Barbershop harmony is a style of unaccompanied vocal music characterized by consonant four-part chords for every melody note in a predominantly homophonic texture. The melody is consistently sung by the lead, with the tenor harmonizing above the melody, the bass singing the lowest harmonizing notes, and the baritone completing the chord.
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Standard choral music uses the Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass (SATB) designations. SATB arrangements attempt to balance sound equally across all four of the parts. On the other hand, barbershop uses the original men’s voicing of Tenor, Baritone and Bass with the addition of a Lead part, or melody. Barbershop attempts to balance the sound in a cone shape with the bass having the strongest sound, giving the chord a firm foundation. The lead usually sings the melody, with the tenor harmonizing above the lead. The bass sings the lowest harmonizing notes and the baritone sings either above or below the lead to make chords that give barbershop its unique, full sound.
LEAD is the melody and is sung in the range between A below middle C, and C above middle C.
TENOR is a harmony part sung consistently above the lead. Although tenor is the highest voice in barbershop harmony, it should not be confused with soprano of conventional choral singing. The tenor should have a light, sweet, pure tone that will compliment but not overpower the lead voice.
BARITONE covers approximately the same range as lead. The baritone harmony notes cross the lead notes, sometimes sung below and sometimes above. Baritones must constantly adjust their balance to accommodate their position in the chord.
BASS singers should have a rich, mellow voice and be able to sing the E flat below middle C easily. Basses should not be confused with the alto of conventional groups. Many altos can sing the bass part, but others are better suited to lead or baritone.
Probably the most distinctive facet of barbershop harmony is expanded sound. It is created when the harmonics in the individually sung tones reinforce each other to produce audible overtones or undertones. Barbershoppers call this "ringing a chord." Singing in a quartet or chorus and creating that fifth voice is one of the most thrilling musical sensations you’ll ever experience! It’s the goal of every barbershop group, and it’s sure to bring on the goose bumps and the applause!
The melody is not sung by the tenor except for an infrequent note or two to avoid awkward voice leading, in tags and codas, or when some appropriate embellishing effect can be created. Occasional brief passages may be sung by fewer than four voice parts.
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 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.
After World War II, barbershop singing was growing increasingly popular for men. In 1945, a small group of women wanted to participate in the chord-ringing, fun-filled harmony that the men were singing. So these women organized "Sweet Adelines in America." From its humble beginnings in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Sweet Adelines International, as it is now called, has grown to a membership of almost 30,000 women in countries all across the globe.