What is Barbershop?

Barbershop harmony is a style of unaccompanied singing with three voices harmonizing to the melody: the lead sings the melody; the tenor harmonizing above the lead; the bass sings the lower harmonizing notes; the baritone provides in-between notes, either above or below the lead to make dominant-7th-type chords ("barbershop sevenths"). This arrangement of voices give barbershop a distinctive, full sound.

Barbershop is noted for its extensive use of the musical embellishments called swipes and tags. Lacking instrumental backing or percussion, swipes (progressions of two or more chords sung on a single word or syllable) are sung to add the forward motion of the lyric. A tag (or "coda") is the ending portion of a barbershop song, the "big ending" in the final four or more measures that caps the performance.

The most distinctive facet of barbershop harmony is the phenomenon known as expanded sound. It is created when the harmonics in the individually sung tones reinforce each other to produce audible overtones. Barbershoppers call this "ringing a chord". Singing in a quartet or chorus and creating that "fifth" voice is one of barbershop's magic and most thrilling musical sensations. A more technical discussion of the characteristics of the Barbershop Sound appears below.

Samples of some public domain music arranged in the barbershop style can be downloaded from http://barbershop.org/resources/get-music.html. The extensive music resources of the Barbershop Harmony Society can be purchased through www.harmonymarketplace.com/

Enquiries about barbershop singing and music should be directed to info@melbournaires.com.

The Barbershop Sound

Extracted with adaptations from Gustaf Kalin, “Formant Frequency adjustment in Barbershop Quartet Singing”, 2005. (Masters Thesis in Music Acoustics)

Barbershop singing has a characteristic sound that differs a lot from most other a cappella repertoire. A major reason for this is that it is common to compete in barbershop singing, and the rules for how the music is to be arranged and performed in these competitions are strict. Furthermore, the barbershop community is very conservative, and these factors keep the barbershop music from expanding and developing outside its strict frames. Instead however, barbershop singers put great effort into perfecting their singing according to the barbershop ideals, and to use all available means within these frames.

In order to fully understand the scope of this study, it is important to know the fundamental parts of the barbershop arrangements and singing that create the barbershop sound. The following list is an overview of these parts:

  • Barbershop singing is always a cappella and always in four voices. The voices are called bass, baritone, lead and tenor. The lead carries the melody part, except for occasional break-ins by the tenor or bass. The lead is also the strongest of the four voices, followed by the bass, the baritone, and, softest, the tenor. In male barbershop singing, the tenor sings most of his tones in falsetto. With hardly any exceptions, the bass is the lowest voice and the tenor the highest. The baritone voice winds around the lead, although generally below it.
  • The melody of a barbershop song should be clear and simple, and with rich harmonic variation. The harmonic progression of the melody should move around the circle of fifths (usually counter clockwise). Very few songs have been written specifically for barbershop.The most commonly used melodies are Caucasian American popular tunes from the 1920s and 1930s but the popular music of all years can be found in the barbershop genre.
  • The rules for how a song is arranged in order to be considered ‘barbershop’ are restricted and narrows down the alternative choices for arrangement. A complete list of arrangement rules can be found in [1], and analyses of their application can be found in [2]. The two most significant rules are, however:
    • “The use of the classic dissonance effects of suspensions, anticipations, passing tones, pedal tones, escape tones, and appoggiatura is not consistent with prevailing barbershop style.” [2]
    • The majority of the harmonies should be dominant seventh chords (barbershop sevenths).
  • In many types of popular a cappella music, other than barbershop, it is common that only the singers carrying the melody are singing the lyrics. The other singers would then, for example, sing ‘ooh’, ‘aah’, ‘dum’, ‘doo’, or just a different text. In barbershop, however, all four voices usually sing the lyrics. This is not a rule and exceptions are very common, for example in upbeats sung by the lead or the bass.
  • In order to facilitate intonation and consonance, vibrato is avoided. However, limited and well-controlled vibrato may be used by the lead on occasions when he wants to sound especially expressive.
  • As opposed to choir singing, no chorus effect is strived for. Instead of striving to achieve the massive sound of many voices blending together, the goal for barbershop is to sound like one voice singing all four harmonies.
  • The end of a barbershop song is called a ‘tag’ and is usually some long notes, leading up to a final, extended major triad fermata. A very common type of tag is when one singer, usually the lead or the bass, holds a very long note (often lasting well over ten seconds), while the other singers sing a few chords before reaching the final fermata. The tag is usually sung in fortissimo and the singers strive to reach a ‘lock-and-ring’ effect by being very precise in their intonation. The term ‘lock-and-ring’ means that some common partials become so strong that the listener can perceive a ‘ringing’ sound.
  • Most barbershop songs begin with an ‘Intro’, where the melody often is different from the rest of the song. The intro usually ends like a tag, but compared to a real tag it usually includes fewer chords, is not as loud, and is performed with fewer extended fermatas.


[1] Stevens, D. (1980), ‘Barbershop Arranging Manual’, SPEBSQSA, USA

[2] Szabo, B. (1976), ‘Theory of Barbershop Harmony’, SPEBSQSA, USA


The above discussion only considers the ‘sound’ of barbershop. This is achieved by the careful balancing of the notes in each chord to create the maximum ‘ring’ and the singing of each word sound in exactly the same way and in perfect synchronisation by each singer.

There are also performance features including:

  • Interpretation of the music so that it is faithful to the message of the lyrics and the devices included by the arranger to reflect that message. This involves variation in tempo and dynamics particular in ballads and the expression given to particular words.
  • Living the song, using facial expressions and body movements that reflect the mood of the song.

Consequently, it is crucial that the audience can hear every word of the lyrics.