Sunday, August 21, 2011

Four Part Harmony

Barbershop music has a distinctive sound that comes from its four part harmony. In that harmony, each of the four voices has its particular place and vocal responsibility.

Bill Biffle has been singing barbershop music for a long time. He is the past president of the Barbershop Harmony Society (also known as SPEBSQSA — the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America), of which he has been a member for something over 36 years. I think that qualifies him as experienced in this art form.

I heard this description from him a couple of months ago. While there can be exceptions, depending on the specific musical arrangement, in general the four voices in four part harmony line up like this:

  1. Leads are responsible for the melody of the song. (The Quartet Curmudgeon commented that their job is to sing the melody as loudly as possible while keeping it pretty.)
  2. Basses must drive the song. They are responsible for keeping the beat and rhythm going, at the proper tempo.
  3. Tenors are the icing on the cake, floating above the melody and providing color for the song.
  4. Baritones are the mortar (or the grout) of the chorus or quartet. They make everything work together. And the baritones' notes fill in the chords and make them ring.
That combination is why four part harmony sounds so fantastic. Duets and three part harmonies are nice, but they don't reach inside and grab you like a good four part harmony does.

Listen for yourself. Check out the links in the posting on the 2011 Barbershop Harmony Society Mid-Winter Convention last January, or listen to the New MexiChords here or on the YouTube link from the New MexiChords web page.

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