An Examination of the Barbershop Style

An Examination of the Barbershop Style

What is barbershop? How has it evolved through the years? A fascinating multimedia presentation by David Wright traces our musical roots.

By David Wright

“This presentation was made by me, David Wright, to the Style Examination Committee at the request of committee chairman Don Gray. It was delivered as that body was preparing its report for the Society Contest and Judging Committee submitted April 2000. Although this demonstration may have had some influence on the committee’s report, it is not a part of that report and should not be read as a statement issued by the committee. 

This demonstration will present and compare aural examples sung by quartets and choruses of yesterday and today. The purpose is to make observations about the progress and evolution of the barbershop style and especially to point out the strong thread of heritage and continuity born out by these comparisons, a thread that binds us with our past. Although I haven’t provided the names of the arrangers in most cases, many listeners will notice a disproportionate presence of my own arrangements amongst the modern excerpts. With apologies, let me offer that the reason is two-fold: (1) some of them well-represent the musical issues at hand, and (2) this presentation was prepared somewhat hastily and these examples were in my possession.”

The supporting text for the presentation follows

Vocal Stylization
We begin by observing certain styles of vocal color and articulation. Some quartets adopt a dark texture and/or a stylized attack of notes which can give the music a blues/jazz flavor. We note the presence of this phenomenon in both the 1940s and 1990s.

Annie Laurie – Flat Foot Four (Early 1940s)
Note the extensive use of stylized attack and portamento. In a manner prevalent in the early days, the quartet often avoids hitting the note “right on the head”, favoring an approach which exploits the initial consonant to “ease into” the chord. This aspect, together with the final chord sequence V->IV->I, gives the music a distinct blues flavor, which likely is a reflection of the strong African American contributions to our style, which are now well documented. Early Society leaders such as Joe Stern and Deac Martin claimed to have learned a great deal about barbershop harmony from African American harmonizers.

Basin Street Blues – Nightlife (Mid90s)
This modern example reveals a somewhat similar approach. Here the chords come into focus a little faster, but the same general effect give the color of blues. This represents not a new phenomenon, but the reemergence of an old phenomenon.

By The Light Of The Silvery Moon – Bartlesville Barflies (Late 1930s)
Again we hear the penchant for scooping up to the note on the attack and sliding from chord to chord.

Old Joe – Flat Foot Four (Early 1940s)
The musical impression of this passage is effected not only by the bass singer’s stylized scoop, but by his tone color.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ – Excalibur (Late 1990s)
Here there is less scoop, but the texture used by the bass singer (supported by the other three) produces an effect quite similar to that of the previous example.

Shine – Flat Foot Four (Early 1940s)
In this brief solo passage the lead begins by singing the blues, by virtue of his tone, the stylized attack, and the use of the flat seven and flat three scale tones in his improvised melody. This effect is then supported by the quartet.

The Flat Foot Four’s rendition of this song was considered by O.C. Cash, Sigmund Spaeth, and other early Society leaders to the the epitome of the barbershop style. It contains much rich barbershop tradition, some of which was lost for a time and now is beginning to reappear.

Degree Of Embellishment One of the most hallowed aspects of the barbershop tradition as it developed indigenously was its affinity for free and frequent use of traditional embellishments such as echoes, bell chords, patter, back time, lead-ins, and later, key changes, elaborate introductions and extended tags.

Moreover, the style has often borrowed elements from jazz, blues, and other styles when those elements are naturally accommodated and pose no threat to the consonant, solid harmony on which the style is based.

Some have decried a current trend toward “over-arranging”, calling this “indulgence” on the part of arrangers or quartets. We hear accusations that arrangements are too fancy, that they obscure and/or alter the composer’s song, have too many chords or unusual chord sequences, evoke jazz/blues elements, are not sufficiently homophonic, etc.

The following excerpts demonstrate that the barbershop penchant for such adventure (“indulgence”) is traditional and represents an important part of our culture.

Back Home Again In Indiana – Elastic Four (Early 1940s)
Beginning with the second phrase we hear exotic chord sequences and enhancements (as well as the stylized scoop).

Shine – Flat Foot Four (Early 1940s)
Note the long sequence of chords, exaggerated even more by the performance, clearly sung for the pure enjoyment of barbershop harmony. Is it indulgent? Some might say so. Is it a part of the barbershop style? Most definitely.

Bright Was The Night – Gas House Gang (Mid 1990s)
This modern example has been criticized for being indulgent and out of proportion to the song. Note the long sequence of chords, exaggerated even more by the performance, clearly sung for the pure enjoyment of barbershop harmony. Is it indulgent? Some might say so. Is it a part of the barbershop style? Most definitely.

(Oh Suzanna) Dust Off That Old Piana – Four Harmonizers (Mid 1940s)
Note the “wild” tag which juxtaposes the major sixth and major seventh chords.

Sweet Roses Of Morn – Garden State Quartet (Mid 1940s)
Again, note the exotic effects in this arrangement of a relatively simple song.

Fingerprints – Mid States Four (Late 1940s)
This famous treatment presents many unusual chord choices, as well extensive alterations of the composer’s song.

Up And Down The Monon – Mid States Four (Late 1940s)
In this example (from the 1948 International Contest) one hears the influence of 1940s contemporary music in at least two ways; (1) the fancy wrap-up employing tight sixth chords, and (2) the featured jazz push beat on “EV’rything is fine”, which pushes across the measure bar.

I’m Beginning To See The Light – Michigan Jake (Late 1990s)
This recent example, like the previous one, uses the tight sixth chord (more sparingly) and also features the push-beat (more frequently).

Frisco Town – Berkeley Californians (Mid 1950s)
Here is an interesting introduction, directed and presumably arranged by Dave Stevens. This and the next few excerpts exemplify exotic and/or extended introductions and tags. These began appearing in the 1950s and represent a chapter in the evolution of the barbershop style as arrangers harnessed the old barbershop habit of chord-ringing toward making a satisfying beginning or ending to a song.

California Here I Come – Masters Of Harmony (Late 1990s)
This excerpt comes from a modern introduction (actually the arrangers enhancement of the composer’s verse).

When The Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along – Schmitt Brothers (Early 1950s)
True to hallowed barbershop practice, the tag repeatedly presents one more event, just when the listener begins to believe it is over.

Sweet Lorraine – Michigan Jake (Late 1990s)
Here is a recently heard extended tag, representing the very same instinct.

Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang Of Mine – Four Pitchikers (Late 1950s)
Here is a classic old extended tag.

South Rampart Street Parade – Ambassadors Of Harmony (Mid 1990s)
Again, a modern extended tag.

Sugar Cane Jubilee – Four-Tissimos (Mid 1950s)
Another old extended tag. This is from the day when quartets relished the idea of throwing in one more chord.

Love Is Here To Stay – Uptown Sound (Late 1990s)
This recent example, with its long “hanger”, again demonstrates the reemergence of the extended tag in modern barbershop scene.

I’m Sittin’ On Top Of The World – Pittsburghers (Late 1940s)
Here is an old example of a tag with the tight sixth resolving to the tonic triad. The tight sixth was extracted by Barbershoppers from the blues/jazz music of the 1940s, but it represents only one of many influences from jazz and blues, both rhythmic and harmonic, that barbershop music assimilated quite naturally in the years 1900 – 1950.

Royal Garden Blues – Ambassadors Of Harmony (Late 1990s)
Here is a modern example of a tag with (as above) the tight sixth resolving to the tonic triad.

Somebody Stole My Gal – San Diego Serenaders (Early 1950s)
Note in this example the series of key changes. The point of this and the following excerpts is to demonstrate that the barbershop style traditionally embraces extensive usage of devices which propel, enhance, embellish, and create musical interest. This is not a new phenomenon. It is a very old phenomenon and it is an integral part of the tradition and culture.

South Rampart Street Parade – Ambassadors Of Harmony (Mid 1990s)
Note in this (much criticized) example the series of key changes.

Bye Bye Blues – Chord Busters (Early 1940s)
Here we witness something which is both traditional and wonderful. The composer’s song becomes merely a backdrop for the arrangement, which delightfully showcases the bell-chords. The meaningful use of traditional barbershop devices often necessitates having long passages of the song which are not strictly homophonic. The reforms of the 1970s essentially removed this from our music. Now such time-honored barbershop treatments are being heard again, to the delight of our audiences, and toward the revival of the barbershop tradition.

Annie Laurie – Flat Foot Four (Early 1940s)
Again we note the extended non-homophonic passage. Here the patter and echo effects are the featured element.

Give Me A Night In June – Pittsburghers (Late 1940s)
This features a lengthy non-homophonic patter chorus. Arranged by Molly Reagan, this was considered a classic for two decades until the 1970s reforms rendered it inappropriate for contest.

I’m Just Wild About Moonshine – Columbia Colored Quartet (Early 1920s)
Confirming that non-homophonic embellishment goes back to the very roots of our style, this passage is driven by the bass propellants.

Somebody Knows – Pittsburghers (Late 1940s)
Note the similarity of the bass line in this example with that of the previous example from 30 years earlier. This demonstrates the pervasiveness and integrality of such treatments in our style of music.

Cross The Mason Dixie Line – Nightlife (Mid 1990s)
This modern (highly criticized) example utilizes the bass propellants in much the same way, with perhaps a little more care taken to create matched word sounds when possible. In this and the previous examples it is the the continuance of the propellants that allows them to function effectively. I believe it is important that this type of traditional treatment not be condemned as “over-arranging”. That simply flies in the face of our tradition.

South Rampart Street Parade – Jokers Wild (Mid 1990s)
Here the bass melody is highlighted by an off-beat patter sung by the other three parts. This recent example recreates a treatment that was sung by the Confederates in the mid 1950s.

Distinctiveness Of The Barbershop Style
In the remaining examples I hope to put to rest the fear that the music sung in our contests could be mistaken for any other vocal style. You will hear, side by side, examples from other styles compared with barbershop harmony

My Friend – Take 6 And Ray Charles
The chord vocabulary in this wonderful jazz example is unmistakably different from the consonant chords used in barbershop. The barbershop chord vocabulary was codified in 1950 when the five category system was instituted, and has not changed since.

Basin Street Blues – Nightlife
Here the chords are all in the barbershop chord vocabulary. Moreover, the solidity of the voicings, as well as the traditional nature of the propellants, mark this as unmistakably barbershop.

Angel Eyes – Four Freshmen
Not only the chords clearly differentiate this classic piece from the barbershop style, but also the placement of the melody on top and the voicings which avoid a true bass line.

How Deep Is The Ocean – BSQ
By contrast, this has all barbershop chords, melody in the second tenor, solid voicings, and a “ring and lock” approach to singing, clearly characterizing this as barbershop.

Art For Art’s Sake – The Bobs
This is a popular recording in the contemporary a cappella arena. Even though we hear four-part a cappella harmony and a few fleeting chords that might appear a in barbershop arrangement, the parallel nature of the voice leading invites many incomplete chords, unsolid doublings, and chords which are not in the barbershop vocabulary.

Moreover, the harmonization does not use sevenths and other tritone chords which richly spice any barbershop treatment.

Royal Garden Blues – Gotcha
In obvious contrast, this consists entirely of rich barbershop chords with solid voicings, including a high number of barbershop seventh chords, sung with an ear toward locking. It is purely barbershop and could be nothing else.

Tuxedo Junction – Manhattan Transfer
This is a great and well-known jazz rendition. It does not use barbershop chords, it does not feature solid voicings, and it relies on the instrumentation to propel it.

Tuxedo Junction – Bluegrass Student Union
This would not qualify for contest for certain technical reasons having to do with percentage of sevenths and secondary dominants. However it is clearly barbershop in that it stays within the barbershop chord vocabulary, features solid voicings, places the melody in the second tenor, and fills the gaps in the melody with creative echoes in barbershop fashion. There is no mistaking that this is essentially barbershop.

Lived And He Loved Me – Statesmen Quartet
Gospel quartet music may well be the closest thing to barbershop harmony. In this example much of the melody lies in the second tenor (with one departure), many of the chords are ones that are found in barbershop harmony, and even solid voicings are frequent. However, one also notes a more soloistic approach to singing which does not strive for the match, blend, and lock that governs the ear of the barbershop singer and leads to the ringing of chords in just intonation.

Jesus Hold My Hand – Revival
Although this song would not qualify in contest because of its religious content (a rule that was created for fairness of adjudication, not style) and perhaps not possessing enough barbershop sevenths, most listeners will immediately recognize this as barbershop not only because of chords, voicings, and the position of the melody, but also because of the pervasive lock and ring. abandoned

Concluding Remarks
The barbershop style as currently defined and practiced is uniquely distinguished amongst vocal styles and has achieved a place of respect and admiration in the world of vocal music. It is my perception, as a student of barbershop harmony as it existed over many generations, that the trends we hear today are generally in line with the natural development and evolution of the style that has been occurring for 150 years.

As the above examples demonstrate, many things which are seen by some observers as new additions are in fact old habits. The misdiagnosis arises from comparing today’s barbershop music only with that of the period 1970-1990 while neglecting preceding episodes in the development of the style.

It is my belief that the barbershop style underwent something of a sterilization in the 1970s which took away some of its flair and adventure, replacing it with:

a stodgy and untraditional philosophy about arranging an over-emphasis on “appropriateness” which precludes the effective use of traditional barbershop embellishments an unhistoric preoccupation with fidelity to the composer’s song which is out of place in barbershop or any musical style which is rooted in improvisation, and a rejection of contemporary musical influences which had previously been the lifeblood of the style’s development for decades. Having dropped a few of these constrictions and reasserted a philosophy of preservation which I believe is much more in line with that of our early Society leaders, some things now being criticized as new are in fact old barbershop notions emerging with a modern sense of musical appropriateness.

It is crucial that we understand and preserve the defining characteristics of the barbershop style. These are:

(1) Four part a cappella harmony. (This is the way the style developed on the street corner and in the barber’s shop.)

(2) Chord vocabulary consisting of consonant chords, frequently using the barbershop seventh.

(3) The presence of circle-of-fifths resolutions.

(4) Solid voicings, meaning the bass generally occupies the root or fifth of the chord, and doublings of triads occur on the root or the fifth.

(5) Just intonation and emphasis on match, blend, ring, and lock.

(6) The use of embellishments.

It should be noted that all the barbershop examples exude all of these characteristics, and that none of the non-barbershop examples posses all of these characteristics. In fact one would be hard put to find a non-barbershop example which possesses any two characteristics listed above. I believe that (1), (2), and (4) alone completely distinguish the barbershop style in the world of music.

Just as important as preserving the basic characteristics of our style is NOT attaching baggage to its definition which does not belong and which limits the style in unhistorical ways. Here are some elements which we do not attach to the definition because they have varied over time. Freedom in these areas allows the style to have life, breath, variation, diversity, and musical interest.

(1) Diction, articulation, and accentuation. Styles of such vary over our history to include formal to informal, to include all kinds of stylization, including jazz/blues approaches and crooning, as well as the basic “hit-the-note-on-the-head” approach.

(2) Vocal color and texture. It is possible to lock and ring chords with different textures of vocalization, and these vary from age to age and from quartet to quartet. We should not impose one vocal approach on everyone.

(3) Degree of embellishment. It is very important not to attach to the style any one particular philosophy about “appropriateness” or “over-arrangement”, especially one which discards treatments which clearly are central and integral in our tradition.

Some performers/arrangers prefer a very simple, “respectful” approach while others excite their audience with treatments which are ambitious, fun, and adventuresome. Both are clearly and solidly supported by the barbershop tradition and the inclusion of both gives our music a healthy and historical variety.

We must especially reject a philosophy which says that barbershop embellishment should not be featured in an arrangement. This is anti-barbershop.

(4) Styles of rhythm and tempo. We see through the 20th century the quartets in every decade adopting new rhythmic trends which would not have been heard in the previous decade. This process rightfully continues today.

(5) Type of songs. As long as a song can plausibly be harmonized with the consonant chords and progressions of barbershop and can be embellished by it’s traditional devices, that song can be included in the barbershop repertoire. It is a mistake to arbitrarily restrict song choice to those of any one era or type. Over the course of history barbershop quartets have embraced widely varying types of songs, including civil war songs, minstrel songs, songs in the high-brow popular style of the 1800s, folk songs, gay nineties songs, Tin Pan Alley songs reflecting early jazz influences, turn-of-the-century ballads, waltzes, marches, roaring twenties songs reflecting jazz influences, Broadway songs, songs from movies, indigenous street songs, thirties songs reflecting jazz influences of that era, and on and on. O.C. Cash’s favorite woodshed song was “White Cliffs Of Dover”, which was a contemporary song of his day. Songs found in barbershop have always had vastly differing origins, styles of lyric, rhythms, types and range of melody, degree of formalness or informalness, degree of simplicity or complexity, etc. If a modern song works, it should be sung. The same applies to a very old song. Just a few years ago our style was uncomfortably confined to basically two song types: the fast driving up tune and the power ballad, neither of which would have been heard in 1900. One of the most appealing aspects of todays contest music is the variety song types, both new and old – a status which well reflects our musical heritage.

Final Example
The Sunshine Of Your Smile – Confederates (Mid-1950s) With this I make no point whatsoever. It is included purely for the listener’s enjoyment. Let us keep the chords ringing, and let us remember what our style of music has been so we can discern wisely what it will be.