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What is Barbershop Harmony?

Barbershop harmony is a truly American art form.  It is 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.

Barbershop harmony is a "melting pot" product, heavily influenced by the American tradition of recreational music that was sung by the folks of middle-America (such as those depicted in Norman Rockwell's famous paintings), by African-American musical devices, and by the European hymn-singing culture.

The a cappella style of music we know as "barbershop" is first associated with quartets as far back as the 1870s and it had an improvisational nature of the harmonization.

Quartets "cracking a chord" were commonplace at places like Joe Sarpy's Cut Rate Shaving Parlor in St. Louis, and in Jacksonville, Florida, where it was said "every barbershop seemed to have its own quartet."

The first written use of the word "barbershop" when referring to harmonizing came in 1910, with the publication of a song called "Play That Barbershop Chord.”

The songwriters of the Tin Pan Alley era wrote songs that appealed to the tastes of the recreational musician, songs that were easily singable.  They wrote songs about heartfelt, commonplace themes and images.  Music published in that era often included vocal arrangements for the male quartet.

The phonograph made it possible for many folks to hear the new songs coming from Tin Pan Alley.  And then the arrival of radio and the Jazz era prompted a shift in American popular music to songs that were more sophisticated melodies for the professional singers of radio and phonograph.

These songs did not adapt as well to impromptu harmonization, because they placed a greater emphasis on jazz rhythms and melodies that were better suited to dancing than to casual crooning.


But radio quartets kept close harmony singing popular and the casual singers were ready for the revival of barbershop harmony that took place in 1938, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when two men who, bemoaning the decline of the all-American institution of the barbershop quartet, decided to stem that decline.

They started the "Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America" (S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A.).  Twenty-six men attended that first musical gathering, and about 150 men attended the third meeting.  Word of the new singing organization soon hit the newspapers, which spread it coast-to-coast, and soon groups were meeting throughout North America to sing barbershop harmony. 

And thus was born what is today called the Barbershop Harmony Society.

With over 25,000 members in the U.S. and Canada, the Barbershop Harmony Society is the world's largest all-male singing organization.  It is comprised of more than 800 choruses and 1800 quartets throughout the U.S. and Canada. 

Affiliated organizations around the world add another 3000 members to the count, and the 24,000 members of two female barbershop groups, the Sweet Adelines and Harmony International bring the total number of barbershop singers to nearly 52,000 worldwide.

Just imagine the sound if they could ever all get together in the same room!