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  • Writer's pictureLeigh Gerstenberger

Barbershop Quartet Singing

Updated: Sep 29, 2021

As I’ve shared in the past, I grew up being exposed to music by my father. Thanks to him (and my mother), I was introduced to all genres of music at a very early age. For as long as I can remember I’ve been listening to classical, folk, show tunes and church choir music. My dad sang in a college glee club and as a result, I’ve known the words and the tune to The Wiffenpoof for as long as I can remember (but more on that in a future post).

One of the more eclectic musical genres that I’ve developed an affection for over the years is barbershop quartet singing.

A barbershop quartet is a group of four singers who sing music in the barbershop style, characterized by four-part harmony without instrumental accompaniment, or a cappella. The four voices are: the lead, the vocal part which typically carries the melody; a bass, the part which provides the bass line to the melody; a tenor, the part which harmonizes above the lead; and a baritone, the part that frequently completes the chord. The baritone sings either above or below the lead singer as the harmony requires. Barbershop music is typified by close harmony— the upper three voices generally remain within one octave of each other.

While the traditional barbershop quartet included only male singers, contemporary quartets can include any gender combination.

While many sources claim that barbershop singing originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States, some maintain that the origins of barbershop singing are "obscure". The style is considered a blend of White and African American musical styles. Although the African American influence is sometimes overlooked, these quartets had a formative role in the development of the style.

By the 1920s, the popularity of the style had begun to fade. It was revived in the late 1930s along with the founding of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA), now known as the Barbershop Harmony Society, or BHS.

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