What is barbershop style a cappella?
Barbershop style music is sung in 4 part harmony, a cappella style (no accompaniment). We take the names of the parts from men’s barbershop:
Lead: The melody line is sung by the lead and the range is the C above middle C to the G below middle C – this is equivalent to an alto or second soprano in mixed choral music. This is the predominant part that all the other parts will tune to.
Bass: The lowest harmony part. The range is from the F above middle C to the E flat below middle C. (Sometimes the part calls for a low D or even a low C but it isn’t necessary for all basses to be able to hit those notes). This is similar to the men’s tenor range in mixed choral music.
Baritone: A harmony part in the middle range – the same range as the Lead – from the C above middle C to (rarely) the G below middle C. (similar to alto/second soprano range) . Baritones sing above and below the Lead line.
Tenor: The high harmony part sung above the Lead. The range of a tenor is from G above middle C to the G above that. This is a soprano range but because it is a harmony part it should be sung softly. Sopranos who are used to having the melody will need to adjust to the new balance.
The barbershop style of singing lends itself to songs from any era – today’s ballads, favorite hits from the past, popular tunes, patriotic songs, even jazz. The basic song and its harmonies are embellished by the arranger to make it more interesting, fun to sing, and entertaining for audiences. The goal in barbershop singing is to create an expanded sound which creates the illusion of more voices than are actually singing. This requires precise tuning, matching vowel sounds, good ‘unit sound’ (having all members of one part sing alike), and proper balance of the chords. With training and practice these elements become natural and free from apparent effort. When it all comes together we ‘ring the chord’ – which means we create harmonics. Harmonics are notes that the listener hears but are not actually being sung. Because we do not hold music when performing, we are free to emote and visually present the theme of the song using whole body movement. This creates a very entertaining experience for the audience, and it is a lot of fun for the chorus as well.