Score for

A 4-part World in Harmony

Singing Notes

No, not that sort of note! This is a collection of helpful hints drawn from rehearsals and coaching sessions, as well as some web searching, published with the objective of providing a resource for self education in Barbershop vocal technique. There is probably little original work here, but if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then there must be some mileage in repeating it! Sources are acknowledged where known. Just dip in and use what you think you need!
Put Your Best Voice Forward
This is an article from the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery containing warmup steps applicable to all forms of vocal performance including public speaking and singing. Several familiar items in here, all with serious medical approval! Go to Warm Up Techniques


Vocal Training

In early 2018, we conducted a course of several sessions of Vocal Training. Less of a school and more of an opportunity to share knowledge, ideas and methods among members in the hope of improving our performance of the craft.

Below are links to the course notes for each Session together with the presenter's notes. There are several useful exercises as well as illustrations to help you understand how our wonderful instrument, The Human Voice, actually works.

At the end it is planned to publish an index of useful links used in the creation of the course, all of which are recommended references if you want to know more about this fascinating subject.
Subject – Links to Session Notes
Session 1. Posture, Warm Up & Breathing.
Session 2. Tuning and Resonance.
Session 3-2. Resonance – Eeyore’s story.
– Session 2. Tuning and Resonance
– Session 3-2. Resonance
Soft Palette
Here is a link to the Blog hosted by CottonTown Chorus — “Those Boys from Bolton” — which I am sure they won’t mind me reposting. It describes very well the mechanics involved in using the soft palette to produce the sounds that make Barbershop work properly. Follow the link to the article here!


The Bell Chord explained
Yuri Broze has tried to explain The Bell Chord, as used in Coldplay's "Clocks". It is relatively simple, but he goes on to show the effects that can be created by modifying the vowel sounds. I try to imagine a vertical line travelling along the stave so you see how the notes appear in succession in each part. Then you can pick one part and try to follow its rhythm within the phrase. Follow the link to the article here!


Llandudno Coaching

Ideas taken from a coaching Session with Paul Davies on 16th Feb 2015.
While Paul’s talk was based on our performance of Love Letters, his comments are valid for all performances in the Barbershop style and we would do well to take them on board.

I have made some additions (see Breathing) and minor revisions since the original publication, but the content headings are listed here as links so you know what‘s included.


Paul Davis — Convention Song 2015

Introduction: Paul Davies spent almost 2 hours with The VIPs at one of our rehearsal nights in February 2015, examining the opportunities to improve our performance of Love Letters, one of our BABS Convention songs. I thought it might be useful to commit some of the ideas to print, since, in principle, almost anything (everything?) we learn for this song is instantly transferrable to all our other songs.

My Notes
Subject matter is presented in the order in which it appeared during examination of the song. I have tried to generalise where appropriate, rather than making it too song-specific.


The diphthong: Many vowels in English are compound or diphthong vowels. That is, the vowel starts with one sound and finishes with another. It doesn't always show in normal speech, but in singing, especially on extended notes, it is very noticeable when the change from first part to last part is not lined up. Examples include "sky", 'night", "straight" which need to be pronounced "sk-aah-y", "n-aah-yt", and "str-eh-yt".

Once we have separated the diphthong, we can move the last part to the very end of the note, and join it up with the start of the next one. So now we have a single vowel sound on the extended note that we can modulate with vocal quality and change in volume.


Using the long notes: Arrangers are very good at giving us long notes to make beautiful sounds with. Usually they will be on "good" vowels (aah, oh, ooh, ...). As with the diphthong, we can move the end of the word forward so that we use as much as possible of the note for the vowel sound. Again, we can modulate the extended note with vocal quality and change in volume.

Modulation: If we do nothing with our long notes, the performance will be monotonous and lifeless or, Paul called it, "level". So, for anything longer than a crotchet (solid black note with no flag), the note should be modulated. Typically, this will be an increase and decrease < ... > change in volume ("lift" & "drop"), but can be any combination (going from loud to soft then to loud again, soft to loud, or loud to soft, etc.) depending on the desired effect and the mood of the song. Most of the driving force for this movement comes from the diaphragm, using it for volume control.


Moving together: Having extended the vowel sound in the syllable or diphthong, we now need to line up the end of the word and the start of the next one. If the volume is flat, it is all guesswork. But if we modulate the volume, we will all be able to feel the "shape" of the note and switch to the following consonant together.

Vocal Quality: The sounds we create when we sing come from two main sources. One is the cavity in the head (mouth, sinus, nose and throat). The other one is the chest cavity (ribs, lungs and diaphragm). We modify the head cavity with our lips, tongue, soft palate and epiglottis to produce vowel and consonant sounds and to some extent vocal quality, especially for the high notes. However, the main element of vocal quality, including volume, comes from the chest cavity.


The Chest: Generally, the chest cavity is constrained by the limitations of everyday life, including the limits imposed by politeness in conversation. So, for most of us, its versatility is unexplored. For singing, however, we can increase the power by strengthening our diaphragms for increased air pressure and hence increased volume, but we can also increase the power by creating a better resonator. This is done by relaxing the neck and throat muscles so that the chest is better able to resonate. This, in turn, enables higher volume (louder) and a better, more rounded, sound, with less pressure, and hence, much less effort.

The Head: We are always told to raise the soft palette to give a "tall" shape to the mouth. Also, we should use an "Oh" shape for our lips even when making an "EE" sound inside. This helps to maintain the resonant shape of the mouth for optimum vocal projection as well as providing some measure of visual consistency (so we all look the same!). Paul encourages us to imagine the shape of the cupped hands, pushing or guiding the sound out and up, much like the trumpet or trombone. (Bob prefers the "goalpost" analogy.)


Engagement: Singing is a whole body experience. We tend to concentrate on the mechanics of producing the sound, with the rest of our bodies relatively fixed, motionless. If we relax enough, we can move as we breath in and as we emphasise particular notes. This is all part of the delivery, and will help us to give more expressive meaning to the words and increase the impression of engagement of the chorus with the sentiment behind the song.

Breathing: Breathing is essential for continuous sound production. Well, we already know to breathe with our diaphragms (big volume) and not so much with our chest (small volume). The audience expects people to breathe and it is quite spooky watching statuesque choruses who seem not to breathe at all. But Paul suggests that we should use the breathing points in the song in a positive way as dramatic tools to attract attention and increase the sense of excitement of the song. Our breathing should be planned and obviously in unison, not secretive (unless we run out). And we can learn to use it for effect - surprise, anticipation, excitement, pathos even.


Understanding the words: Use variation in volume to convey the meaning behind phrases and sentences. e.g. the passage "I memorise every line, reading, needing every line - I kiss the name that you sign." suggests increasing excitement, so the crescendo needs to be timed to reach a climax by "sign". There should be enough space to provide extra emphasis (stress) on the key words "reading", "needing", "every", "line", "name", "sign", so the final effect is a stepwise raising of the temperature. It is no mistake that each of these stress points coincides with a super chord worth hearing!

The Tag: Because the tag is so quiet following the previous crescendo passages, it will command attention. The way it is written demands great accuracy in delivery, both for intonation (accurate tuning) and enunciation. Although it is written in 4/4 time, the words demand a much freer interpretation that we shall have to decide upon and learn. It is the icing on the cake and so it needs to be absolutely right.


Revised and updated. November 2016 Chris Hamilton


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