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The History of Barbershop Music

July 13th, 2012 Inspirational

Barbershop music brings about an image of simplicity and vocal harmony, where a group of young men and women stand on the corner of their local downtown neighborhood and combine their varied pitched voices that range from booming baritones to feathery falsettos to create one synthesized song. Their snapping fingers keep the beat while behind them a spiraling, red white and blue barber pole spins. Barbershop music's beauty is forever ingrained into America's cultural repertoire, and today vocal groups are still utilizing the same look, feel and sound to create their own mellow melodies.

According to the International Journal of Research Choral Singing (JRCS), singing groups of the barbershop ilk first were introduced into American culture in the mid-19th century during minstrel shows when sensations like the Sable Harmonizers and the Ethiopian Serenaders would perform and demonstrate their vocal prowess.

The JRCS goes on to report that in the 1880s the barbershop became a place for social activities to take place, especially for those who didn't wish to while away their hours in saloons. Music was introduced when a patron or a barber would start singing a melody and a couple customizers would harmonize in the background. From this, the quartet, or a four-man vocal group, came to be. African Americans also played a vital role in defining the sound of the barber shop quartet, for they were the ones that first introduced the concept of improvisation and the "flexing of melody," reports AcappellaFoundation.org.

The barbershop quartet experienced a surge in popularity for nearly half a century (1880-1930), with the rising trend of sheet music. The source goes on to report that sheet music experienced a proliferation with its ability introduce singers with average vocal ranges to tunes that had simple melodies and sentimental lyrics. Unlike radio or mass media outlets to help them sell, sheet music producers relied on the performances of musical groups for promotion. An example of this is the Quaker City Four, who helped make the song "Sweet Adeline" a barbershop classic in 1903.

According to JRCS, the rising popularity of sheet music led to the invention of the "talking machine" by Thomas Edison, which allowed groups such as the Manhassett Quartet and the Avon Comedy Four to sing their songs and bring the music to people without performing it live. However, barbershop did enjoy a steady rise in popularity during the 1920s when it became a staple act in between comedy and slapstick routines.

Like all forms of music though, barbershop diminished in popularity due to a newer and more contemporary genre - jazz. The music provided more complicated melodies and introduced other instruments to supplement the vocals, like horns and bass.

Fortunately though, barbershop music was able to live on with the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBQSA), aka the Barbershop Society, which was started in 1938 when Owen C. Cash and Rupert Hall set up a meeting in Tulsa for those who enjoyed singing and harmonizing. The first meeting of the SPEBQSA garnered a gathering of only 25 individuals, but the following week that number grew to 70, and eventually, according to the JRCS, there were nearly 500 Barbershop Society chapters with more than 20,000 members.

Today barbershop music thrives and survives, not only through associations like the SPEBQSA, but with a capella and doo-wop groups, both of which relish the simplicity and the complexity that comes from making beautiful music by utilizing nothing but vocal harmonies and voice-laden melodies.