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Theory of Barbershop

Webmaster's note: This peice was posted on the Harmonet and published here by permission.


From: Lloyd Erickson
Date: 2002-02-24, 23:18
Subject: Theory of barbershop - was "NPR - old vs new songs"

George Gorsuch, lead of Rhapsody, on Friday commented "We need to do more to help guys understand the theory (of barbershop) and applications of that theory." Coincidentally, one of the newer members of the Tidelanders asked me some related questions last week to which I responded via email. When I read George's comment I thought I would share the following note with the Harmonet. This is not meant to be an all-inclusive dissertation on the subject, but it covers enough ground that hopefully it will be helpful to some.


There are two related questions:

1) What makes it possible for a song to be arranged in a contestable fashion?" and,

2) What makes a contestable arrangement? First, "What makes it possible for a song to be arranged in a contestable fashion?" The "no-no's" are 1) religious songs, 2) patriotic songs, and 3) songs in bad taste. Needless to say, there are borderline situations in each of these areas.

The reason for the third is obvious, but the first two are not allowed because a competitor could gain an unfair advantage if he appealed to certain judges by the content of his songs. For example, if a contest had been held on September 15th of last year and some competitor sang "God Bless America", he would have probably scored higher than he would have if he had sung the same song on September 8th... Since patriotic songs cannot be sung in contest, that situation would not occur. Similarly, if you knew that all the judges in a particular contest were "born-again Christians", you might 'game' the situation by singing "Jesus Loves Me This I Know" under the assumption that they would not dare give you anything but a really high score. Hence no religious songs are allowed.

Other than that, the main characteristics are a) that the melody be singable (no awkward or giant leaps), b) the lyrics be simple and story-telling in nature, c) the implied harmonies be consonant, d) the needed chord progressions follow the 'circle of fifths', and e) the melody note be a note in the chord in the implied harmony at least for all the important (read: 'sustained') notes. Some of these are hard to evaluate if you are not already a skilled arranger, or at least a skilled musician. This is especially true of d) and e). If you are new at this, and you have a song you really like and wonder if it could be arranged for contest, the best thing to do is to send it to a skilled arranger and ask him. Even b); in an uptune the song is frequently a rhythm song and the content of the lyrics is less important than in a ballad.

2) Now, "What makes a contestable arrangement?"

a) The melody must be placed in the lead part with occasional forays into the bass for special effect or variety, and rare forays into the tenor - usually on tags. (Note that the placement of the melody is the choice of the arranger, and has very little to do with what the song writer did.)

b) The tenor should almost always be above the lead/melody - the exceptions being where the melody line might go up high for a note or two where it makes more 'sense' for the tenor part to be under the lead for those few notes.

c) The bass should be on the root or the fifth of the chord. There are times when the arranger will violate this rule for purposes of voice leading, but to begin with always obey this rule and later look for really awkward spots in the bass line and see if they could be improved by putting the bass on a different note in the chord. However, only do this for short syllables, or with a great deal of reluctance in other cases. Of course, a bass hanger might result in the bass being on many different notes in the passing chords on the way to the final resolution. [The reasons for this are implied in the parenthetic note in g), below.]

d) The chords should be consonant, with occasional "scrapes" (half step between two parts) when the melody might pass through a major seventh; even a harmony part can do this today without penalty. Just don't do it very often! Some songs have important melody notes on major sevenths (e.g. in "Without a song" - the word "song" is such a place.); leave these songs to very experienced arrangers. Or at least consult one for how to handle that situation. Be prepared for the fact he may suggest you pick a different song.

e) The better contest vehicles will give the arranger the opportunity to select barbershop 7ths for approximately one out of every three chords.

f) The arrangement should have a tendency to homophony. That is, one of the trademarks of our style is that each part is singing the same syllable at the same time - this maximizes the "ring" of the chords. For the sake of variety and musical interest, we frequently utilize patter choruses, swipes where one or more parts will sing different words for a measure or two, one part sings the melody and the other three sing a neutral vowel (such as "oo"), etc. However, the tendency should always be to return to homophony. This is the stylistic equivalent of the harmonies having a tendency to return to the tonic chord (usually the 'tune-up" chord).

g) We sing four different notes at almost all the time on good contest songs. Now, if the chord is a major or minor triad, clearly two of the parts will be singing the same notes, most likely an octave apart. In those cases, we usually double the root or the fifth, rather than the third. (That is not an arbitrary selection, by the way, but is because the root and the fifth contribute consonant overtones to the chord, while the third contributes a dissonant overtone - and our 'business' is creating overtones with our voices - and the arranger's job is giving us singers the best vehicle he can which will enhance our chances to do so.) However, it is perfectly fine to have places with solo pickups, duet pickups, all four parts starting on a unison note and breaking away into four parts over a period of a few chords, etc.

As I mentioned parenthetically above, the job of the arranger is to provide the singers with the opportunity to generate the greatest numbers of overtones possible.

MELODY IN THE 2ND TENOR allows the song to be sung with the greatest dynamic expression possible, using full, rich, overtone generating vocal production;

HARMONY ABOVE THE MELODY allows us to keep the harmony voices higher than they would be otherwise - therefore generating more overtones;

BASS ON ROOTS AND FIFTHS starts the overtone series on the lowest notes possible and allows greater possibilities for dynamic range;

CONSONANT CHORDS produce more overtones than dissonant chords; the notes of the BARBERSHOP SEVENTHS are the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th overtones of every note we sing - that is, Mother Nature invented the barbershop seventh, we just make the most use of it... So when we sing a BBS7th we are just reinforcing nature's own overtones;

HOMOPHONIC SINGING maximizes the overtone production;

SINGING FULL CHORDS (not leaving out notes) also gives the richest, most overtone producing sound.

In summary, none of the above 'rules' are arbitrary or capricious, they are founded in the physics of sound; and in our desire to produce the richest, fullest, most vocally exciting sound that four voices can produce. I know I have overlooked some issues, but I hope this is helpful.

Lloyd Erickson Houston Tidelanders, Innsiders