Barbershop Music: 4-part Harmony & So Much More...

Barbershop is a style of 4-part vocal harmony music that has been around for over a century. 

It was first organized in predominantly black barbershops in America and was later organized by OC Cash early in the 20th Century.  

Cash's meetings would later form the foundation for the current male a capella (unaccompanied) Society for the Preservation and Encouragement and Preservation of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA, recently renamed the Barbershop Harmony Society). 

This men's-only society has nearly 34,000 dues-paying members throughout North America.

Most barbershop songs, be they "Down Our Way", "My Wild Irish Rose", "Sweet and Lovely", or "Let Me Call you Sweetheart" are written with predominant chords, with each being formed by one of the four sung parts, tenor (highest, harmony part), lead (second highest, melody part), baritone (second lowest, harmony part) and bass (lowest, melody part).

Critical to any performance of harmony music is the correct pitch placement of all four parts, otherwise, the predominant "ringing" tonal buzz and lift created by such sounds is often not fully realized.

Many barbershop organizations, including the two women's-only barbershop organizations, Harmony Incorporated and Sweet Adelines International, also form large groups of barbershop singers, known as choruses, singing 4-part harmony songs en-masse. 

Out of each organized chorus usually comes many quartets, though many quartets often form spontaneously and independently of such groups.

In each organization, individual districts, or areas, offer competitions to allow both choruses and quartets to see how well they can sing two or more songs under different conditions.  The idea is to encourage overall quality of effective performance, not engender side-by-side comparisons.

Those who win district competitions earn the opportunity to represent their district at a larger, international level.  In the Barbershop Harmony Society (on-line at, the next International Competition will be held in its new Headquarters city of Nashville, Tennesee in July, 2008.

(ED. NOTE: Since then, several competitions have been held in different cities across North America.  Philadelphia, PA is scheduled for 2011, and in 2012, I believe it will be held in Canada, in Toronto, Ontario.)

28 choruses will compete for the global men's barbershop harmony title, with representatives from the US, Europe, Australia, and Canada attending.

Singing organized barbershop music often goes beyond mere competitions. 

Many chorus groups raise funds for charity and donate heavily to the community, as in the case of Harmonize for Speech throughout Ontario, raising funds for speech therapy and Aphasia-related programs. 

Those who sing barbershop often praise the lightness of sound, the relative ease of learning songs, and the camaraderie and sense of family being in such organizations.  Many individuals have been singing in these organizations for as many as 50 or 60 years, making it possible to sing and participate in such organizations from youth until old age.
marcus101 marcus101 36-40, M 16 Responses Jan 3, 2008

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:) Ah, ok. Good to know. Thanks again. Great info.

aktor1970: At the time I first wrote the story, the site used to be available at that location.

I have updated the story to reflect the new primary one.


Oh, about the Web address... it should be pointed out that I tried the "(dot)com" address you provided. It gave a placeholder Webpage. Then I did a Google search. The proper address is Thanks.

Excellent post. I'm from the L.A. Southbay area, but after high school I grew up through My college days (and several years after) in and around the Midwest. I got quite a taste of the Barbershop scene out there, specifically in the St. Louis area years ago. I've always enjoyed that sound and style of performing. I have a great respect for Barbershop performers since I know that it's not as easy as those who do it well make it seem. It's just as challenging (and rewarding) as any of the best choirs in the country one might hear. For a short time out there, I tried out with a local group (I forget what their name was). Alas, time and scheduling conflicts sadly won out against My participation.

Hey 4rvrUnique:

Not all groups are quite so brutal in terms of the whole interview process.

It used to be more like that up until the turn of the century, but lately many groups are relaxing this process a little in order to be more encouraging, as barbershop is competing against a LOT of other hobbies.

Our chorus has a relaxed process. You can sing with us casually for several weeks before we will try and focus you on trying out and deciding to join as a member. Typically this process usually crystallizes within about 3-6 weeks for most men.

I would hope that choruses try to be MORE inclusive, not LESS, otherwise, membership will eventually drop off and decline...:(

I love listening to Barbershop music. :-)

I've sang too. I've was in a woman's ensemble group 8 of us who sang 'beauty shop' songs, a choir of over 70, madrigals about 20 of us and several other chorus' in my life. I sang regularly for about 6 years. Though now to join any of these groups where I live you need to try out. It's like a job interview where they need references and a document listing with which group you sang before. I did it for fun, so I'm not into it anymore.

I loved when after a performance we would all be so pumped up, we'd go to a restaurant after to get a bite to eat and while waiting for our food, we'd sing some more. It was great to be part of those groups. I'll never forget it.


Cool! Which chorus do you sing in?

And what part do you sing?

If you ever head up this way, come to Ottawa, let me know so you can stop by and visit our chorus.

We love to have visitors, and encourage all new singers to join in with us..

We practice every Monday night, and if you are in the city, we can make arrangements to have one of our members pick you up and drop you off if you wish...


I'm a member of the BHS! Drcynic, I didn't know you sang barbershop...we should sing in a quartet sometime!

Tate - heh.

Well, there are about 5 months, to be exact, before we go.

I really should get my new passport soon :)

It is still far away enough to not really seem quite real yet, but I imagine once we get into April it will likely sink in a lot more.

Our chorus is recording songs for a CD right now, and we are slowly starting to work on one of our two competition songs, but also improving our singing technique and quality for all songs we sing overall... :)


Actually, there ARE cases where barbershop-style arrangements are being written for mixed genders (2 men, 2 women).

Many quartets have been forming in these configurations for the past several years, but it make take some time for a larger organization of both mixed men and women to sing such songs because the arrangements are very difficult to write, and write well, so they are still somewhat in the minority...

Barbershop harmony songs are written to include specific predominant chords that create "ringing" blended tones - that is what sets them a little apart from other a capella groups.

The individual notes sound atonal, but when blended together and sung accurately, can produce quite a buzz.

A good example of this are minor note combinations that form what are called "Chinese seventh" chords.

To quote from the Barbershop Harmony Society:

"Barbershop music features songs with understandable lyrics and easily singable melodies, whose tones clearly define a tonal center and imply major and minor chords and barbershop (dominant and secondary dominant) seventh chords that resolve primarily around the circle of fifths, while making frequent use of other resolutions.

Barbershop music also features a balanced and symmetrical form, and a standard meter.

The basic song and its harmonization are embellished by the arranger to provide appropriate support of the song's theme and to close the song effectively.

Barbershop singers adjust pitches to achieve perfectly tuned chords in just intonation while remaining true to the established tonal center. Artistic singing in the barbershop style exhibits a fullness or expansion of sound, precise intonation, a high degree of vocal skill, and a high level of unity and consistency within the ensemble.

Ideally, these elements are natural, unmanufactured, and free from apparent effort.

The presentation of barbershop music uses appropriate musical and visual methods to convey the theme of the song and provide the audience with an emotionally satisfying and entertaining experience.

The musical and visual delivery is from the heart, believable, and sensitive to the song and its arrangement throughout.

The most stylistic presentation artistically melds together the musical and visual aspects to create and sustain the illusions suggested by the music."

Singing this stuff is really fun and exciting.

I am even more stoked this year, our chorus will be traveling to Nashville this July to compete against some of the best male groups ever on the planet.

There will be about 90-95 members attending.

Heady stuff..


That is awesome that your family sung to you at your wedding like that. Quite a gift.

Even though I'm dateless this year, I'm still looking forward to Valentine's Day. Our chorus fields a whole TON of requests and calls and sends out quartets of all shapes and sizes (grin) to deliver singing valentines to them, typically two songs that last about 10-15 minutes.

Our service, which donates most of the profits to Harmonize for Speech, also includes a personalized card, a rose, and a box of chocolates.

I can't do justice describing seeing all sorts of women (and men) get sung to, often leaving them in joyful tears.

Doesn't get much better than that.

My Dad sang Tenor. My Mom was in the Sweet Adelines for a number of years but stopped when she had 3 kids to take care of. My Husband was in the local chapter of the Barbershoppers for a couple of years and sang Baritone but he didn't stick with it.

For our wedding my Dad, two Brothers and my Husband sang 'Tell me Why' to me. It was so sweet!

Hey Syndala/DrCynic:

I sing bass, and have done since about the age of 13.

I used to sing tenor from the age of 10 but had to quit after the voice broke. I can falsetto high parts, but

Mind you, I was singing SATB mixed parts in school, not the guys-only bbshop stuff I sing today.

I've been singing bass in barbershop in the same chorus (Capital City) for the past 7 years and plan to keep on doing it until I pass out, or pass away, whichever comes first...


It's a lot of fun, and it's great doing it with so many other people who like to do same thing.

Hey DrCynic: Go to You should look up and see if there is a chorus in your area.

I'm sure they would love for you to visit them, especially if you have sung before.

We have all sorts of guys from all ages and walks of life in our chorus.

We recently held a high school quartet competition and that encouraged 5 new young guys under 20 to join us.

I did that in High School. I sang Bass, which did you sing?

I grew up with it! Both my parents were active in SPEBSQSA and my Dad always had quartet practices at our house...great memories.