Barbershop harmony is best defined, in layman’s terms, as follows:
- Is sung a-capella, that is, without accompaniment (although we have been known to sing with a piano, guitar, or symphony orchestra)
- Includes four parts
- Lead – a second tenor voice that usually sings the melody
- Tenor – a first tenor, or counter tenor voice that sings harmony above the melody
- Bass – a bass, or deep baritone voice that sings underlying harmony notes, typically roots and fifths of the chord
- Baritone – a baritone, or second tenor voice that fills in harmony notes not sung by the other parts; these harmonies can be above or below the melody line
- Focuses on songs anyone can sing – while some difficult pieces are not out of the question, good barbershop can be sung by almost any amateur voice
- Produces sounds that “ring” – the beauty of the human voice is that, when certain conditions are met, overtones are produced that enhance the fullness and brilliance of the sound (the sum is greater than the parts). These conditions include:
- Singing in tune – not going flat or sharp unintentionally
- Matching vowels – striving to match vowel sounds across the four parts enhances the “ring”
- Balancing chords – ensuring that the melody is predominant, and that the surrounding harmonies are properly balanced with respect to the chord at hand
- Employs vocal and visual enhancements – whether through vocal color, dynamics, or visual choreography, anything that makes the song more ‘believable’, is a good thing.
A more technical definition of the Barbershop Style is included below.
Definition of the Barbershop Style
(from the BHS Contest and Judging Handbook)
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. 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 often resolve around the circle of fifths, while also making use of other resolutions.. 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.