high, floaty harmony above the Lead)
  • Those four parts are the same in both men’s and women’s barbershop.
  • There are many particularities about the actual chords that make up barbershop. The most recognizable one is probably the “barbershop seventh,” which creates dissonance (sort of makes you squirm in your seat because it just sounds off) then resolves.
  • Because of these particularities, not all four-part a cappella music is barbershop.
  • But if you sing in a barbershop chorus, you probably won’t always be singing barbershop.
  • Not all music can be made into a barbershop arrangement, but much can.
  • Oddly enough, I don’t know a ton about the history of barbershop. I know it was most popular in the 1940s with men’s quartets. (Remember the guys in “The Music Man”?) I know there have been some songs written specifically to be barbershop songs, but not many. I would estimate that most songs (even the ones you would hear in a competition) are jazz standards that have been arranged into barbershop.

The nuts and bolts about the organizations:

  • There are many barbershop harmony organizations– some worldwide, some national.
  • The largest and most well-known international men’s barbershop organization is called the Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS).
  • The largest and most well-known international women’s barbershop organization is called Sweet Adelines. I’ve belonged to Sweet Adelines since 2005.
  • Sweet Adelines was formed in 1961. Fun Fact: There is still a “rival” barbershop organization, based mostly on the east coast and eastern Canada, that formed in the mid-60s because originally, Sweet Adelines did not allow non-white members. I guess that’s not really a *fun* fact. It really sucks, actually. I was pretty put off by Sweet Adelines when I learned that. But then I researched the other organization and found that… well, they’re sub-par and don’t have as many educational opportunities. And obviously, SA is no longer exclusive/racist.
  • Each organization has regional divisions. I think Sweet Adelines has ~30 regions worldwide. Our region is the “North Pacific Region,” #13.
  • Each region has its own management team or board. (Fun Fact — for real this time — I’m the new Marketing Coordinator for my region’s management team.)
  • Each region has their own annual convention and competition.
  • Each annual convention has separate competitions for quartets and choruses. These are in the spring, for Sweet Adelines regions.
  • Each organization has its own annual international convention and competition. This is in early summer for BHS, and mid fall for SA.

I joined Sweet Adelines when I was 14. I got involved because my high school choir was invited to perform on our local SA chorus’ annual show, and I was hooked. This song is called “Good Old A Cappella,” and it was not only the first song I learned in barbershop, but also the reason I ended up joining the organization. Despite the religious undertones, this is so… right.

Intro to Barbershop, Part 1

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