Origins of Barbershop Harmony

Competitions held by segregated barbershop societies advanced the genre at the expense of African-American groups.
... Spencer Platt/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Since the late 19th century, the barbershop quartet has been part of the fabric of American culture. The recognizable "barbershop chord" is a uniquely American brand of harmony. The stereotypical image of a barbershop quartet includes four white men, possibly in straw hats and striped vests, often with handlebar mustaches that harken back to the grooming style of the 19th and early 20th century. However, this stereotype masks the true face and history of barbershop harmony.

1 A Gathering Place

In the 19th century, the barbershop came to serve as a community center for men -- especially for African-Americans and working class men who weren't welcome in men's social organizations or country clubs. For many men who saw saloons as appealing to a lower class clientele, the barbershop was the place to socialize, debate and share local news. It was also a place to sing. Someone would start singing an old familiar tune, and barbers and clients alike would join in, adding their own harmonic lines to the melody. Because barbering was considered a lower status occupation at the time, many of the barbers were recent European immigrants or African-Americans whose opportunities were limited.

2 An Explosion of Harmony

Much of the barbershop sound came from African-American musical customs. As slaves, African-Americans had a tradition of using improvised harmony with a call and response vocal style. By 1880, professional barbershop quartets were performing in minstrel shows. While a few of these groups were black, many white singers in these shows performed in blackface and used words and mannerisms that mimicked African-American stereotypes. In the 1920s, barbershop harmony became a part of vaudeville shows, with singers using choreography and slapstick humor to increase the entertainment value of their performances. When published sheet music became widely distributed from the 1890s through the 1930s, barbershop quartets split between the improvisational style of the earliest groups and written arrangements performed by musically literate professionals.

3 The Race Question

Most Americans probably wouldn't have become familiar with barbershop harmony were it not for the white quartets that popularized the form. However, those singers enjoyed privileges their black predecessors did not. For example, when the phonograph was developed at the end of the 19th century, many phonograph companies found the close harmony of barbershop quartets well-suited to recording. While they competed heavily for popular quartets, most of those recorded were white singers. Black groups were seldom recorded, despite the fact that some of the earliest references to barbershop harmony linked it to African-American singers. Additionally, because the early barbershop societies and competitions disallowed African-American members, those excluded vocalists shifted to gospel, or to the burgeoning jazz genre, where they were welcomed.

4 That Barbershop Chord

Many now famous African-American musicians -- including Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and W.C. Handy -- have recounted early memories of singing in barbershop or recreational quartets. The harmony at the foundation of barbershop singing became the foundation of other genres of American music that followed. Completely unlike European music, barbershop harmony involves four vocalists singing their own line -- notes that complement the melody without necessarily mimicking it. While the European idea of harmony involved a vertical hierarchy, with accompanying voices singing the same notes as the melody at a different octave, barbershop harmony introduced a distinctly horizontal -- and distinctly African -- approach to sound. That sound, the harmonic barbershop chord, set the tone for the future of American music.

Jennifer Mueller began writing and editing professionally in 1995, when she became sports editor of her university's newspaper while also writing a bi-monthly general interest column for an independent tourist publication. Mueller holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a Juris Doctor from Indiana University Maurer School of Law.