Theoretically Speaking, S5:E4: What Makes Barbershop, Barbershop ?


My favorite bar here in Nashville didn’t survive the pandemic.

It had a huge room with high ceilings and they had a great beer selection.

I was there one evening and it was packed. That’s not surprising; it was often packed. But what was different this night was a sound.

Every now and then, a chord would swell up out of the crowd and then fade away. It would come from one part of the room and then another and another.

It was voices harmonizing on a single syllable, usually, “Ah.”

And it was a seventh chord.

Most chords are triads, meaning they have three notes. Those notes are the root, the third, and the fifth. In the key of C, which is all the white notes on the piano, a C major chord would be the notes C, E, and G.

When you add more notes to the triad, it’s called an extended chord. The most likely note to be added is the seventh, so that would make it C, E, G, and B. That’s a major seventh chord.

It sounds alright, but has a bit of dissonance, so we often flatten the seventh. That makes the notes C, E, G, and B♭, even though B♭ is a black note on the keyboard. It’s not in the key, but it sounds great, so we just break the rules and play it.

This chord with the flattened seventh is called a dominant seventh chord, and we would abbreviate it as C7.

In some circles, it’s known as the barbershop chord.

It’s what I heard at the bar that night.

Nashville is known as Music City mostly because of country music.

But since 2008 it’s been the home of the Barbershop Harmony Society.

They happened to be having their annual convention when I heard those dominant seventh chords at the bar. Barbershop groups were there having dinner and drinks, and you can’t have that many groups together without some friendly competition, even if it’s only a single chord. 

The bar wasn’t far from the Society’s headquarters. Which, appropriately, is on 7th Avenue.

We used to think that barbershop has its roots in 17th century England. There certainly is evidence of singing in English public areas.

However, a 1992 academic paper by Lynn Abbott identified contemporaneous newspapers showing that barbershop singing came from black communities after the Civil War.

Even the Barbershop Harmony Society was surprised.

Singing in harmony is an African tradition that came to North America with the slave trade.

Harmony singing continued during slavery, when singing was allowed, and after. We have evidence that blacks sang harmony in barber shops, workshops, cotton fields, tobacco fields, and other gathering places.

We also know that barber shops were a sort of black men’s club, and guys would hang out whether they needed a haircut or not.

Some would sing to pass the time. In bigger barber shops, the barbers themselves would sing.

Some hired professional groups to entertain the customers. This happened wherever there were black communities.

Public spaces now have radio, streaming music, or TV (with sports or, worse: 24 hour news channels), so people don’t spontaneously join each other in song anymore.

We barely even look up from our phones.

Barbershop developed into four part harmony with dominant seventh chords. Four part harmony is when four people sing the four notes of extended chords. If a barbershop quartet were to sing a C7, the bass voice would usually sing the C, the baritone would sing the E, the first tenor would take the G and the second tenor would get the B♭. Each voice takes the place of a finger on the piano.

This is called close harmony because the notes are so close to each other. Sometimes the bass voice will be down an octave, but generally speaking they all stay within the same octave.

As long as we’re breaking the rules with dominant seventh chords, European tradition says that the parts shouldn’t follow each other up and down. This is called parallel motion. And it’s a no-no. Bach would object – but it’s OK in barbershop. If it sounds good, sing it.

This may be obvious, but instruments are optional.

Barbershop is mainly about vocal harmony. 

It’s almost always four voices. In his 1925 book, Barbershop Ballads, Sigmund Spaeth said you can get away with three, or even two if you have an exuberant tenor harmonizing above the melody. That will result in either good music or “immediate expulsion.”

So, quartets it is.

The other thing that makes barbershop harmony distinct is the melody is sung as the second note down. That is, one tenor sings the melody, and the other tenor sings harmony notes higher than the lead. Most classical and folk music was a melody over chords. This melody-in-the-middle structure gives barbershop its unique, unusual sound.

When whites tried replicating this sound, they often did it mocking the originators. Wearing blackface and speaking in exaggerated black dialect at minstrel shows, they’d portray black culture as shallow, dumb, and inferior.

As they were doing this, of course, they exposed their admiration for the music.

The music became so popular that there was a market for records, even in the early days of the recording industry.

“Play That Barbershop Chord” recorded in 1910 by Billy Murray and the American Quartet is considered the first barbershop record, and mentions the dominant seventh chord in its title.

Later that same year, a different version of the same song was released by Bert Williams. This song is probably where barbershop got its name.

The lyrics of “Play That Barbershop Chord” would now be considered politically incorrect. It’s full of then current black slang. The American Quartet were white and they sang these words with caricatural enthusiasm.

Bert Williams was a black man who wore blackface. Some believe he may have done so to hide that he was, in fact, black. 

Others say he was performing on the vaudeville circuit. There were two segregated circuits, like there were two baseball leagues.

When he toured the black circuit, Williams wore blackface and used exaggerated antics to be reminiscent of the minstrel shows. He was making fun of white people making fun of black people. This satire was lost on many of both races.

Lots of white vaudevillians recorded songs. Few black artists did, and those records weren’t widely distributed. The early recording industry wasn’t set up for minority artists, they recorded who they thought would sell the most records, i.e., the majority, not the minority. That’s why even today we think of barbershop as white people’s music. 

Our image of barbershop as four white guys in straw hats, striped vests, and arm garters is misconceived.

Barbershop started as black music.

28th Street in New York City was where all the music publishing houses were. Each building had rooms with pianos where composers and lyricists tried to write the next big hit.

With the windows open in the summer, the noise of all these pianos playing at the same time sounded like pots and pans banging together.

That’s how 28th Street became known as Tin Pan Alley.

The songwriters there combined barbershop harmonies with European song structures. From this came traditional pop and vocal jazz. More on that soon, but barbershop harmony continued in popular music for decades.

Black musicians moved to what would become gospel, but some black barbershop stuck around. We should note that barbershop has some call and response, a defining trait of gospel.

An important thing to remember is that barbershop started and existed as more or less spontaneous public singing. Sure, there were professional acts, but people sang on their own. Professionals entertained audiences. Amateurs entertained themselves.

Toward the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, music sales consisted of sheet music.

Records came later, but for a while, middle class homes had pianos and they needed something to play.

Sheet music often had an arrangement for piano and voice, and another with four part barbershop harmony.

Then radio became affordable. You could hear professionals singing in your own house, and not have to put up with Uncle Ezekiel singing off key again.

Quartets were hired to sing live on the radio. It had to be live because radio stations couldn’t yet afford their own recording equipment. Almost all radio was live.

In Minneapolis, a quartet was put together to sing the Wheaties jingle. The jingle was the world’s first singing commercial and the quartet performed it every week for three years.

They were paid $15 per performance.

It was a good investment on General Mills’ part. Of the 50,000 cases of Wheaties sold in 1929, 30,000 were in the Minneapolis area. Instead of discontinuing Wheaties due to low sales, they hired quartets nationwide. Sales increased, and you can still buy Wheaties today.

Finally. An explanation.

A radio program called National Barn Dance was broadcast on WLS-AM. It was a powerful clear channel station in Chicago and reached all over the midwest of the US and Canada.

It highlighted country music but included barbershop quartets, too. The Maple City Four were one of the regulars.

When we go to the movies now, there’s about twenty minutes of previews before the main film. It used to be previews, newsreels, shorts, and cartoons. Often the cartoons featured singalongs. The lyrics were at the bottom of the screen and a bouncing ball showed which syllable should be sung. 

The Mills Brothers made their name singing on radio and in cartoons, but they initially didn’t appear on screen. Not only could they sing, they could mimic instruments with their voices. People wanted to see how they did it, but once the Mills Brothers were finally shown, audiences were shocked to see they were black.

Regardless, they became tremendously popular, selling over 50 million records. They were also the first black artists to have their own national radio program.

Barbershop informed and influenced other genres.

W.C. Handy, one of the fathers of the blues, had been in a barbershop quartet. The same goes for Louis Armstrong, an early jazz man. He talked about being a kid singing harmony on New Orleans street corners. We’re familiar with his adult voice, gruff and raspy, but as a preteen he was a tenor.

And we know Scott Joplin as a ragtime composer, but he heard barbershop harmony in the fields as a young man.

He incorporated it into his 1911 opera “Treemonisha.” It’s the story of a young black woman who wants an education, something that was hard to come by for a young black woman at the time.

Musically, it’s ragtime with some barbershop harmonies, in an opera format.

Joplin knew about classical music, too, and was around not that long after Beethoven. If you read the installment about classical music, you might remember that his First Symphony starts with a C7. I called it a blues chord, but the blues and barbershop got it from African tradition.

The Barbershop Harmony Society’s original name was the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, Inc. (SPEBSQSA).

Its first meeting was on April 11, 1938 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and we now celebrate Barbershop Quartet Day every April 11th.

There’s also Sweet Adelines International, which is a women’s barbershop organization.

Like the BHS, they hold yearly competitions. The rules say songs must be at least 20 years old to be used in competition.

These contests seem to be the main venue for barbershop harmony singing these days.

We think of barbershop as a novelty, if we think about it at all. But its influence on jazz, gospel, blues and their descendants is undeniable.

So go join each other in song.

And get your hair cut.

Suggested Listening – Full YouTube Playlist

Play That Barbershop Chord
Billy Murray & American Quartet

Play That Barbershop Chord
Bert Williams

I’m Wild About Moonshine
Southern Negro Quartette

Have You Tried Wheaties?
The Wheaties Quarties

Heebie Geebies
The Boswell Sisters

I Ain’t Got Nobody
The Mills Brothers

Oh Monah!
Maple City Four

That’s A Plenty
The Mid-States Four Barbershop Quartet

Yankee Doodle Medley
The Chordbusters

Pop Song Medley
Main Street

Love Letters
The Ladies

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Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:

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Phylum of Alexandria
Famed Member
August 18, 2023 7:09 am

I was certainly surprised to learn, maybe a decade ago, that barbershop came from African American communities. Like banjo playing, it’s long since become something so thoroughly “white,” that the history of the tradition seems far from self-evident. But, with the hindsight of 20/20, there’s plenty of evidence of that heritage.

I had not stumbled upon that really early evidence, but that “barbershop chord” record makes it plain as day. Such a throughly unpleasant era of our musical past, but such a formative one!

I like that our entries have been rather harmonious of late. Can we get two more writers to strike that perfect balance?

Famed Member
Online Now
August 18, 2023 7:56 am

I’ve always been fascinated with Barbershop music, because my grandfather who died when I was 7 was active in a chorus. So many things to say!

  • I didn’t realize it had its roots in Black music, though it’s not really surprising
  • My grandfather’s tombstone has that SPEBSPQSA logo on it!
  • The joke about the acronym was that it stood for Some People, Especially Basses, Should Probably Quit Singing Altogether
  • I featured that same Wheaties song in my article on jingles!
  • I was surprised a year or two ago to learn that Blacks also performed in blackface. Reading your reasoning, it makes sense.
  • If you listen to a barbershop chorus, which may feature more than 50 voices, singing their big chords at full volume, the power can be almost terrifying. I know that sounds weird, but it is incredible.

For as much as I love music, and science, when I read physics based descriptions of overtones and harmonics and why music sounds the way it does, it usually ends up confusing me. But I’ve more than once read that when a truly trained Barbershop quartet sings perfectly, there’s something about the chords that gives the impression that there are more than four voices singing. I’ve read that it is called having a chord “ring”, and it takes more than your everyday amateur singers to accomplish it.

Also, on the list of things that I’ve wished I could do in my life, I would love to participate in a barbershop chorus. There are websites of some choruses within an hour of me that perform in southwest Ohio. Maybe someday I’ll pull the trigger?

Famed Member
August 18, 2023 9:46 am

My Uncle Ed (the one who encouraged me not to give up in my one-and-only public singing performance) was a longtime barbershopper and I, too, remember seeing that unwieldy acronym. Probably for the best that they simplified it.

Thanks so much for this revealing installment that ties together so many musical styles through barbershop and acknowledges its African American roots.

Have a great weekend!

Pauly Steyreen
Famed Member
August 18, 2023 10:19 am

The rules say a song has to be at least 20 years old to be sung in competition.

So Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” and Lil Jon’s “Get Low,” both released in 2002, are now on the table!

Just imagine the sincere, harmonied crooning of:

(Baritone) It’s getting hot in herre, so take off all your clothes
(Tenor counterpoint) I am getting too hot, I gotta take my clothes off

To the window (to the window), to the wall (to the wall)
Till the sweat drop down my balls (my balls)
All these bi***** crawl (crawl)

Phylum of Alexandria
Famed Member
August 18, 2023 11:37 am
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

I think you mean “Hot in Hair.”

Get it? Barbershop?


Famed Member
Online Now
August 18, 2023 12:18 pm

Oh boy

Noble Member
August 18, 2023 12:58 pm

I don’t think you’ve done “What makes Doo-wop, Doo-wop?” But now that I know of Barbershop’s Black roots, there’s an obvious straight line there (and thence to Funk through the Parliaments.)

Famed Member
August 18, 2023 9:33 pm

By far, my neck of the woods had the slowest opening up for business after the worst of COVID was over. We played three football games in an empty stadium, a stadium that holds 9,000 people, mind you, before a national television audience.

As for basketball, the national anthem used to be gamely performed by a string of girls between the ages of 13-16. But the university took precautions and stopped this practice. Those performances were always fraught with suspense. Sometimes you weren’t sure if some of those girls were going to hit all the notes. And then you’d clap out of relief.

Instead of American Idol-nation, the anthem was performed by a barbershop quartet. We all became fans. And were sad to see them go, once things returned to normal.

JJ Live At Leeds
Famed Member
August 19, 2023 12:28 pm

Like everyone else I was surprised to find out the history of barbershop quartets. Its not something I would have considered fertile ground for an in depth account but turns out there’s plenty more than meets the eye.

From my vantage point across the ocean there isn’t the same tradition. Our own British Association of Barbershop Singers (BABS – not as unwieldy as the US version) is only celebrating its 50th anniversary next year. It doesn’t necessarily feel like something taken seriously generally, appearing in public conciousness mostly as a comedic construct. Case in point, my daughter has recently gotten into Friends and greatly enjoyed the barbershop quartet mocking Julio as a buttmunch.

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