Barbershop is always sung by single voice groups – either all male or all female – and the singing is in four parts, named after the male voices who traditionally sing them. These names are used even in women’s choruses. The parts are:
Lead – sings the melody Bass – sings the lowest notes, providing harmony below the lead Tenor – sings high descant-like notes, providing harmony above the lead Baritone – sings extra notes in the chord, either above or below the lead, which helps give barbershop its special quality.
The roots of barbershop singing lie in the informal music-making of Shakespearian England in the 16th and 17th centuries. This music, often harmonised in four parts, was brought to America by the early settlers, where it gradually combined with some aspects of African-American music in the southern states.
Although barbershop-style music is usually built on simple melodies and is relatively easy to sing, the a cappella style and the ear training necessary for independent part singing make it one of the most challenging and rewarding accomplishments of a vocal ensemble. When the music is sung accurately and with good breath support and vocal techniques, barbershop harmony produces overtone vibrations that create a resonant ring unique to this form of music.