What is barbershop?

Barbershop, a truly American art form, was born in the late 19th Century in the US. It is closely connected to jazz, blues and other afro-american genres of music. Barbershop is not a genre of its own, but a way of arranging and performing a variety of different music. Arrangements range from jazz-standards and ballads to pop and evergreens. Most importantly, barbershop is always sung in four-part harmony without accompaniment.

According to legend, the style was born in actual barbershops, where men waiting in line started to sing and harmonize to entertain themselves. Originally, the style was only sung by quartets, but male and female choruses have been active since the 1950's.

Barbershop arranging

Barbershop is a style of four-part harmony where the melody is sung by the second-highest part, the lead. The tenor floats above the melody, the bass gives a foundation to the chord and the baritone completes the harmony by singing both above and below the lead. As an exception, the melody can be sung by another part for a brief period of time. Barbershop chords are rarely only triads. Seventh chord tertians cover most of a song. The chords are always consonances, dissonances do not occur. Inversions of seventh chords are used, not only in dominant purposes, but throughout the music.

Barbershop harmony

One of the most important aspects of barbershop music is "close harmony". The parts are arranged relatively close to each other, there are plenty of chromatics, and chord progressions are often "unusual", but always a pleasure for the ear. Barbershop songs are always arranged to bring out overtones. A chorus or quartet succeeds in producing overtones when their singing is on pitch and their vowels match. At best, the product is an amazing experience for both the perfomer and the audience.


When singing barbershop, it is important that the music comes "from the heart". Barbershop singers want to build a connection with the audience and share the message of the song. This kind of connection would be impossible to achieve should the chorus or quartet stand still and expressionless on stage - no matter how well they would sing. Barbershop songs are interpreted with deep emotion. The dynamics range from a majestic forte to a soft piano. Feelings are expressed through gestures and subtle (or sometimes less subtle) choreographies. Being well-groomed on stage gives the presentation a finishing touch.

There's something about barbershop...

The differences between traditional choral music and barbershop could be described in that normally, a chorus expects the audience to give a round of applause after a performance. Barbershoppers want to make their audience laugh and cry. Thunderous applause is guaranteed.