Barbershop Quartets

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In the mid-1900s, the barbershop quartet most often was made up of four white males, dressed in matching attire, singing unaccompanied songs that were well known between 1860 and 1920. "Aura Lee," "Hello My Baby," "Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie," and "Moonlight Bay" were typical favorites of those who liked this close-harmony style. The melody line was somewhat simple, the harmony progressions followed what is known as the circle of fifths, and the tenor part (often performed in a falsetto or head tone) was sung above the melody or lead line. The barbershop seventh, or dominant seventh chord, was the hallmark of the style.

Though many barbershop quartets still perform and dress as they did several decades ago, entering the second millennium it is not uncommon to hear some different sounds. Intricate harmony progressions and an expanded chord selection provide a more modern sound with altered chords, non-chord melody notes, and sometimes rather complicated jazz-type rhythms.

Early Influences

People were singing long before barbershop quartets were identified, and many vocal music concepts impacted what is now known as the barbershop style. In the eleventh century, it is reported that most singing was done in unison and octaves. In the era of the Gregorian chant, the perfect fifth was introduced, hundreds of years before physicists were able to document the overtone production created by this interval. As early as the fourteenth century, church musicians introduced major and minor triads, providing more harmonic opportunity. But it was the seventh chord (made up of the root, third, fifth, and seventh positions in a scale), developed by classical music composers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that would have the greatest impact on barbershop music. With four voices, each singer produced a different pitch, and the potential overtone patterns allowed for a truly expanded sound. The rich harmonics of the properly tuned and balanced seventh chord are the hallmark of the barbershop sound.

Though indeed men often sang while loitering in barbershops, sometimes with a guitar or other instruments for support, the concept of barber's music originated in Elizabethan England. It referred to spontaneous, or idle music, whereby an individual might begin to sing and others would harmonize, never having heard the melody before and without the privilege of looking at notes written on a musical staff. This type of music was transplanted to America in the late 1700s and became very popular in the South, especially among Negro slaves. Though it is a relatively lost art form, there are barbershop singers who still enjoy woodshedding, a type of barber's music.

After 1850, numerous musical influences affected the soon-to-be-identified barbershop style. Stephen Foster wrote many simple songs that were easily harmonized. Groups such as the Hutchinson Family Singers began performing in New England, Negro quartets arose in the South, and minstrel, vaudeville, and Chautauqua shows became popular opportunities for barbershop style singing.

Recently, historians have suggested that African American musicians may have had the greatest influence on barbershop quartet singing. At the turn of the twentieth century, phonograph recordings became a venue for an increasing number of quartets to be heard. Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin, ragtimer and composer respectively, represented a new influence in music style, and, by 1900, amateur quartets were being heard all across America, often sponsored by clubs, churches, businesses, and even baseball teams. Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Groucho Marx, and Abbot and Costello are but a few of many famous entertainers reported to have had barbershop singing experiences. The big band sound of the 1930s also influenced songwriters and performers.

Early Barbershop Singing Society History

A chance meeting between Tulsa businessmen Owen C. Cash and Rupert Hall turned out to be the beginnings of what is now known as the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA). Agreeing that radio and recorded music were replacing a valued men's a cappella close harmony singing influence, they invited several friends and acquaintances to join them for some vocal musical fellowship. Twenty-six men appeared at the Roof Garden of the Tulsa Club on 11 April 1938. A third such gathering of 150 men occurred on 31 May and created a traffic jam in downtown Tulsa. Wire services reported the event throughout the country, and, perhaps as a spoof to the acronym naming of governmental projects of the day—CCC, WPA, etc.—the initials SPEBSQSA were eventually adopted. Much to the chagrin of those who were concerned with the image of this new organization, the Bartlesville Bar Flies won the first SPEBSQSA contest in 1939.

Because only four men could sing in a quartet, it became common to find small ensembles being formed. In central Illinois, a man named John Hansen traveled among various towns, teaching unwritten melodies and harmonies to small groups that at some later time would join as a mass chorus to sing barbershop-style music; this Corn Belt Chorus once placed nearly 300 men on stage to perform barbershop harmony.

The Barbershop Singing Society After Sixty-five Years

Though it is the desired goal that all members gain some quartet experience, the vast majority of men never sing in organized quartets, but rather experience barbershop singing in chapters whose choruses range in size from a dozen to nearly 200 members. Nonetheless, there are some 1,800 registered quartets in the society, which currently has its headquarters in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

In 2003, the society boasted some 31,000 members (down from a peak of 38,000 in 1983); however, the number of chapters/choruses in this country increased from 750 to 835 during that twenty-year time period. There were seven foreign affiliate organizations from Australia, England, Germany, The Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden, and New Zealand. Barbershop quartets from China and Russia have also toured the United States.

Sixteen geographically defined districts, some including as many as seven states while others are comprised of just one or two, provide the infrastructure for the organization. The society has nearly fifty paid staff members who provide a variety of services, from field representatives who visit chapters around the country to music librarians. The annual budget for 2003 was $6.3 million. The largest source of income is the International Convention and Quartet/Chorus competition, held in preselected sites annually and drawing an average audience of 10,000 listeners. Other income results from membership dues, philanthropic contributions, and the revenue earned through sales of sheet music, recordings, clothing, and other related items.

The contest and judging system is thought to be the most thorough in all of vocal music. Whereas early competitors were judged by community dignitaries—former New York governor Al Smith judged the 1940 competition—quartets and choruses are now judged by highly trained panels of certified judges in the categories of music, presentation, and singing.

As early as 1971, society leaders expressed the desire to involve young men in this close harmony singing fellowship. As older members died, it became evident that the society would die with them unless vigorous efforts were made to attract a new, younger breed of singers. The Young Men in Harmony (YMIH) program soon began publishing appropriate arrangements of songs written more recently—songs with which the younger generation could identify. In 2003, more than 400 society members acknowledged their initial exposure was through YMIH programs. SPEBSQSA leaders are also playing a major role in coalition with national music teacher groups to keep viable vocal music programs alive in the public schools.

Though not structured as musical organizations, many social, fraternal, and public service clubs continue to sing some type of theme song at their periodic gatherings. The vast majority of men's barbershop chapters open and close their weekly meetings with "The Old Songs" and "Keep the Whole World Singing," two standards that still summarize two major objectives of the organization.

Associated Items of Interest

Sweet Adelines—the national women's organization—was formed in 1945. There are 30,000 members found in some 600 chapters that represent twenty-nine regions across the country. Harmony Incorporated, another female singing organization, was formed in 1958 and has a membership of approximately 3,000 members. Both organizations promote the barbershop style, and, in addition to community performances, they sponsor international competitions for choruses and quartets.

The image of the barbershop quartet has also been enhanced in other venues. In addition to records, tapes, and CDs, barbershop quartets have provided interesting performances in the theater and in film. One of the most famous quartets, The Buffalo Bills, helped create interest in the barbershop singing as they portrayed the school board in the 1957 Broadway musical The Music Man. It played for nearly 1,400 performances and received numerous awards; since that time, both film and video productions of the play have helped maintain the wholesome image of the barbershop quartet. The films Babe and Hoosiers depicted the role that barbershop singing played in early-twentieth-century sporting activities. It was not uncommon for quartets to sing songs between innings of professional baseball games, and, just as in the famous Hoosiers film, quartets continue to sing the national anthem prior to basketball and football games.

See also: Choral Singing; Men's Leisure Lifestyles


Averill, Gage. Four Parts, No Waiting: A Social History of American Barbershop Harmony. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Henry, Jim. "The Historical Roots of Barbershop Harmony." The Harmonizer (July–August 2001): 13–17.

Hicks, Val. Heritage of Harmony. Friendship, Wis.: New Past Press, 1988.

——. The Six Roots of Barbershop Harmony. Ivins, Utah: Val Hicks Publications, 2003.

M. Thomas Woodall

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Barbershop Quartets

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