Barbershop is a four-part a cappella singing style that originated in the United States -- especially African-American communities -- of the late 19th century. The term “barbershop” is thought to come from the fact that barbershops at that time had long served in England and the U.S. as gathering places for men, as well as places for making music, both instrumental and vocal. This was particularly true for African-American men in the 1800s and 1900s, who often were denied access to many other public places.
Lamenting the fact that by the 1920s Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley had started to associate the "barbershop quartet" tradition in the public's mind mostly with white quartets, NAACP Executive Secretary James Weldon Johnson wrote about how prevalent barbershop harmonizing was among young African-American men:
Pick up four colored boys or young men anywhere and chances are 90 out of 100 that you have a quartet. Let one of them find the melody and the others will naturally find the parts. Indeed, it may be said that all male Negro youth of the United States is divided into quartets … .
For more about the origins of barbershop, see this article (starting on page 13) from the January-February 2015 issue of the magazine of the Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS), as well as this lecture from the 2015 BHS Mid-Winter Convention.
The four voice parts in a barbershop quartet or chorus do not correspond to the parts found in most other choral traditions:
1) The Lead generally sings the melody and -- unusual for a melody part in most choral singing but common in the closely related gospel quartet tradition -- is not the highest voice;
2) The Tenor, the highest voice, harmonizes above the lead, often in falsetto in male groups;
3) The Bass typically provides the foundation that the bass part does in other unaccompanied choral art forms; and
4) The Baritone in barbershop ranges as high as the Lead and is the harmony part that often completes the four-part chords.
Barbershop features mostly homophonic texture, with the voices singing the same syllables at the same time, and a strong emphasis on the blended emsemble sound -- even to the extent of using unusual tuning to maximize the expanded sound of overtones. Traditional barbershop songs feature relatively simple melodies, reflecting the art form's informal and improvisational origins. Barbershoppers also are notably partial to certain seventh chords, especially the dominant seventh -- so much that these chords sometimes are colloquially referred to as "barbershop sevenths."
Here’s how Deke Sharon, founder of the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America (CASA), producer of NBC’s “The Sing-Off,” music director for the movies "Pitch Perfect" and “Pitch Perfect 2,” and a star of the Lifetime a cappella docuseries "Pitch Slapped," starts off introducing young a cappella enthusiasts to what they may have thought of as an old style of singing:
You're young, you're scrappy. You want to be the best. … You want technique, you want moves. You need to learn karate... except contemporary a cappella doesn't have a traditional refined martial art... does it?
It does. It's called Barbershop.
Sharon goes on to provide a terrific and succinct explanation of eight key characteristics of barbershop, as a musical art form and as a contemporary hobby. He also explains why he thinks of barbershop as “a cappella’s martial art.” Check it out!
“There is no bad day that can’t be overcome by listening to a barbershop quartet.
This is just truth, plain and simple.”