Barbershop is a four-part, a cappella singing style that originated among African-Americans in the United States of the mid- to late 19th century and, like other African-American musical traditions, later was embraced more widely and continued to develop. 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 and places for making music, both instrumental and vocal.
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 just 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 African-American 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), this presentation from the 2015 BHS Mid-Winter Convention, and this article by Tulane University scholar Lynn Abbott.
In the 1930s, BHS (formerly the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America), and later Sweet Adelines International and Harmony, Incorporated, were formed to encourage the art form among men and women, respectively.
The four voice parts in a barbershop quartet or chorus (both men's and women's groups use the same names for the voice parts) do not correspond to the parts found in most other choral traditions:
1) The Lead generally sings the melody and -- very distinctive for the melody part in choral singing but common in the closely related African-American 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.
Today 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. More traditional barbershop songs feature relatively simple melodies, reflecting the art form's informal and improvisational origins, although the contemporary barbershop scene features a wide variety of songs. Barbershoppers also are notably partial to certain seventh chords, especially the dominant seventh -- so much that these chords sometimes are referred to colloquially 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.”