Mixed voice barbershop

Where all genders come together!

How did mixed-voice barbershop come about?

From being almost an under-the-counter version of the barbershop harmony artform in a world dominated by all-male or all-female groups, mixed quartet and chorus singing has recently become mainstream, due in the UK in no small part to LABBS’ introduction of a contest for mixed quartets in 2012. The opportunities include new challenges for experienced and novice quartet and chorus singers; husbands and wives to sing together; the preservation and encouragement of small choruses lacking voices in one or more harmony parts to recruit members from another gender; trying arrangements in SATB format; and all to enjoy music making in a highly satisfying way.

Note that for this purpose, the term “men” or “male” describes vocal characteristics typical of people whose voices have broken at puberty, and “women” or “female” vocal characteristics of people whose voices have not broken. A mixed group should include one or more of both vocal types. Otherwise gender is irrelevant.

What are the main challenges?

The main issue to conquer when assembling a mixed group is vocal range and this doesn’t depend exclusively on the ratio of male voices to female, or the combination of voices. It’s much more about who amongst the singers is capable of singing what range. Mixed quartets can include three women and one man, three men and one woman, or two plus two. But any of those voices can be in any combination when it comes to assigning voice parts. It doesn’t necessarily follow that to sing with three women, the man must be a bass; his may not be the lowest voice. A woman singing with three men needn’t be the tenor. Just as when assembling a same-sex quartet, it’s the voices that count. The best way forward is to place the right voice in the right part for them. You can adjust an arrangement for a better fit, but if you have a voice with vibrato or is simply too strong when singing tenor, that won’t create an authentic barbershop sound or blend, which is still the holy grail.

How do you find mixed arrangements to sing?

At the moment there are very few bespoke arrangements of songs for mixed voices, largely because of the individualistic nature of each ensemble. What suits one won’t be any more suitable for a different ensemble than any of the many existing arrangements for male or female voices. Accordingly when you’ve fixed on who’s singing which part, you will probably next consider whether off-the-shelf arrangements of songs for male or for female vocal ranges will suit your group best. Arrangements for female voices tend to have closer harmony (less distance between the notes the tenor and bass are singing) than do arrangements for male voices, as men tend to have a wider vocal range available to them. 

When choosing music for mixed quartets, first work out the top and bottom of the best sounding range of each voice and apply it to the music in hand. It is almost inevitable that you will have to alter the original pitch the songs are arranged in, or if not that, to change the voicings in one or more chords (e.g. switch the baritone and tenor notes) to make it singable. Or do both. Any one of the LABBS Music judges will be more than happy to help here, or indeed any of the many barbershop arrangers that are easily found in a web search.

Choosing music for mixed choruses is a little less critical; female leads, for example, can miss out the lower notes of an unaltered arrangement for men that they can’t make, but of course you need enough voices throughout the entire melody to make it an effective performance. So choose your music carefully. Many people will enjoy having a go at an unfamiliar vocal part.

What else do you need to be aware of?

When choosing music for quartets (and choruses) it’s important to consider the lyrics. Is the subject's voice obviously male or female? Do the pronouns in the lyrics fit a mixed group and allow everyone to sing the song convincingly? Would it help, and does it make sense, to change "he" or "she" to "you" or "they" and what does that do to the story? There is a whole world of new gender-neutral outlooks to explore here, or it may make more sense to sing songs where gender is not mentioned.

Have a go!

Approach other barbershoppers in your area who may be interested. If you sing barbershop harmony arrangements, don’t expect it to sound anything like a regular SATB choir; you’re going to get the familiar thrill of a well-tuned chord which is what hooked you on barbershop in the first place. Take your barbershop singing into a new dimension!