Barbershop Harmony: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

If you've never experienced barbershop-style harmony, you really should. Recently I was at a convention of these singers, and overheard two hotel guests talking about all the music being made in the hallways on the lower level. The man said, “It's a convention of barbershop singers.” His girlfriend replied, “What that?” I was stunned. I…

If you've never experienced barbershop-style harmony, you really should. Recently I was at a convention of these singers, and overheard two hotel guests talking about all the music being made in the hallways on the lower level. The man said, “It's a convention of barbershop singers.” His girlfriend replied, “What that?”

I was stunned. I thought everyone knew about us! But, I live in a bubble of sorts and only hang out with these types of singers.

So what is it and why are you missing out?

The barbershop style of four-part, close harmony dates back to the 1930s or so. The so-called “standard” chord is a normal triad of root, third, and fifth, with a seventh as the fourth note in the chord. What's important to note about this type of harmony is that when it is done well, the chord will sound “fuller” because the chord could be producing overtones or undertones. You may not know the term, but you've heard it on a guitar when the player clearly touches higher strings, and it sounds light and airy. Or better yet, whenever you see someone lightly touching a wine glass and making a high-pitched noise, those are called harmonics or overtones. The barbershop seventh chord can produce very rich and full overtones and undertones.

A common misconception of barbershoppers, as we are called, is that we're a bunch of gray-haired men dressed in red and white pinstripes with a straw hat. That's the classic barbershop look. The sound, however, is anything but old-fashioned. Yes, many of us are retired or in our 50s, but the vibrancy of this music is for all.

In fact, when you look online at some of the Barbershop Harmony Society international championships, they are composed of very young and talented musicians. (Yes, there are competitions to determine the best in the world for that year). As we age, we lose some of the range and stamina we once had, so the younger generation is picking up where we left off.

Now, I will warn you, whenever you get the barbershop bug, there's no turning back. It's like a nasty addiction. Normally, you become addicted by actually singing in a quartert and “ringing” the chords. There's no other way to get hooked that I know of. After that, you are on your own. I can not help you.

Spring and Fall shows are very common throughout the nation. Often choruses will also prepare music for a Christmas or Holiday show. Find one in your area and see what it's all about. Admission prices are generally affordable. Show producers often bring in outstanding quartets and choruses to impress and entertain. Often you'll get to see the best of the best at no additional charge.

Even though there are thousands of barbershop videos online, you do not get the same feeling and experience as when you are in attendance. The mics are great and you hear some very fascinating chords, it's just not the same.

Where the barbershop community shines, however, is on Valentine's Day. On that day quartets go out into the communities and deliver valentines that their loved ones have paid for. It's the event that brings us back again and again.