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What is a Barbershop Quartet?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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A barbershop quartet is a musical quartet which performs barbershop music. This form of music dates back to the 1600s, and it evolved, as you might suspect, from casual gatherings of friends in barbershops and other public places. In the United States, barbershop music has long been associated with the black community; barbershop performers often appeared on the vaudeville circuit, at least until the birth of radio made such live performances more rare.

Barbershop music is a type of music which is characterized by having a four part harmony, which is typically led by the second tenor, accompanied by a baritone, a bass, and the first tenor. Barbershop music tends to be very clear in tone, with a standard meter and a very balanced harmonic form; in layman's terms, it just sounds nice, if a bit old-fashioned to some ears. The complex harmonies in barbershop music require the performances of skilled singers, and the four parts lend themselves well to groups of four singers, which is why the barbershop quartet is so common.

Classically, barbershop quartets have decked themselves out as exaggerated dandies, with neat matching suits, straw hats, and bold ties. They tend to dress in coordinating outfits, with the members of the barbershop quartet often donning ludicrous mustaches, in an homage to the history of this musical form. Barbershop quartets are also open to women, and some all-female groups call themselves “beauty shop quartets” as a tongue-in-cheek dig at the traditional barbershop quartet.

One of the most distinctive features of barbershop music is the ringing chord. The ringing chord is a unique vocal effect created when the four voices harmonize perfectly with each other, overlaying in such a way that the illusion of a fifth singer is created. The ringing chord can sound quite ethereal and it is very recognizable; most barbershop groups work hard to attain it, and are rightfully proud when they manage to achieve it.

The barbershop quartet was extremely common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and some quartets were quite famous. However, with the advent of radio, the demand for live performance started to fade, and many quartets found themselves out of work. In the late 1930s, people began to be concerned that this unique musical form would be lost forever, and they started a barbershop revival to promote the preservation and performance of barbershop music. Members of a barbershop quartet often belong to a revival association so that they can network with fellow musicians with like interests.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon972653 — On Oct 05, 2014

I sang bass in an amateur barbershop quartet and I loved every minute of it. We got to perform in a local production of The Music Man once, and a car dealer asked us to do a little jingle for his business. We did the whole routine, with the candy stripe suits and the straw hats. There's really wasn't much we could do outside of a few talent shows, so we decided to switch to traditional Southern gospel music with the same four part harmonies.

By keithhopkins — On Feb 24, 2011

Thanks for the informative article.

I've enjoyed singing this style for decades.

I offer a few additions:

1. The Barbershop Harmony Society is alive and well! There are chapters and clubs all over North America, and in many other countries.

2. The ring (or richness) of a well-tuned (see "just intonation") barbershop chord is the result of at least two phenomena: when harmonics in the voices overlap, this reinforcement makes them audible, and sum and difference tones (see "combination tones") occur when primary tones interact on the eardrum or microphone diaphragm. These effects can result in many additional audible notes.

3. The "bass" almost always sings the lowest note, and barbershop singers call the first tenor the "tenor" and the second tenor the "lead".

4. I know of no evidence that the barbershop style appeared before the late 19th century. I think the stories about European barbershops in the 17th century are unsupported. --Keith H.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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