What is barbershop?

For singers who come from a traditional choral music background, the world of barbershop harmony can be confusing at first.  In simple terms, barbershop harmony is vocal harmony produced by four parts:  lead, tenor, baritone and bass.  It is sung a cappella (without instrumental accompaniment) and is one of the most challenging and satisfying forms of music for the singer.  Here are some important things you need to know.


Voice Parts

You won't hear us talking about sopranos or altos here.  The melody is sung by our Leads (on the printed music, it is the musical line where alto is usually written).  Leads need to be alt
accurate singers with a full, authoritative sound.  All the rest of us match our harmony parts to the lead's melody.  Most harmony singers hate to admit it, but the lead really IS the most important part - after all, it's the melody!


The harmony part sung above the lead is the Tenor.  Although tenor is the highest voice in barbershop (on the printed music, it is the musical line where soprano is usually written) it should not be confused with soprano of conventional singing groups.  The tenor should have a light, clear, pure tone that will compliment, but not overpower, the lead voice.


Baritone covers approximately the same range as lead and is a middle harmony part.  It can be confusing at first as it is written as the top line of the bass clef, but sung an octave higher.  It is also very different from traditional alto because the baritone hamony notes cross the lead notes, sometimes sung below and sometimes sung above.  Baritones must constantly adjust their vocal balance to accomodate their position in the chord.  The musical line is often called "vocal gymnastics"!


The lowest harmony part is the Bass.  Bass singers should have a rich, mellow voice and be able to sing an E flat below middle C easily.  Because the barbershop style calls for basses to sing notes that are strong components of the chords, the bass part is the foundation of the barbershop sound.


Interpretive Freedom

One of the hallmarks of the barbershop style is interpretive freedom.  We are allowed, even encouraged to deviate from the time values on the sheet music in order to deliver the musical message the way we feel is most meaningful to the listener.  Don't be disturbed that the director doesn't seem to care whether it's a half note or a dotted quarter note --- she is free to interpret the song as she thinks best.  A song is a story set to music. Thus the lyrics become [ImageHere][ImageHere]important in order for the story to reach the listener.  Our style of music is a conversational style in which we tell the story much as we would speak it.  As a result, the interpreter is free to deliver a lyrical line that tells the story.


Our Singing Technique and Style

We teach the same vocal techniques for quality singing that most traditional voice teachers embrace:  good breath support, pitch accuracy, a sound that is open and free, forward tone placement, resonance, vowels that are pure and matched, clearly articulated lyrics, and so on.  We do however, sing a different style than many choral groups, in at least three ways: 1) we pronounce our words in a conversational "middle America" manner rather than the "cultured" sound of classical choral music.  2) We generally sing a legato, connected vocal line and almost never aim for a staccato, clipped delivery. 3) Finally, we minimize the vibrato in our voices so that the pitches of the notes are steady and can lock together into clear chords.  That lock produces what is called an "overtone" - a fifth note that is heard but not sung.  Thus those wonderful  "goosebumps" produced on the listener when a properly produced chord is locked in a ringing barbershop chord!


The melody is not sung by the tenor except for an infrequent note or two to avoid awkward voice leading, in tags and codas, or when some appropriate embellishing effect can be created. 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 resolve primarily around the circle of fifths, while making frequent 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 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.


History of Sweet Adelines International

After World War II, barbershop singing was growing increasingly popular for men. In 1945, a small group of women wanted to participate in the chord-ringing, fun-filled harmony that the men were singing. So these women organized "Sweet Adelines in America." From its humble beginnings in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Sweet Adelines International, as it is now called, has grown to a membership of almost 30,000 women in countries all across the globe.


We hope you have a wonderful time exploring the world of Barbershop Harmony!

Come join us and learn much more about this exciting music!

© 2019 HeartSong Show Chorus
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