What is Barbershop Harmony?

(The following description has been affectionately borrowed from the BABS website)

Barbershop harmony is a style of unaccompanied vocal music characterised by consonant four-part chords for every melody note in a predominantly homophonic texture.

The melody is consistently sung by the lead, with the tenor harmonising above the melody, the bass singing the lowest harmonising notes, and the baritone completing the chord.

Barbershop singers adjust pitches to achieve perfectly tuned chords in just intonation while remaining true to the established tonal centre.

Artistic singing in the Barbershop style exhibits a fullness or expansion of sound, precise intonation, a high degree of vocal skill and a high level of unity and consistency within the ensemble. Ideally, these elements are natural, unmanufactured and free from apparent effort.

Barbershop music presentation uses appropriate musical and visual methods to convey the theme of the song and provide the audience with an emotionally satisfying and entertaining experience. The musical and visual delivery is from the heart, believable, and sensitive to the song and its arrangement throughout. The most stylistic presentation artistically melds together the musical and visual aspects to create and sustain the illusions suggested by the music.

History of Barbershop Singing.

This section has been affectionately borrowed from '25 Years - The History of British Barbershop Harmony' by Alan Johnson and Harry Wells, published by the British Association of Barbershop Singers © 2003.

(with extracts from Heritage of Harmony edited by Val Hicks)

No one knows for sure when , where or how barbershop singing started. However, there are references in literature that give us some clues.

Thomas Morley (1567-1602) claimed 'You keep not time... you sing you know not what, It would seem you came lately from a barber's shop'.

Samuel Pepys (1633-1702) wrote 'After supper my Lord called for the lieutenants cittern and with two candlesticks with money in them for symballs we made barbers music'.

According to William Andrews, in his book At the sign of the Barbers pole, 'His shop was the gathering place for the idle gallants ...the cittern or guitar lay on the counter and this was played by a customer to pass the time away until his turn came to have his beard starched or his mustachios curled'.

There are many such references to barbershop singing. It seems that while waiting their turn for a shave or haircut, customers would often strum on a lute or cittern - and sing. We have no idea what they sung but there are references to barbers singing 'in fours'.

Singing in barbershops died out in this country when barbers diversified their services and took up dentistry - pulling teeth. They also did a bit of blood letting, considered a cure for some diseases. Presumably the sight of blood was not conducive to singing.

The custom of singing in barbers' shops crossed the Atlantic with the wave of European emigrants, though in America the guitar replaced the cittern. In the mid-Western states of nineteenth century America, in the absence of clubs for men in small towns, the barber's shop became the gathering place for men to pass the time of day. Someone would strike up a tune, maybe the barber himself, and customers would join in harmonising to the melody. Often a guitar would be hanging from the wall for anyone, possibly the barber, to strum a few chords. This type of self-entertainment spread and became popular parlour music with the family.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, this style was called kerbstone harmony or lamp-post harmony. However, in 1911 there was a popular song with the words'Mister Jefferson Lord, play the barbershop chord'. The term barbershop caught on and has been widely used ever since.

This is the popular theory of the origins of barbershop harmony singing but there are at least four other areas of influence in addition to this classic theory.

Minstrel Shows.

Minstrel shows were very popular in America in the 1840's and 1850's and traditionally four men would step forward from the troup to be introduced very eloquently by the interlocutor and sing a popular ballad of the day. These first minstrel foursomes were casually organised, with no special costumes, names or managers. They were just four men who could blend their voices. At about this time the tradition of minstrel quartets was very popular and individual quartets soon became famous when they went on show tours.

Black Singers.

The slaves on southern plantations sang to make their lives more bearable and to give vent to their feelings and moods. Their vocal harmonies were ear hamonies, as printed music was never used. After emancipation, the freed slaves maintained this singing tradition and many could sing well in quartets. At the early part of the twentieth century, black quartets would come to Tin Pan Alley offices to plug songs and seek work.

Soh to Soh Songs.

Many popular songs from 1830 to 1895 were of doh to doh melodic construction, that is they tended to begin and end on the low key note of the scale. This kind of song crowds the bass singer off his rightful harmony note, forcing him to sing too low for his voice range. Towards the end of the nineteenth century soh to soh songs arrived opening up room for the bass and top tenor to function more easily.

Musically speaking doh to doh type songs were usually sung in glee club style with the melody sung by the first (top) tenor. The new soh to soh song allowed the second tenor, or a high baritone, to present the melody, with the top tenor singing a high harmony above. The bass sang his foundation low harmony of roots and fifths with the baritone ranging above and below the melody filling in the harmonies with his fourth tone.

The development of the soh to soh song was the most important influence in the evolution of this vocal style, basically because they were easy for the average singer to sing and harmonise. Sweet Rosie O'Grady and My Wild Irish Rose were typical close harmony songs of the day.

The Golden Age of Barbershop.

From 1900 to 1930 was the golden age of barbershop harmony songs. Hundreds of these close harmony tunes were sung by quartets and by families gathered 'round the parlour piano. This was an age of innocence and the songs told of mother, home, Dixie, girls, courtship and of first hellos and last goodbyes. The songs were aimed at the heart with simple homespun messages. The great Tin Pan Alley composers such as George M. Cohen, Ernest Ball, Irving Berlin and Harry Von Tilzer wrote songs by the thousand and people bought the sheet music by the million. Harry Von Tilzer is reputed to have written eight thousand songs in his career.

A Short History of the Wigan Pier Town Chorus.

The Wigan Pier Town Chorus began when a local Wigan singer Bill Cox called a meeting for "Anyone who sings in the bath" to be held at the Wigan Conservative Club in Upper Dicconson Street, Wigan on Tuesday September 25th 1990 at 8pm.


Bill Cox


Just three months later the newly formed chorus, now eighteen strong, gave their first public performance at the 'Bowling Green Hotel in Wigan Lane.

Three years and several sing outs later the chorus was evaluated and accepted by the British Association of Barbershop Singers at their annual general meeting at Warwick University on September 26th 1993.