Jump to Section:
Welcome to the barbershop music information page!
All music has special performance practices that take some time to learn, especially if you are familiar with a different style. A professional pianist can play classical music at an amazing level, but it takes some time for the same pianist to learn to play the blues, rock, or ragtime. The same is true for singers from the choral world trying barbershop harmony at the start.
Everyone can sing barbershop, but we have some terminology and best practices to learn!
What Makes it Barbershop Harmony?
Barbershop is a style of arranging in close, four part, a cappella harmony; it is not an era, style of music, or genre. The melody is usually in the second voice with harmony above and below. The arranger harmonizes every melody note with few passing tones or doubles, and creates more harmonic movement by adding secondary dominant chord progressions. The baritone part functions in a unique way, filling in the missing note of each chord.
Here is a short video that explains a few A Cappella arranging styles, including barbershop:
Early Barbershop History
Barbershop is largely an African American folk art, and was inspired by professional vocal groups that toured the United States in the mid 1800s. These amateur singers combined elements of these vocal groups with their own musical practices, adding new embellishments, complex rhythms, and a much wider harmonic vocabulary.
As patrons socialized in the barbershop and other places, someone with a strong voice would lead others in a popular song. The crowd would improvise harmony with a person singing harmony above, someone below, and someone jumping above or below the melody to fill out the chord. Barbershop harmony was born!
To learn more, including early recordings and history of the Barbershop Harmony Society, check out our history page.
What is a Tag?
A tag is a coda or ending, that is “tagged on” to the end of the song, often introducing new harmonic progressions, similar to an amen. Tags are very popular in barbershop culture as standalone musical excerpts. Because they are often taught without using sheet music, tags are a wonderful way to introduce new singers to barbershop chords in just a few minutes by ear, rather than learning an entire song.
If you attend any barbershop event, “tag circles” will be found in every available corner of a hotel lobby, and singers will stay up into the wee hours teaching each other their favorite tags like jazz jam sessions or drum circles. Many of the tags taught today are not associated with a song… they were written as a stand alone tag to be taught.
The Barbershop Harmony Society has a set of standard tags with sheet music, videos and history.
Barbershop Voice Parts and Function
All barbershop is TLBB: barbershop Tenor, Lead, Baritone and Bass.
Tenor is the highest part, harmonizing above the Lead. Notated in the top stave, Tenor stems always point up. Tenor singers should have a light, lyric vocal quality. Male tenors usually sing this part in falsetto, and should be approximately 10% of the sound. This is radically different than most musical performance styles, because the melody is NOT in this top voice.
Lead is the second highest part, singing the melody. Notated in the top stave, Lead stems always point down. Lead singers should be prominent and have a dramatic and compelling vocal quality, and should be approximately 30% of the sound. This is different than most musical performance styles, because the melody is in the second voice down. This “melody from inside” gives us the characteristic barbershop sound.
Baritone sings above and below the Lead. Notated in the bottom stave, Baritone stems always point up. Baritone singers should have a lyric vocal quality, and should be approximately 20% of the sound. The baritone should sing louder when below the lead, and softer when above the lead. The unusual voice leading can be very challenging, especially to the novice barbershop Baritone.
Bass is the lowest part, singing foundational notes. Notated in the bottom stave, Bass stems always point down. The Bass part should be as prominent as the Lead, with a big, robust vocal quality, and should be approximately 40% of the sound.
Why do you change the listed voicing on the cover?
As discussed above, all barbershop is TLBB: barbershop Tenor, Lead, Baritone and Bass. However, the broader choral world is less familiar with the second voice down of “L” listed, so singers and teachers may not explore barbershop further. It would be unlikely singers and teachers outside of barbershop would know what TLBB is.
To guide teachers and singers in discovering the barbershop style, publishers use the familiar voicings of TTBB, SATB or SSAA on the music cover. Long time barbershop singers remind publishers that all of these voicings are not “technically correct” in the barbershop style. We don’t have a barbershop part called Soprano, Alto, Bass 1 and 2. We do this on the cover assuming that TTBB singers (traditionally men), SSAA singers (traditionally women), and SATB singers (traditionally mixed) want four part voicings that fit their vocal range, and these are the four letters they know work for their group in the printed sheet music. We use these voicings to get singers in the ballpark vocal range to sing barbershop.
Barbershop Voicings and Vocal Range
Barbershop publishers primarily use the following three voicings:
- SSAA for higher voices
- SATB for medium voices
- TTBB for lower voices
We also publish eight part arrangements that are often SSAA and TTBB together: two chorus or quartet collaborations.
Because barbershop is A Capella and the voicing is close harmony, teachers and singers may find it very helpful to adjust the key up for down to fit the voices you have. However, don’t adjust one of the parts up an octave up or down… only adjust all voices up or down, probably no more than a fourth.
Finally, try not to consider gender when assigning parts: match voice ranges to a part. Yes, TTBB will most likely have men on the Bass part, and SSAA will most likely have women on the Tenor part…but not always.
About the SSAA Voicing
SSAA is broadly intended for higher voices.
These voicings have the traditional treble clef on top and the octave bass clef on the bottom. This indicates that the parts in the bass clef are sung an octave higher. Reminder that the octave bass clef may be unfamiliar, but it is the correct clef. This clef helps reduce ledger lines, and is part of our barbershop tradition.
Note the superscript 8 at its top.
Soprano 1 & 2 sing in the treble clef in the roles of barbershop Tenor and Lead. Reminder that the melody is now in the Soprano 2 voice (30% of the sound) and should be heard above the Soprano 1 voice (10 % of the sound). Alto 1 & 2 sing in the octave bass clef in the roles of barbershop Baritone (20% of the sound) and Bass (40% of the sound). Yes, women sing the part we call Bass!
SSAA works well for women, mixed, or unchanged male voices.
About the SATB Voicing
SATB is broadly intended for medium range voices.
These voicings have the traditional treble clef on top and bass clef on the bottom. This is the only barbershop print music that uses these “regular” clefs.
The Soprano and Alto sing in the treble clef in the roles of barbershop Tenor and Lead. Reminder that the melody is now in the Alto voice (30% of the sound) and should be heard above Soprano voice (10 % of the sound). The Tenor and Bass sing in the bass clef in the roles of barbershop Baritone (20 % of the sound) and Bass (40% of the sound). Reminder that the barbershop Baritone is roughly the same range as Alto, and is a lighter harmony part than the robust Bass part.
SATB works well for mixed groups, but it is NOT critical to assign women in the treble and men in the bass clefs. Just let singers find the part that fits their vocal range (remembering falsetto male tenor is part of our tradition). Yes, most men will sing Bass… but that’s about it for barbershop.
About the TTBB Voicing
TTBB is broadly intended for lower voices.
These voicings have the vocal tenor clef on top and the regular bass clef on the bottom. This indicates that the parts in the treble clef are sung an octave lower. Reminder that the vocal tenor clef may be unfamiliar, but it is the correct clef. This clef helps reduce ledger lines, and is part of our barbershop tradition.
Note the subscript 8 at its bottom.
Tenor 1 & 2 sing in the vocal tenor clef in the roles of barbershop Tenor (10 % of the sound, men mostly sing in falsetto) and Lead (30 % of the sound). Bass 1 & 2 sing in the bass clef in the roles of barbershop Baritone (20 % of the sound) and Bass (40% of the sound).
TTBB works well for men or mixed groups, and most of our mixed barbershop groups use these charts as written or pitched up slightly.
Barbershop Performance: 5 Best Practices
Every style of music has its own special performance practices that take time to learn. Here are a few of the basics to get even more enjoyment in your barbershop!
1. Barbershop has unique voice-part ratios
Most choral groups strive to have roughly the same number of singers on each part. However, barbershoppers use a 1-2-3-4 part ratio, striving for approximately 10% on Tenor, 20% on Baritone, 30% on Lead, and 40% on Bass.
Another way to say it: your 50 voice choir should strive to have approximately
- 3 - 5 Tenors
- 10 Baritones
- 15 Leads
- 20 - 22 Basses
Barbershop quartets should reflect the same balance, with the Bass singer very prominent as the foundation of the sound. The Baritone should adjust to a softer volume when above the Lead and a louder volume when below. The Tenor should be the lightest of them all.
Many Barbershop Harmony Society choruses can go as high as 50% on the bass part, and as light as 5% on the tenor parts. However, at special moments, singers from any voice part may “flip” to the important note needed to give the chord the desired balance. This happens when arrangements feature “rubs” when two parts are a whole step away from each other, most often in the Lead and Tenor part. These special chords require equal volume between the two parts, often requiring the tenors to switch from a lighter falsetto sound to full voice.
Because the melody is not in the top voice like most choral music, it is critical for groups to make these volume adjustments to ensure the melody can be heard in the second voice. This special ratio contributes to a more authentic and robust barbershop sound.
2. Barbershop performers may freely interpret rhythm
Songs with moderate or fast tempi are typically performed as written. However, most slow barbershop songs and introductions are sung freely in a rubato or speech-like style.
Barbershop performers often slow down at cadence points to emphasize special harmonies, with the last few chords significantly longer than notated.
3. Barbershop print music does not include traditional music information
Publishers historically do NOT include tempo, dynamics, or even style markings. Barbershop groups have a long history of new ways to perform songs. Ballads become uptunes or even swing tunes, waltzs can be converted into 4/4 soft shoe numbers.
The barbershop world expects tempo, dynamic and style choices, but we let each ensemble decide what those choices will be.
4. Barbershop singers use “just intonation”
Experienced barbershop singers do not tune using a piano’s equal temperament—they strive for just chord tuning.
The quickest way to explain this is:
- Most barbershop singers got hooked on the style because of how the chords FEEL to the singer.
- Barbershop singing is A Cappella, so we are not bound by instruments for tuning.
- The use of equal temperament solved many problems for the piano in Bach’s time, but an unfortunate result of this tuning system is that all intervals (except octaves) are slightly or grossly out of tune.
- Over time, singers have grown accustomed to this tuning system. We hear this in our music, and our instruments are tuned this way.
- Barbershop singers strive to sing the melody in tune to the tonal center (they keep track of “Do” the entire time), but all the other parts make subtle tuning adjustments to the melody so the chords lock and ring. For example:
1.) A perfect fifth is the foundation of major and minor chords, yet it is slightly out of tune (2 cents) on the piano. Since our music cadence points are held longer in barbershop, we have time to tune the fifth up slightly, off the piano, now truly a perfect fifth.
2.) A minor seventh (C - Bb) to be sung in tune, it requires the Bb to be 23 cents lower than the piano. This is easy to hear (a quarter of a step), and will sound very flat in isolation, but correct in the chord.
5. Barbershop singers perform expressively
Barbershop singers stand and sing music from memory, performing in the style of musical theater with body and facial engagement. Barbershop groups often use synchronized movements to emphasize the style and energy of the piece.
Quartets perform in a semicircle, helping them to hear each part and focus on creating a combined unit sound. Choirs stand on risers, with the director performing and moving with the group at special moments in the song. Few barbershop singers wear straw hats or striped vests today, but many groups do wear matching outfits.