Day 188: Snipping Along In Perfect Harmony

originally published July 6, 2012

Sure, this may be the music that your grandparents used to roll their eyes at when their parents would play it on the ol’ Victrola. It might sound antiquated and kitchy to modern ears, but that’s simply an unfair generational bias. Some of the most well-crafted songwriting has gone into creating and perfecting the genre of music known as barbershop.

Also, science. This is music with heaps o’ science.

It may come as a surprise to some of you that barbershop music actually started in barbershops. I don’t know why this would surprise anyone; why the hell else would they call it that? The point is, barbershops were once cool. My barber (okay, “hairstylist”. I feel so ashamed) plays Lite hits by artists like Jason Mraz and Coldplay. Fine if you want background music that nobody will really remember, but you stick four singing guys in straw hats into any coiffery in this country, and business will soar. It’s time to reclaim the salon, people.

In the 19th century, African Americans in the US (and any history of any good music from the past 150 years will begin with the phrase ‘African Americans in the US’) liked to amuse themselves while waiting their turn at the local barbershop. They’d harmonize spirituals and popular songs, blending together in polyphonic harmony. Somehow Whitey got an earful of this, and after donning brimmed hats and striped suits, they made barbershop one of the most popular genres of music up until the jazz of the 1920s bumped it aside.

You can scour Youtube and find weeks’ worth of a cappella renditions of popular songs. Sometimes a brilliantly-performed voices-only cover can make a masterpiece out of the most horrific musical monstrosity (special thanks to Berklee College’s Pitch Slapped for proving my point). But a cappella is not necessarily barbershop.

Of the four members of a barbershop quartet (a lead, a tenor, a baritone, and a bass), the most important voice belongs to none of them. It’s the fifth voice, a phantom ringing that emerges only when the four human voices coalesce perfectly around the right frequencies.

This is where stuff gets science-y.

The secret to the barbershop sound is the ringing chord. Here’s where I try to explain the music theory behind this in a way that would make sense to someone whose only interest in music theory is whether or not Paul is dead (already I’ve alienated everyone in my audience under 40).

There are eight notes in a scale. Well, seven really – the eighth is the same as the first, just one octave higher. If the quartet were to sing notes #1, 3, 5, and 8, you’d have a happy, shiny major chord. A barbershop quartet will usually sing the 1, 3, 5, and a 7th, but they’ll flatten the 7 a half-tone (that’s one key down on a piano). This is known as a Harmonic Seventh Chord.

The barbershop magic occurs when four voices nail those four notes of a chord perfectly. Because of the way the harmonics in the voices line up, they create a fifth voice, a blending of frequencies that make the chord glow. It’s a tangible phenomenon of acoustic physics, but I prefer to think of it as musical magic.

Due to imperfections of the equal-tempered scale (let’s just say ‘more magic stuff’), this effect doesn’t occur when you play a harmonic seventh chord on a piano keyboard. You need the texture of the human voice. Barbershop singers know this, and they find an almost rapturous bliss in those chords. According to barbershop historian Gage Averill, quartets don’t talk of ‘singing’ chords. They respect the physicality of the music, and speak in terms of ‘hitting’, ‘chopping’ and ‘cracking’ their chords.

So who’s singing this stuff? A lot of people, actually. The Barbershop Harmony Society based in Nashville boasts over 30,000 members in the US and Canada. They have two groups for women also, the Sweet Adelines International and Harmony, Inc. There are affiliates in more than a dozen countries, with claims of over 80 thousand members worldwide. I’m not even sure there are 80,000 barbershops worldwide.

There haven’t been a lot of chart-topping barbershop groups in recent history, but groups like Da Vinci’s Notebook and Chordiac Arrest (best name ever) were able to make a living, usually on the folk-comedy circuit. The Buffalo Bills were the 1950 International Quartet Champions, and went on to appear in stage and screen adaptations of The Music Man before disbanding and joining the American Football League in 1960.

If you’re a fan of barbershop music and rich white people, check out the lone CD release by the Singing Senators, a barbershop group that consisted of John Ashcroft, Larry Craig, James Jeffords and Trent Lott, four Republican Senators. If that isn’t your speed, head to Disneyland and enjoy the family-friendly stylings of the Dapper Dans, a rotating group of barbershopians who have been entertaining tourists on Main Street USA since 1959. The Dans have appeared on TV’s Blossom, Home Improvement, Modern Family, and as the collective voice of The Be Sharps in one of the funniest episodes The Simpsons ever produced.

If all this talk about barbershop music has you aching to hear some (and why wouldn’t it?), tracking the style down on Youtube is incredibly easy. Just look for some of the most common barbershop standards: “Sweet Adeline”, “Hello Ma Baby”, “Down By The Old Mill Stream”, Sweet Georgia Brown”, “Baby On Board”, or “You’ve Got AIDS.” The Internet is a wonder-bucket of stuff.

Barbershop music will never again achieve the popularity it once had – it’s hard to dance to, hard to have sex to, and clearly corporate America’s love for a cappella music is only a fleeting love, as evidenced by NBC’s idiotic cancellation of The Sing-Off, the only singing talent show worth watching. But people will keep singing it because people still enjoy hearing it, even if only in small, tempered doses.

Along with the goofy outfits and personable, happy delivery, the music evokes a sense of nostalgia, a capturing of a bygone era. Popular culture will still call back to the barbershop world, as evidenced by Scrubs, Arrested Development, and even in last year’s The Muppets movie.

I still say – stock a local salon with four of these guys (or ladies) and your appointment calendar will be booked solid for months in advance. Million-dollar idea, people.

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