Barbershop singing is characterised by four part harmony sung unaccompanied and memorised. It has a recognisable melody, which is usually not the highest part. The sound needs a strong bass line (lowest voices) to enable the quality of ‘lock and ring’.
Traditional barbershop songs use up tempo songs in mostly 4/4 or 2/4 time. The ballads are sung ad lib style with a sense of meter, but written rhythms are not strictly adhered to.
In barbershop, the lead generally sings the melody, the tenor sings the highest note in the chord, the baritone part fills in the ‘missing’ note in the chord and the bass supplies the harmonic foundation of the chord. Barbershop harmonies have a different balance to the SATB harmonies you may be used to. This is called the barbershop 'cone': our top voices sing with less weight and intensity than our lower voices.
Barbershop arrangements use 11 chords - mostly major triad, dominant 7th (1, 3, 5, b7) and dominant 9ths (1, 3, 5, 7b, 9) with other passing chords. These chords enhance the overtone series of the tonic to create the characteristic ‘lock and ring’ of barbershop. It uses complete 3 or 4 note chords predominately voiced with the bass on the tonic or 5th. Tonic or 5th are doubled in 3 note chords.
The really fun part for babrbershop singers is in fine-tuning these chords to enhance the harmonic series. Pitches need to be slightly adjusted within the chord to achieve this ’lock and ring’, making the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
This is a harmony sung above the lead part. Tenors should have a light and pure tone that does not overpower the lead. The range for tenor is from G above middle C to high F on the top line of the clef. On some occasions the tenor part sings below the lead line. When this happens a singer must be flexible enough to adapt their tonal quality.
This is the melody and must be sung with authority and consistent quality. The lead sings with very limited vibrato to add some colour to the sound. However, if vibrato is over-used the chord does not ‘lock’ to produce the characteristic barbershop sound. The range is from A below middle C to C above middle C. Although in a quartet the other parts follow the lead, in the chorus all parts follow the director.
While the baritone range is approximately the same as that of the lead, baritone notes cross the lead notes. Depending on where the melody is situated, baritones must constantly adjust their balance to accommodate their position in the chord. This means they must have a very good ear.
This part holds the lowest note in the chord and has a range from E-flat below middle C to G above middle C. Providing the foundation of each chord, the bass generally sings with a heavier tone quality than the others parts to fill out the barbershop cone.