Barber Shop Traditions

Barbershop Quartets: How Did They Start?

Barbershop Quartets: How Did They Start?

Barbershop Quartets have their origins in the United States during the last half of the 19th century. Barber shops in this country served as community gathering places where men would gather to network and socialize. This was a natural setting for average men, who didn’t belong to fancy social clubs or country clubs, to get together and pass the time. This was also an alternative for men who didn’t care to hang out in the saloons with their negative stigma.

Often times barber shops had instruments available for men to entertain themselves with while they were waiting their turn. This seems to have evolved into other music as well as singing with harmony parts. The earliest examples of this took place in many of the black shops of that time. Eventually these Barbershop Quartets spread beyond the black shops to all of the other barber shops of that time period.

Barbershop Quartet vocals are characterized by the second tenor carrying the melody, with the first tenor singing harmony above him. The lowest voice, the bass, provides the foundation, and the baritone fills in the middle spaces.  All of this Barbershop Quartet harmonizing is done a cappella style to maintain it’s purest form.

Most people believe that the Barbershop Quartet is an American original, the concept had it’s roots in England during the 1600’s. British barbers kept a cittern which was a stringed instrument similar to a lute handy for their customers to strum while waiting for their turn in the chair. At that time this was referred to as “barber’s music” because of where it took place.

In 1830’s America sometimes to while away the hours on his feet, the barber would start crooning a tune. Eventually, patrons added their harmonies in a call-and-response type format. By 1890, both the proliferation of printed sheet music and the presence of a piano in most middle-class homes made barbershop-style singing a bona fide fad.

How did the oversized mustaches, striped jackets and straw hats become synonymous with Barbershop Quartets? It started with Vaudeville. Barbershop Quartets were often used in front of the curtain to entertain while other acts were setting up. In order to be seen by those in the “cheap seats” they donned distinctive costumes. That distinct appearance has been a part of Barbershop Quartets to the present day.

Today most people consider Barbershop Quartets a truly American artform. Barbershop harmony is music. It’s music in a very pure form created with nothing but human voices coming together to create a rich and satisfying texture that is pleasing to the ears and invigorating to the soul. Whether you’re an experienced musician or a brand new musician, Barbershop Quartets level the playing field and allows you to find your voice and be a part of creating something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Barbershop harmony is fraternity. Men from all over the world and from all walks of life and all ages can come together and share in this truly American artform and find common ground through self expression in song. The friendships forged through the harmony of Barbershop Quartets bridge gaps that no other hobby is capable of doing, and for many devotees, barbershop is far more than a hobby. It’s a passion.

Barbershop harmony is a way of life. Perfecting this musical artform takes commitment. When done well, our music reaches audiences on a personal level. Participants can experience personal growth, build self-confidence and create lasting memories as they work with others to perform for a variety of audiences, from large concerts to intimate Singing Valentines. And the lessons learned from experience in Barbershop Quartets last a lifetime.

If you have never experienced typical Barbershop Quartets in action, click on this link Champion Barbershop Quartet. This is a performance filmed at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s 2013 International Convention and Competition in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. This group from Southern California, Masterpiece, won the Barbershop Harmony Society gold medal in 2013. When you listen to this distinct music you can almost smell the after-shave from it’s barber shop roots many years before.

Barbershop Quartets have come a long way from their early conception in old-time barber shops. The traditional quartet has given way to much larger groups singing the barbershop harmony in both national and international competitions. Today virtually anyone can participate on a local level in barbershop groups all over the country. If you like this type of harmony then you should consider giving it a try. You might surprise yourself!

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