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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.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the origin of the barbershop quartet?
The barbershop quartet originated in the United States in the late 19th century. It evolved from African American musical traditions, where barbershops served as social hubs and men would harmonize while waiting their turn. The style became popular among white performers by the early 20th century, with the term "barbershop" being associated with the four-part, close harmony singing style that characterizes these groups.
What are the voice parts in a barbershop quartet?
A barbershop quartet consists of four voice parts: the lead, who sings the melody; the tenor, who harmonizes above the lead; the bass, who provides the lowest singing part; and the baritone, who completes the chord with notes not sung by the other three parts. This arrangement creates the rich, full chords that are distinctive of the barbershop sound.
How does barbershop harmony differ from other types of choral music?
Barbershop harmony is characterized by consonant four-part chords for every melody note, a cappella singing, and a distinctively smooth, "ringing" sound. Unlike other choral music, barbershop emphasizes homophonic texture and requires a high level of vocal precision and tuning to achieve the "locked" chords that define the style. Additionally, barbershop often features songs with sentimental or nostalgic themes.
Are there any competitions for barbershop quartets?
Yes, there are several competitions for barbershop quartets. The most notable is the annual International Barbershop Quartet Contest organized by the Barbershop Harmony Society. Founded in 1938, the society hosts this prestigious event, which draws quartets from around the world to compete for the championship title. The competition is known for its high standard of performance and celebration of the barbershop tradition.
Can women sing in barbershop quartets?
While the traditional barbershop quartet consists of male singers, women also participate in barbershop singing. There are female barbershop quartets and mixed quartets as well. Organizations like Sweet Adelines International and Harmony, Inc. are dedicated to women's barbershop music, hosting their own competitions and fostering the growth of female and mixed barbershop quartet singing.