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A 4-part World in Harmony

Singing with The VIPs

Barbershop has its roots in the USA where close harmony quartet singing flourished from the mid 1800s onwards. It seems to have developed from the contrasting syles of Victorian drawing room entertainment and the styles and rhythms brought across from Africa with the slave trade.

It was fostered by the popularity of Vaudeville where it graduated from a home entertainment pastime, earning money for composers through sheet music sales, to being a profitable employment further boosted by the advent of recording companies, eager to hang their sales on popular culture.


Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, Inc. (SPEBSQSA) was formed in 1938 and established the vocal and harmonic framework that governs Barbershop singing today.

The Quartet

This framework defines a four part close harmony structure (TTBB) to the music with the melody usually, but not always, in the first Tenor (or Lead) voice. The first Bass usually has a counter melody although he sometimes provides a rhythm/percussion backing. Second Bass, usually called Baritone, completes the triad while the second Tenor adds a further contribution, typically above the Lead and often in a high or falsetto register. The mix is further characterised by a good complement of "Sevenths", chords that seem to require resolution with another following chord.

Barbershop developed as a Four-Man activity, The Quartet, which was the foundation of the early recording years and still has a very strong following today. Our UK association,
BABS, records that the first quartet competition took place in 1974 and the first UK Chorus competition in 1975, but both varieties have been going since the 1930s in the USA.

What is A Capella?

Quite literally "A Capella" means "in chapel style", that is, without instrumental accompaniment, and Barbershop is almost always sung that way. It also uses what is known as "Just Intonation". That is, the notes in each part are sung so that they are properly in tune with each other. This provides the overtones and ringing chords characteristic of close harmony "Barbershop style" singing.

To understand Just Intonation, you need to realise that the tuning of most modern (post 1600) instruments is adjusted so that the same tuned note works in whatever key it is played in. It is called "Equal Temperament". We are so used to the sound produced by this method of tuning that we do not hear the discord. However, good Barbershop instruction will help you to hear when the tuning obeys the "Laws of Physics" as in Just Intonation, and allows the "lock and ring" of a good chord to be appreciated and enjoyed.

What songs do we sing?

Many of our songs come from the early years of the 20th Century when Barbershop was as popular as our current Pop is today. Many are sentimental love songs (a continuing pre-occupation of the Human Race!) or songs about the human condition in general (Work, Religion, Travel, Home, etc.) and some are just humorous entertainment.

For the Barbershop style to work, the melody needs to meet a number of musical criteria. In particular, it needs to follow the Circle of Fifths which is a precisely defined sequence of chords relating each one to the next. From about the middle of the 1970s onward, our popular music largely rejected this model in favour of a more rhythmic, less melodic and more chant-like structure. This resulted in there being fewer popular melodies suited to Barbershop arrangements. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of songs out there worth the time and trouble to learn and perform well.

In the USA, the Barbershop Harmony Society, the national association for American barbershop, and successor to SPEBSQSA, has a catalogue of about 6,300 titles / arrangements available in the USA, many of which are also available (copyright) in the UK. So there is no shortage of material, and there are many arrangers keen to increase this number whenever publishers will allow.

Could I sing Barbershop?

Well, if you read this far you must be interested, so that's a good start. If you already sing in a choir then chances are you have a decent voice and can sing in tune. You do not need to be able to read music, although it can help in learning the songs. We supply learning tracks for each part so you can learn the basics at home. We do not expect people to know or understand Barbershop, so we will teach you all the tricks and wrinkles that go to making a Barbershop singer.

A few of us have sung Barbershop before, but most of us were new to it when we joined. Some sang in other choirs. Some have only done Karaoke. So you see, you don't need to be an expert to join us! Our ages range from 21 to 78, although it makes little difference if you can sing. But you will have to get up on stage with a bunch of good blokes and entertain the audience, and if you can enjoy singing while you are at it, why wouldn't you?

When do you meet?

We rehearse on a Tuesday, every week. Typically, we spend a couple of hours singing or learning our craft, with a break in the middle to allow us to catch our breath and have a chat. We come from all over the County and beyond, but have got to know each other over the few years we've been singing. We like to perform for an audience about 5 or 6 times a year, for private functions and parties, and we like to get out around the local towns and perform for the general public as well.

The highlight of our year is the National Convention when 30 to 40 Barbershop Choruses and a couple of dozen Quartets compete for the UK Championships over a weekend at the end of May. It's a great chance to hear excellent close harmony singing, and a good opportunity to measure our performance against the best in the country.

How do I join?

Do get in touch if you would like to try your hand at singing four part close harmony. Four new men joined us last year, and we have two probationers already this year, but we are always looking for new members. So, if you can sing in tune and fancy having a go at singing close harmony – this could be the group for you.

For more information please email us at:

If you just want to turn up, please let us know in advance and we can expect you. So call or text the Secretary, Chris Hamilton, on: 07855 446182

Leave a message if there is no reply.

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