GUEST BLOG: “Four Main Reasons Why Barbershop Singing Sounds Unique,” by Jon Nicholas
Date: February 11, 2014
FOUR MAIN REASONS WHY BARBERSHOP SINGING SOUNDS UNIQUE, by Jon Nicholas
Reason #1: The Melody Is In The Middle. With many vocal music genres, the melody is sung in the highest part. In barbershop, the melody usually floats around between the tenor and bass and the baritone avoids it. Barbershop is not the only style that utilizes this structure (gospel quartets, for example, also use it), but it's the first element that starts to separate it from other styles.
Reason #2: The Dominant Seventh Chord. The dominant seventh chord is so prevalent in traditional barbershop music that it has come to be known as the Barbershop Seventh Chord to many. In a traditional song, 35 to 60% of the chords are dominant sevenths.
Reason #3: Just Intonation. Though many early barbershop quartets used musical instruments to accompany their singing, most modern quartets sing in the a cappella style so they can use Just Intonation. The human brain can detect when a chord "locks" into place, and most singers, with experience, can automatically adjust their notes to make a chord sound better. A locked chord is called so because once achieved, the singer feels vocally locked into place.
Reason #4: Overtones. An overtone is a natural phenomenon that occurs when sound waves rub against each other and produce a higher note. In a well-tuned barbershop quartet, overtones are enhanced, even sometimes to the point where the loudest note is not being sung by any of the four singers. Since each voice can produce its own overtones, it's quite possible to have a five, six, or even an eight-part chord being sung by four people. Barbershoppers call this expanded sound. A side benefit of this phenomenon is that the singer can relax his volume a bit because the over-all volume has now increased with the addition of the overtones. Unlike most singers in other musical styles, barbershoppers actively work towards producing overtones.
Of Course, There's More...
I've covered four of the biggest reasons why barbershop singing sounds so unique, but there are more. For one, there's the Circle of Fifths, and a classic barbershop song moves around that circle quite a bit. Most modern songs don't travel around the circle very far, but songs from the early days of American Popular Music, including those from the Tin Pan Alley era, do and this is why so many barbershop songs are from days gone by. Some other elements that set barbershop apart (and may provide some stimulating research on your part):
Call and Response
Echos and Patters
Unexpected Chord Progressions
You can READ A LONGER VERSION of this article with demonstration clips.