Barbershop Harmony

By David Wright

This style of singing arose in the mid-19th century as an improvisational acappella music at the barbershops, parlors, and curbstones of America and developed into a major pastime and a mode of professional entertainment by the turn of the century. Its roots are largely African American, and closely intertwine with those of blues, jazz, and gospel. Barbershop harmony, also called "close" harmony by the early practitioners, is characterized by its consonant, four-part, ringing chords which accommodate each note of the melody, reflecting the tradition of three harmony parts woodshedding to a lead singer's melody, as well as by its traditional musical embellishments like echoes and swipes, which give the music interest, charm, and personality. Originally sung by male quartets, it has in modern times been embraced by female quartets as well, and by male and female choruses (which still retain the characteristic four-parts). It is generally sung by all-male or all-female ensembles due to the tessitura of the four parts and the need for matching timbres to create its distinctive blend.

The four parts are called tenor, lead, baritone, and bass. (These terms are used by both men and women.) One of the defining properties of the style is that the melody is sung not by the top voice, but by the lead, whose part is roughly in the range of second tenor for men, second soprano for women. This allows the harmony to be built around a full-voiced melody. The tenor, who harmonizes above the melody, sings with a somewhat lighter quality than in most other styles so as to not overpower the melody. The bass takes the low notes, usually the roots or fifths of the chords, giving barbershop harmony its characteristically "solid" sound. The remaining middle notes are provided by the baritone, the "artful dodger" who weaves around the lead, abandoning conventional voice leading for the sake of filling out the harmony with complete four-part chords.

Although barbershop harmony began as improvised harmony, modern ensembles sing written arrangements. In fact, arranging in the barbershop style has become an art form unto itself, generating works that have attracted interest throughout the greater a cappella community. Although for a time the barbershop style was (incorrectly) associated exclusively with tunes from Tin Pan Alley, it is now realized that the style has always quite naturally incorporated a wide range of songs. The repertoires of today's quartets and choruses include popular songs from all eras (including contemporary), as well as songs from Broadway, gospel songs, spirituals, and folk songs.

Barbershop harmony employs most chords found in conventional harmony, such as major and minor triads, but it makes special (and gleeful) use of the dominant seventh chord, which is so inextricably associated with the style that it is often called the "barbershop seventh". This chord serves not only in its classical role as secondary dominant, but it makes many other beautiful and exotic appearances as well. Other chords traditionally found in barbershop harmony are ninth, minor seventh, major and minor sixth, and half-diminished chords. These chords, skillfully evoked and voiced in different ways, equip the barbershop ensemble with an amazingly rich and varied array of textures and colors with which to portray a song.

Tuning and blend are the strength and joy of this style of music. Barbershop harmony originated as "ear harmony", and thus the singers tune to each other rather than to a musical instrument or absolute standard. This, together with the tightness and consonance of the harmony, accounts for the coveted "ring and lock" that is the hallmark of the sound. The ear naturally tunes pitches according to the natural mathematical relationships of just intonation because this tuning feels "solid" and "locked" to the singer. This solidity is further enhanced by the alignment of overtones, which reward the singer and listener with a "ring" when a chord is justly in tune. Additionally, barbershop craft emphasizes the matching of word sounds and the proper balancing of chords so that overtones are reinforced. It all converges to produce a marvelous blend of sound and a ringing sensation that barbershop singers learn to strive for and expect. A large part of the allure of this music is the ecstacy experinced by the singer upon hearing his/her voice in a locked chord.

Barbershop Harmony is promoted by two American singing organizations,each having over 30,000 members: SPEBSQSA for men and Sweet Adelines International for women (, and also by a smaller women's organization: Harmony Incorporated. Barbershop has become a truly international movement, spawning independent organizations in England, Ireland, Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

Biography: David Wright, professor of mathematics at Washington University in St. Louis, is a member of SPEBSQSA and a noted arranger of barbershop harmony, as well as vocal jazz, gospel, and contemporary a cappella music. He is an arranger and musical advisor for several of the top performing groups in barbershop. He is also a certified contest judge, barbershop historian, and director of the St. Charles Ambassadors of Harmony. Information about his arrangements can be found at his website:

Contact David at

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