Barbershop harmony is one of only a few forms of music that is native to the United States. In the 1800s this particular style of music, with its close harmonies, became so popular that Vaudeville began incorporating at least one or two quartets in their shows. With the waning of Vaudeville and the introduction of recorded music, barbershop music and the quartets became an almost forgotten musical art form.
In 1938, an all-male singing organization called the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA), now known as the Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS) was organized in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 1945 a group of women organized Sweet Adelines, Inc., and in 1991 changed their name to Sweet Adelines International. The mission of these two groups is to preserve and promote this unique American art form. Today it is a vibrant, top-notch musical experience.
Barbershop harmony is a style of a cappella or unaccompanied vocal music characterized by four-part chords for every melody note. Each of the four parts has its own role: generally -
The melody is not usually sung by the tenor or bass, except for an infrequent note or two, or in certain musical arrangements featuring those voice parts. Ideally, all three harmony parts support the lead to ensure that the melody is easily recognized and that the group produces a unit sound in which no voice part stands out.
Slower barbershop songs, especially ballads, often avoid a continuous beat, and notes are often held or sped up in an ad lib manner.
The defining characteristic of the barbershop style is the ringing chord. This is a name for one specific and well-defined acoustical effect, also referred to as expanded sound, the angel's voice, the fifth voice, or the overtone. When the music is sung accurately and with good breath support and vocal techniques, barbershop harmony produces overtone vibrations that create a resonant ring unique to this form of music.
The dominant seventh-type chord is so important to barbershop harmony that it is called the "barbershop seventh." Some arrangers believe that a song should contain dominant seventh chords anywhere from 35 to 60 percent of the time to sound "barbershop."
Another identifiable characteristic that distinguishes it from other types of music is the balance or "cone," with greatest volume in the lowest part and least volume in the top.