What is barbershop?
Barbershop traces its humble beginnings back to the latter part of the 1800s. Men from all walks of life gathered in assembly halls, watering holes, community centers, rooftops – and yes, barbershops - to sing the standards of the day. Drawn by a common love of song, their repertoires covered a broad range of genres - vaudevillian melodies, folk ballads, show tunes and spirituals. By the start of the 20th century, this “hobby” transformed into a new and decidedly American style of music.
In 1939, men officially formed the Barbershop Harmony Society, also known as the Society of Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA). Women joined the mix in the 1940s. An enterprising group of ladies from Tulsa, Okla., met in 1945 at the home of Edna Mae Anderson and quickly organized into an official chapter that soon became Sweet Adelines International, a global organization that spans five continents and charters over 500 choruses worldwide.
So what is barbershop? At its heart, it is a four-part a cappella art form distinguished by ringing chords and sparkling overtones. It differs from traditional choral singing in several ways, but first and foremost, it is unaccompanied. The vocal parts are patterned in a unique way with carefully defined roles within the harmonic structure.
In standard choral music, parts are typified by four categories: soprano, alto, tenor and bass (SATB), which are further split by part (i.e., soprano one, soprano two) depending upon the arrangement. Harmony is typically balanced throughout the parts in a cylindrical shape with the soprano holding the melody line.
In barbershop, harmony is chord-driven, distinguished by four parts: tenor, lead, baritone and bass. The lead generally holds the melody line but the harmonic structure resembles a cone shape. And not all vocal parts are created equal. In barbershop, they are sung with different degrees of weight and intensity.
Tenors, at the top, soar above all others with a light touch and bell-like precision, providing the shimmer that raises goose bumps in spectators. If they value their lives, tenors never overpower their leads.
Leads, below the tenors, sing with more volume and authority. They are the storytellers, texturing the music with the highest degree of character to trigger that all-important emotional response from the audience. They may sometimes be mistaken for divas. Leads have no problem with this.
Baritones, with a range similar to the leads, are all guts, no glory. They fill in the missing note of the chord, either above or below the lead line, adjusting volume where appropriate with anonymous mastery. No one ever mistakes a bari for a diva. Ever.
Basses fill out the bottom. They are the keepers of tempo, the guardians of cool, singing with a rich, rumbling resonance that reaches through the floor to reverberate along the spine. Call them divas, call them anything you like - they don't care. Basses are bulletproof.
Woven together and sung with accuracy and artistry, they generate the signature overtones intrinsic to barbershop music.