The barbershop style

What kind of person would want to sing in the barbershop style?

You may think that barbershop harmony is sung only by men wearing stripey waistcoats and straw hats. In the 21st century, worldwide, and especially within the UK, you couldn't be more wrong. Certainly, there are many vocal groups consisting only of men, but these days there are even more consisting only of women and a growing number of mixed groups, of all ages. Unless you are thinking of entering a contest, you really don't need to worry about who is singing together; in fact, we encourage a wide and diverse range of people and voices to sing.

Pretty much any combination of voices can produce the exciting sound of close harmony arranged in the barbershop style and if competition appeals, there are contests for all combinations these days.

So what exactly makes barbershop harmony different? 

  • First and foremost, no instrumental accompaniment whatsoever - just voices (which is shared with all other a cappella genres). 
  • Second, only and always four vocal parts, a melody, and three harmony parts. 
  • Third and unique to the barbershop style, one of those harmony parts is always above the melody.
    Barbershop harmony grew out of the tradition of people harmonising by ear, and it's very natural to harmonise above a melody (try it!). One of the other parts is a bass line and the fourth part may be below or above the melody at any given time.
  • Fourth, the singers sing the lyrics together most of the time.
    There should be no sustained parts of the song where the harmony consists only of sounds such as “oooo” or “doo-be do-wop”. Why? Because when everyone sings the lyrics together, each note of the melody will be accompanied by a chord, and it is the joining and sustaining of matching word sounds in a well-tuned four-part chord that gives barbershop harmony the wow factor. The sound waves combine and generate extra harmonics, so you can frequently hear a fifth note, a sixth, or even more notes that no-one is actually singing and have been proven to set off pleasure centres in the brain! It works this way even when there is more than one voice singing each vocal part (we call that a “chorus”).

What kind of music suits the barbershop style?

Barbershop harmony works best in songs whose melodies attract the harmony sequences which feature a high proportion of dominant seventh chords. Those are chords that contain a root, a third, a fifth, and a flat 7th of any scale. In fact, this chord is so typical of barbershop music that the wider world calls it a “barbershop 7th”. It’s fun to sing because it is full of harmonic tension which “pulls” to another chord and it's this tension and release through resolution to another chord that provides the aural, and even full-body, satisfaction. Goosebumps are common!


You don't need to know all that to enjoy singing barbershop harmony. Just get three friends, pick a pop song you love, and have a go at harmonising it. Or, find a song that someone has already arranged in barbershop harmony (there are thousands). There are some tips here on how to find music, including free arrangements. Or of course, you can join a chorus near you!.
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