What is Barbershop?

The guide to “barbershop” music from basic to detailed.

The Basics

Barbershop music is a type of vocal harmony sung by four unique roles: lead, tenor, bass, and baritone. All of these parts sing in harmony; for every melody note sung by the lead, the other three parts sing a harmony note.

What Each Role Sings

The Details

As well as being sung a cappella (no instruments), barbershop is defined by its musical qualities:

A barbershop 7th chord is like a dominant 7th chord except that it is in just tuning: a perfect tuning that defines the ringing chord quality of barbershop.

One goal of the performance of barbershop music is to produce these ringing chords. One means to achieve this is to keep barbershop a cappella; voices are required to create ringing chords because instruments are tuned to equal-temperament which are not perfectly tuned. If instruments were to be played along a barbershop performance, the singers would be tuning to the instruments and would be more likely to sing in equal-temperament which does not ring, thus sabotaging the goal of creating ringing chords.

The Ugly

To define a musical style, a discussion about composition, arrangement, and theory is imminent. “Here be dragons” to those faint in music-geek terms.

Chord Progressions

Chord progressions typically follow a circle of fifths structure. Each chord typically resolves to another chord whose root is located a perfect fourth away from the current chord.

For example, if a song is in the key of C major, a typical progression might be written as follows:

E7 → A7 → D7 → G7 → C

Although these chords are notated as dominant 7th chords, they are sung as barbershop 7th chords which means they are to be sung with just intonation.

Other chords are sung in barbershop, such as major, minor, diminished, and augmented chords as well as their variations and extensions.


In short, when singing a barbershop 7th chord, it is sung in just tonation. This means that the four voices singing this chord are tuning dynamically to create a ringing chord.

Physically, a barbershop 7th chord is tuned in such a way that the singers are singing the tones of the overtone series disregarding octave differences; in particular, the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7st harmonics.


Barbershop arrangements contain a wide variety of performance-enhancing artifacts:

The End

In reality, the best way to understand the barbershop style is to listen to it, sing it, and to participate! And most importantly…

the gulftones having dinner at a restaurant
Have fun!