What's Barbershop Music?

Barbershop? If this makes you think of comb and scissors rather than singing, you´re not wrong. At the end of the 19th century, "Barbershops", the American men´s hairdressers, were local meeting points where men would occasionally while away the waiting time with spontaneously improvised music. Since then, barbershop music has become part of American culture in the USA and about 60 years ago women, too, conquered this male domain. Originally only sung in quartets, choruses soon began to sing in this style, too.

Here in Germany, the barbershop style is often described as lying somewhere between jazz and the "Comedian Harmonists". Neither of these is exactly on target. Barbershop singing is overtone music in pure culture and is produced by matching vowels, intervals and volume within the four voices as closely as possible. The special harmony rules and the close harmony produce the rich, massive sound which especially distinguishes this music style.

Since "Barbershop Blend", the first German barbershop chorus, was founded in 1985, the number of ensembles choruses and quartets in Germany has been steadily rising. No wonder. This high-energy music, with its full sound, can bowl you over - that is, if the intonation is precise, which is not always easy with the often demanding arrangements and complicated harmony lines. Barbershop is pure a capella and does not offer the singer a chance to hide behind anything - not even behind sheet music, because that´s prohibited among barbershoppers - at least during a performance.

But they do not want to hide, anyway. For beside singing quality, presentation is an important part of barbershop. Movement, facial and bodily expression play a major role. The singers swing, smile and sometimes even dance right across the stage - to the delight of the audience. Many barbershop choruses and quartets have proved that the refreshing presentation does not have to be at the cost of the musical standard.

It is a controversial point as to whether barbershop music can be sung in mixed groups or not. Not everyone shares the view that only all-male or all-female groups can produce the desired "expanded sound", though voice placements arranged closely together. "Mixed Barbershop" (men and women together) is being sung by various groups, and BinG!, too, has recently included mixed barbershop ensembles in its membership.

Marlies Lübke