Barbershop harmony is unaccompanied, four-part a cappella harmony. Although barbershop-style music is usually built on simple melodies and is relatively easy to sing, the a cappella style and the ear training necessary for independent part singing make it one of the most challenging and rewarding accomplishments of a vocal ensemble. When the music is sung accurately and with good breath support and vocal techniques, barbershop harmony produces overtone vibrations that create a resonant ring unique to this form of music.
The voice parts in barbershop for women have different names and functions than they do in other SSAA vocal styles. The lead voice, who generally sings the melody, is below the tenor harmony; the tenor part sings the highest note in the chord; the baritone part fills in the all-important missing note in a chord that may be either above or below the melody; and the bass part supplies the harmonic foundation (root or fifth) of the chord.
- LEAD is the melody and must be sung with authority, clarity, and consistent quality throughout the range. The lead sings with limited vibrato to add color and warmth to the sound. With too much use of vibrato, the chord will not “lock” or “ring” or produce the unique full or “expanded” sound that is characteristic of barbershop harmony. The lead is responsible for conveying the interpretation, emotion, and inflections of the song. The range is equivalent to a soprano II and is from middle C, and D above middle C.
- TENOR is a harmony part sung consistently above the lead. The tenor should have a light, sweet, pure tone that will complement but not overpower or overshadow the lead voice. Lyric sopranos generally make good tenors. The range for young women is from G above middle C to high F on the top line of the clef.
- BARITONE covers approximately the same range as lead. The baritone harmony notes cross the lead notes; primarily sung below and sometimes above, depending on where the melody is situated. The voice part is equivalent to Alto I. Baritones must constantly adjust their balance to accommodate their position in the chord. They have to have good ear tuning to balance the chord in both pitch and volume. When singing below the lead, she uses a rich, full sound that helps solidify the relationship between lead and bass. When above the lead she uses a lighter production, similar to that used by the tenor. The range is from A below middle C to C above middle C.
- BASS is the lowest note in the barbershop chord. Singers should have a rich, mellow voice and generally sing the root and fifth of each chord. The bass sings a relatively straight, well-produced tone with a minimum of vibrato. The range is comparable to that of a contralto or Alto II in traditional choral music. The range is from E below middle C to G above middle C.