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In his book Four Parts, No Waiting, Averill traces the roots of American close harmony to German and Austrian models, including the Singverein movement, German composer Franz Abt’s prolific and popular library of part songs, and their American manifestations after having been transplanted by German immigrants.  European ensembles touring the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century built up popular enthusiasm for vocal quartets and inspired American versions (like Euterpian Quartette, the Boston Minstrels, and of course the Hutchinson Family Singers) that sang ballads, comic songs, and airs of patriotic or topical nature.  While many of the distinguishing characteristics of barbershop musical practice have European precedents, they “also seem to respond to deeply traditional aspects of African American performance practice.”  Barbershoppers took enthusiastically to the Tin Pan Alley songs of George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin, but stayed away from the later styles of the Gershwin brothers, Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter, and the like.  The harmonic proclivities of the former Tin Pan Alley generation (seventh chords that were well suited to four-part vocal settings) faded with the later (who favored extended chords like major sevenths, ninths, and elevenths, altered chords, and larger intervallic leaps) whose harmonies were more difficult to accommodate vocally.

The founding of SPEBSQSA by O.C. Cash (1938, Kansas City) institutionalized and organized barbershop, freezing its profile in a particular way: white, amateur, nostalgic, and emphasizing certain stylistic features (such as homorhythm, circle-of-fifths harmonic motion, a relaxed approach to tempo, and ideas of suitable subject matter).  This institutionalization also provided a venue for the genre’s ideological development.  As Liz Garnett shows in her book, The British Barbershopper, two principles formed the basis for this ideology: harmony as a metaphor for social cohesion, and an egalitarian ideal.  Barbershop performance, by which I mean not only public performance but also rehearsals where the performers perform for themselves—is, then, a performance of social meaning.

What are the social meanings of barbershop quartet singing?  For one, Garnett explains, it is rooted in a “discourse of the natural,” which places positive value on an “authentic” sound.  Performers aim for the aural and visual appearance of “sing[ing] from the heart,” even though the techniques used to achieve this goal suggest its artificiality.  Garnett shows the relation between the discourse of the natural and ideas of proper interpretation: “[‘good’] interpretation requires unanimity within the ensemble; the individuality of the performers is acknowledged, but is subordinated to the group.”  In other words, each individual performer must modify his presentation (vocal and gestural) to match that of his fellow singers in the pursuit of a “unit” sound or perfect blend; such modification suggests that the performance is ultimately a mediated event, not a “natural” one.

Due to barbershop’s compositional strictures, vertical considerations of harmony (such as chord quality) far outweigh horizontal ones (such as voice leading), “so in the real time of performance, the static moment of the chord is of far more consequence than musical movement in time.” This extreme emphasis on “ringing chords” over steady pulse runs counter to many styles of Western art music (and popular music); it organizes time differently with its elasticity.  Yet it is considered “natural,” aesthetically pleasing, and proper in this context.

Barbershop’s proud amateurism is rooted, historically, in changing patterns of male sociability in the late-Victorian era, including a shorter workweek resulting in more time for leisure activities, and the accompanying rise of hobbyism.  Faced with changing social and political terrains, exacerbated by the horrors of the First World War, barbershop became, according to Averill, “a quest to reconstruct a space of privilege for white American middle-class males based on nostalgia for unchallenged and exclusive sociability and camaraderie located in the adolescent memories of middle-aged men.”  Thus, beyond just the way barbershop sounds, there’s meaning in singing it with others.

An important meaning of barbershop, realized through the process of performance rather than scores or recordings, is that of “social closeness.”  J. Terry Gates calls barbershop “the last extant example in American culture of the ancient tradition of secular vocal parlor musics, [which bestow their] benefits socially through the music in the performer by self-producing social closeness with a few others.”  In contrast to formal glee club concerts, Gates maintains that barbershop’s social closeness can only be truly attained by the performers in more intimate venues, not in public performance where barbershoppers will only “feel theatrical social benefits rather than those of the parlor.”  Averill’s analysis also emphasizes the lived experience of the singer, focusing on what he calls “collective audition” through the intersection of bodily and social relationships.  The end result—the “confirmation of connectedness”—is the same.

Contrary to Gates, sociologist Robert A. Stebbins suggests that the “durable benefits” of barbershop, which he calls “serious leisure,” can be realized as much in public performances as in private ones.  Barbershop chronicler Dean Snyder agrees, as he emphasizes the place of competitions (which are public performances) in the history of barbershop and of SPEBSQSA, just as Garnett does for British barbershop.

If these are some of the “social meanings” that scholars have identified for barbershop, the question for you, readers and (hopefully) CASA members, is whether your experience validates these conclusions.  What does barbershop music—and the experience of singing it—mean to you?

Joshua S. Duchan is a Ph.D. Candidate in Ethnomusicology at the University of Michigan.  He is currently writing his dissertation on collegiate a cappella.  But he's not just an academic, he also sang with and directed the University of Michigan Amazin Blue and the University of Pennsylvania Counterparts. His arrangements have been featured on the Best of College A Cappella 2004 and 2005 albums.  He can be reached at

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