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Barbershop music
Four voices and a perfect cut

A good barbershop and good music – two things that go hand in hand. Today of course the music comes from a stylish vintage jukebox – or is streamed from a playlist. But what was it like back in the days when these technical means did not exist and even the wireless had not been invented yet? The Barber of Seville probably sang in person, and his colleages in the USA had the barbershop quartets: By the year 1900 these a cappella formations, consisting of bass, baritone, tenor and the dominant leading voice, had become established in barbershops all across North America. The four singers amazingly succeeded to create a full and unique sound. Instruments would have been too expensive anyway, and also too impractical for use inside these salons. And the listener does not miss them either. Furthermore, even bigger arrangements can be adapted, as the four registers correspond to the singing scheme of choirs and glee clubs, with one high and one low bass and tenor voice – in the case of female singers alto and soprano. That’s why the sound of orchestras, bands or solo instruments can also be performed by barbershop quartets.

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As we all know, Louis Armstrong and W.C. Handy started their careers with barbershop music. Scott Joplin even wrote a barbershop opera with “Treemonisha” for four singers in the main parts. Most formations were actually male groups, however, there were also female bands. The fact that most of these groups were founded by Afro-americans and European emigrants has many sociological reasons.  And here’s where the Barber of Seville comes in again, but also gospel and talking blues. The sound and disposition of the typical barbershop formations directly led to the doo-wop of the 1940s to the 1960s, to the Platters or the Belmonts – and to the harmonies of the Byrds and the Beatles. Barbershop music eventually arrived in post-war Germany, and has occupied a melodious niche in these parts until today – independent of any hairdressing salons. And if your barber has some taste, there might be barbershop music coming out of the speakers.

Manfred Prescher

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Barbershop music
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