Discovering Barbershop

Singing in a boys choir when I was younger and later singing with my high school chorus, there were few opportunities to perform a cappella music. A cappella frequently emerged in rehearsals as an ear-training exercise, but it wasn’t till I encountered what seemed to be an army of a cappella singers and groups in college that I got my first, real taste of the form. As a freshman, I auditioned for a bass opening in Cornell University’s Last Call, but after not getting the part, I more or less abandoned a cappella for other pursuits. I later came to realize that I also just lacked a basic interest in the genre. Unlike the way I gravitate towards the thick and full sound of a Late Romantic symphony orchestra, I couldn’t get as excited about the typically thinner voicing of modern a cappella.

Enter barbershop music.

My barbershop quartet competing in Taiwan
My barbershop quartet competing in Taiwan

It’s ironic that I had to leave the states and travel over 7,000 miles to Taiwan to discover and embrace what is often known as a uniquely American tradition, but barbershop music proved itself to me to be a class of a cappella singing that shares almost no common ground with the modern vocal band. A precise specification of the style is in fact written into the Barbershop Harmony Society‘s Contest and Judging Handbook. The section that outlines contest entry requirements reads:

Barbershop harmony is a style of unaccompanied vocal music characterized by consonant four-part chords for every melody note in a predominantly homophonic texture. […]

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 differences with modern a cappella are implied, mostly by way of the limitations this specification places on songs written for barbershop. Barbershoppers do not see these as limitations of course; rather, they are the defining principles that characterize barbershop purity in sound and style.

  • Four-part chords for every melody note
  • Major, minor, and dominant chords (mostly)
  • Understandable lyrics, easily singable melodies
  • Standard meter

The first and bolded point is the kicker for me. Left only to the imagination, music that adheres to this rule might seem cumbersome and texturally uninteresting, and such criticism I think is actually fair. The texture of barbershop music tends not to vary too widely from song to song. However, it is this rule that gives barbershop singing its richness and wall-of-sound quality. There are, almost by definition, very few gaps in phrases and incomplete chords. Most importantly perhaps, it is the combination of this rule with the second (allowing only certain, simple chords) that allows for barbershoppers to “ring” chords — a topic for another day.

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