What is barbershop?
The musical art form known as “barbershop” is an unaccompanied style of singing which is one of the most exciting and challenging ways an average singer can use his voice. Far away from its outdated public image of handlebar moustaches, haircuts, and humming round a lamp post on a street corner, barbershop singing today is practised by thousands of musicians in a dozen different countries.
Barbershop harmony always involves four parts and so the simplest format is a quartet of men or women. However, many exponents enjoy singing in a larger group where several join together to sing the same part. Some of the best choruses in the world have well over a 100 members, and make a quite astonishing sound.
The music is characterised by the melody being carried by the second part down in the four – the Lead part. There is a high Tenor part which always stays above the melody, the foundation is provided by a Bass, and a Baritone sings above or below the Lead to finish off the chord. If there is one thing which distinguishes barbershop from other styles of a cappella singing, it is the rich, full texture of the sound which is produced. The “ring” of barbershop chords is unmistakable, and much of the honing of a barbershop quartet or chorus goes into perfecting this expansion of sound. It is quite possible when things are just right for several additional notes to be heard in a chord, which are not being sung by anybody.
Many of the songs sung in barbershop date from the early part of this century, and indeed one of the aims of the barbershop movement is to preserve some of these wonderful melodies for future generations. But barbershoppers are by no means limited to the old songs. Many great songs written recently have been arranged in the barbershop style. A song which will suit the style has a melody which is straightforward enough not to require a professional singer to master it, and a simple, heartfelt lyric. There are many popular songs which fit that definition well. Good barbershop songs also have an interesting harmonic feel, in which the chords play around, but always come back home when your ear says they should.
Entertainment, education, friendship and fun
Barbershop is also about entertainment. Barbershop performances, when set alongside those of more traditional choral groups, never fail to impress visually. The presentation of a song is looked at as a whole, and the outcome is a treat for the eyes as well as the ears.
Although not necessarily a very accomplished singer, the typical barbershopper is keen to learn and improve his vocal ability. Through national and international organisations, and at the local level, there is a strong emphasis in barbershop communities placed on education and development. In fact, getting involved with a barbershop club is a very cheap way to improve your voice!
Finally, barbershop is also about fellowship and fun. The spirit of harmony pervades the barbershop movement and attracts all people of good character. Although we work hard to do what we do well, we never take ourselves too seriously. We are all there to have fun – and that is something we have a lot of. Your local barbershop club is full of friends you haven’t met yet!