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Barbershop Quartets: A Brief History

Updated on June 30, 2015

Many don’t know barbershop quartets were originally begun by African American men socializing in barbershops. They would harmonize while waiting their turn…thus, the name. No one knows for certain exactly when or where barbershop music in its current form began, but it first became popular in the latter half of the 1800s. It was a uniquely American folk art form. However, by the turn of the century, barbershop quartets consisted mostly of white males.

Barbershop quartets today typically dress with neat matching suits, straw hats, and bold ties often donning large handlebar mustaches, much like those of yesteryear.

However, barbershop music, wasn’t limited to just barbershops. In its early years amateur singers and musicians, mostly men, could often be heard singing 4 part harmony at parties, on street corners or anywhere people could congregate and sing or simply listen.

Minstrel shows also featured barbershop quartets, who sang to entertain audiences while the next act was being prepared. It was a perfect intermission since no props or instruments were needed.

Barbershop’s distinctive four part harmony is still made up of the tenor, lead, baritone and bass. The art form evolved between the 1860s and 1920s amidst music popular at the time…usually simple sentimental lyrics which could be easily harmonized with four-part chords.

Historians believe barbershop in its simplest form began with sacred music sang in old European monasteries. At first, they were religious chants monks sang in union. Eventually, harmony was added. The term is also found in records of the English Elizabethan era. In those days barbers not only cut hair, but pinch hit as dentists and did minor surgery.

Once barbershop became popular they began appearing in traveling minstrel and vaudeville shows and the harmonies were generally improvised. There was seldom any sheet music with notes to read. Singers just vocalized “by ear.” It’s interesting to note Frank Sinatra sang in a barbershop quartet before becoming famous with the Tommy Dorsey band.

By this time women were also participating in what was once an all male domain. And it wasn’t just African Americans who were enjoying the pastime anymore either. People of all races were getting in on the fun.

But, with the dawning of the “big band” era barbershop quartets began to take a back seat as orchestras became all the rage. But to be fair, bands such as Dorsey's and Glenn Miller's were greatly influenced by the barbershop style. Also in more modern times, "pop" groups such as the Beach Boys and The Four Seasons were inspired by it.

However, those devoted to the amateur singing groups weren’t about to allow barbershop music to be forgotten. The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America was founded for male vocalists in 1938.

But the name was too ponderous for some to handle and it was later changed to the Barbershop Harmony Society. It remains the largest singing organization in the world.Women soon followed suit in 1945 by establishing theSweet Adeline’s International. Each organization boasts a membership of about 30,000.

According to a spokesman for the A Cappella Foundation, barbershop harmony is an improvised style of a cappella “…characterized by its consonant, four-part, ringing chords which accommodate each note of the melody.”

The older barbershop style mostly consisted of small groups, usually 4 to 6 singers. Nowadays, there is no limit. Choruses ranging in size from 4 to 150 or more have found barbershop an exciting experience. Barbershop music is also ever changing and includes music from various genres, although the old favorites will never die.

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    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      And where did they get it?

    • profile image

      Justin Donegan 

      6 years ago

      From what I studied I heard it came from England

    • Silver Poet profile image

      Silver Poet 

      6 years ago from the computer of a midwestern American writer

      I've always liked harmony of many sorts, including barbershop style. This was a very interesting and educational read. Your hub is a treasure among hubs.

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