Barbershop is a style of vocal music which originated in the United States in the 1800's. The United States were heavily segregated in these days, and African-Americans were prohibited from attending concerts or going to the theater. Singing barbershop became a popular source of entertainment in African-American homes as a result.
What is Barbershop?
Barbershop is commonly sung by four men, each singing a particular voice: the tenor, the lead, the baritone and the bass.
The genre borrows harmonies from gospel music, and it is characterised by the songs often being based on old jazz standards with very close jazz harmonies. Dominant seventh chords are particularly prevalent in this style of music - In a proper barbershop arrangement, roughly 35% of all the chords will be dominant sevenths.
The style of barbershop which you are most likely to hear today is very different from the original style. As is the case with most musical genres, barbershop has evolved over time to include more complex harmonies.
Different Types of Barbershop
The Barbershop Harmony Society, which is responsible for maintaining and protecting the proud barbershop tradition, wrote a ruleset for what is and is not barbershop in 1940. This ruleset also dictates the rules for how barbershop competitions are held - both for quartets and larger choirs.
Through this ruleset, two distinct types of barbershop have arisen - contestable songs, ie. songs which can be performed in competitions, and show tunes, ie. songs which do not meet the officiel criteria for competitions, but still have many of the characteristics of traditional barbershop.
When people hear the word "barbershop", they often think of man in straw hats and candy-coloured clothes. However, a lot has happened since this was in fashion, and barbershop singers rarely don these traditional uniforms anymore.
A traditional barbershop quartet has four voices:
Tenor: At the very top we find the tenor. His voice is light and high-pitched, and mostly sings in a register which would fit an alto. The hallmarks of the tenor are the falsetto and mix-voice, and this voice often harmonizes over the lead.
Lead: The lead voice typically carries the melody. He can be said to lead the others, and as such often dictates dynamics and phrasing on behalf of the entire quartet.
Baritone: The baritone is described by some barbershop enthusiasts as "The Ninja". This is because the baritone often handles which ever notes of a chord are not being sung by either the lean, the tenor or the bass.
Bass: At the very bottom we find the bass. He handles the deepest notes, and as such acts as the foundation of the harmonies.
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