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Intro to Barbershop: Learning the language of Barbershop

Learning the language of Barbershop

Sort through the alphabet soup of barbershop acronyms and terms

Heard in a chorus rehearsal: “Basses, we need a cleaner swipe going into the tag. Baritones, hold off on the tiddly until I bring you in.” What the heck?

Every subculture, from sports to professions to hobbies, has its own dialect, the specialized lingo, terms, in-jokes and references that are unique to that world. Once you speak the language, you feel more a part of that world -- and until you do, you might feel like a stranger in a strange land.

To get you up to speed, we’ve broken these many terms down into three broad categories:

  • Barbershop Musical Terms
  • Barbershop Culture and Lifestyle
  • Barbershop Abbreviations and Initials

After reading through our guide, you’ll be able to confidently swipe (slide or glissando) from one note to another as you reach the tag of the song (ending or coda) and listen for the baritones to add their tiddly (ornamental sequence of notes for emphasis and pleasure) like a pro!

Barbershop musical terms

Barbershop seventh

The cornerstone chord of the barbershop style, consisting of the root, the major third above, the perfect fifth above, and the minor seventh above, as in a chord consisting of F, A, C, E-flat

Bell chord

A musical arranging device in which a chord is sung as a succession of notes by each voice in turn. See some casual singing in a parking ramp (great for reverb!)\


Tones of higher pitch that are present in every musical sound and whose presence determines the quality of the musical sound. Chords locked in tune and proper volume relationship “ring” with reinforced overtones


A verbose variation on the theme of a refrain as in "Down By the Old Mill Stream", also jokes and emcee work between songs. Listen to the legendary Dapper Dans.


Focused, bright ringing sound.


A progression of two or more chords sung on a single word or syllable; hallmark of the barbershop style.


A brief ornamental embellishment heard in one voice part while the others hold a chord, as simple as a repeated two-note pattern and often sung by the baritone part.


Very large quartet (octet or larger) or mini-chorus, if you will.


Impromptu quartet singing without arrangements; singing by ear. Watch a basic lesson here!

Barbershop culture and lifestyle


Party after a chapter meeting or show that can include more performances or just casual singing.

Barberpole Cat Songs

These 12 standard songs are sung by many across the Society and provide an easy way to begin harmonizing immediately with those you know, or with those you have just met along the way.

Barberpole Cat Songs Volume II

The Barberpole Cat Songbook Vol. II is designed to bridge the gap between Polecat songs and music at a difficulty level that many of our Harmony Brigades sing. This book is designed for the member who has “graduated” from the standard Polecat book.


Joining in without invitation when a quartet is singing; a breach of manners. Wait for the quartet to finish, then ask if you can sing along.

Frank H. Thorne Chapter-at-Large

An “international” chapter for those who are not active in a specific chapter.

Gang singing

Informal group singing. Sometimes, also slang for poor quality singing.

Harmony University (Harmony U or HU)

Week-long summer educational program for Barbershoppers, a cappella singers, directors, and music educators held annually. Comprised of many colleges including Directors, Music Educators, Harmony, and Performance.

Harmony Hall

Barbershop Harmony Society headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee.

Harmony Foundation International

A separate, but related organization to BHS, the Foundation raises funds for Society programs, seeks grants and sponsorships for worthwhile barbershop projects and programs, and maintains an endowment fund for the Society.

Registered quartet

A quartet whose name and personnel have been registered at Harmony Hall. Registration gives the quartet exclusive use of its name and only registered quartets may sing in competition. Looking to start a quartet? You'll find a wealth of information here!


BHS; see also SPEBSQSA

The organization today known as the Barbershop Harmony Society was legally founded as SPEBSQSA, The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America. Founder O.C. Cash enjoyed poking fun at the numerous initialed agencies of FDR’s New Deal. The Society today continues the tradition by perpetuating numerous abbreviated designations... some functional and some just for fun.


American Choral Directors Association, a professional organization


Association of International Champions - an organization of previous winners of the BHS International Quartet Contest.


Association of International Seniors Quartets Champions- an organization of previous winners of the BHS International Seniors Quartet contest. Seniors quartets must comprise 240 years of age in total, and all members at least 55 year old.


American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, a licensing agency for musical works. (See also BMI, Broadcast Music, Inc.)


Barbershop Harmony Society, the primary trade name and preferred designation for the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA)


Barbershopper of the Year/Month—award presented by many chapters and districts recognizing outstanding efforts of a member.


Contest & Judging, which trains judges for singing competitions.


A regional geographic subdivision of the Society which provides events, education, and support to chapters. See the district map to translate the abbreviations such as FWD, LOL, and SUN into actual locations.


Harmony Foundation International, the Society’s charitable arm


House of Delegates, a leadership body at the District level.


National Association for Music Education, among the world’s largest arts education organizations, is an association that addresses all aspects of music education.


Legal name for the Barbershop Harmony Society. Stands for Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing In America, Inc.

The Woodshedders

Barbershop Harmony Society subsidiary devoted to preserving the practice of harmonizing without arrangements; see woodshedding.


Various names through the years of the Next Generation Barbershop programs , including contests for Varsity Quartets & Choruses and Junior Quartets & Choruses.