Monthly Column – August


Seriously, that’s what the young men did in America in the early 20th Century!

We are jolly lucky to have inherited their joy in singing.

That joy of singing without background music was called “barbershop” and it still is to this day.

Who started it?

Lynn Abbott, a jazz archivist at Tulane University, was an expert on early African-American popular music and gospel quartets. He discovered overwhelming evidence that barbershop was very important in African-American culture in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Singing without instrumental backing, known as “a Capella” is what it’s all about. Many of those who enjoyed it went on to become the pioneers of jazz.

The Basics

Barbershop harmony is believed to be one of the few uniquely American-born musical styles, alongside jazz. The simplest definition of barbershop centres around:

  • relatively simple melodies
  • in four-part harmony
  • without instruments (a cappella)
  • with the melody carried in the second-highest voice part (barbershop “lead”), a high tenor harmonizing above that, a bass singer singing fundamental harmonies (mainly roots and fifths), and a baritone filling in above and below the melody

There are benchmarks around the “barbershop seventh” chord and other common chord progressions. Within that definition lies a range of music under the “barbershop umbrella”: contest music, show music, “barberpop,” gospel, religious, and patriotic music. Too complicated?

Let’s simplify it

Most people are used to singing being Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass whether in a church hymn, chorus arrangement for theatre, Musicals etc. In barbershop, the melody is usually sung in the second-highest voice part, which we call the “lead.” A high tenor (often a falsetto voice) sings simple harmonies above that melody. The lowest voice, the bass, sings the simpler low harmonies, and a baritone fills in the tricky stuff above and below the melody. There is room for everyone!

Is this all there is to “a cappella”?

As we said, “a cappella” is singing without backing music. Thanks to movies like Pitch Perfect, a cappella singing is known more today than in the past several decades. Broadly speaking, a cappella means “without instruments, voices only.” Barbershop might be considered a part of that description, which would also include some choral singing, some doo-wop and gospel, and widely known modern a cappella groups like Pentatonix.

Is Barbershop for everyone ?

The “person on the street” conception of barbershop is usually a men’s quartet. In the real world today, barbershop singing is for all people – men, women, and kids – in choruses, quartets and mixed groups.

In every combination, people find fun and enjoyment making music together. Why don’t you give it a try?

Lyn Baines sings bass with Spangles Ladies’ Harmony Chorus, based in Los Alcázares, Murcia. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to email her at:

Lyn Baines
Author: Lyn Baines

Chorus founder and manager, bass section leader.

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