Barbershop Harmony's Historical Roots
Barbershop harmony can trace its beginnings all the way back to the birth of traditional Western music in the sacred music of European monasteries. Originally these chants were sung in unison, but over the years, harmony began to be added to these beautiful themes. The phrase "barber's music" to describe the tunes of the "common man" appears in the literature of Elizabethan England. In that era, the local barber was not just a hair stylist, but also pulled teeth and performed minor surgery. His establishment was a gathering place for the townspeople, who often played instruments and sang as they waited for their turn with the barber.
The style we know as barbershop became popular in the late 1800s as traveling minstrel and vaudeville shows featured singing groups. The popular tunes of the day were simple melodies with sentimental lyrics, and the harmonies were generally improvised. There was very little printed sheet music to instruct singers on the "correct" notes -- they just sang what their ears wanted to hear. Many of the popular barbershop quartets of the day were African-American groups, who dared to experiment and add unconventional notes to the traditional three-part chords. The exciting sound of the flatted 7th tone became the hallmark of barbershop harmony, despite the objections of musical purists who declared it dissonant and unacceptable in vocal music.
At the turn of the century, amateur singers, usually men, could often be heard singing improvised barbershop harmony at parties and picnics. Minstrel shows often featured barbershop quartets who sang in front of the curtain while performers and stage hands prepared for the next act. It was convenient to use a quartet for this purpose, since no props or instruments were required.
As recording techniques became more sophisticated, the big band sound soared in popularity and barbershop quartets began to fade away. However, the establishment of amateur singing organizations for both men and women guaranteed that this unique American art form would not be forgotten. The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (recently renamed the Barbershop Harmony Society) for male singers was founded in 1938, and Sweet Adelines International for women followed close behind in 1945.
Today, each organization is nearly 30,000 members strong, with barbershop harmony singers all over the world enjoying the education, performance, and competition opportunities afforded by this exciting hobby. While we still honor and sing the "old songs," barbershop has expanded its vision to include music from many different genres -- just take a look at our repertoire!