Building Barbershop Harmony

The following history was generously written by Charles Buck ’69 and Robert Birge ’68 for inclusion in The Twentieth Century Project, the most complete compilation of Whiffenpoof history available, by Richard “Dog” Gould ’68.  Visit to purchase the two-volume set.


We can better understand the construction of barbershop harmony in vogue at this time by analyzing, part by part, the original arrangement of Down in the Old Cherry Orchard, a song written in 1907 and a Whiffenpoof favorite for over seventy years. It is important to note here that this song was published in a piano-vocal format and therefore would most likely have been realized as a barbershop arrangement without the use of a written four-part vocal score.

PART 1: MELODY Immediately, the unique characteristic that makes barbershop recognizable even to an untrained ear becomes clear: the melody does not appear in the highest voice, but in the second tenor part. Shall I,Wasting in Despair and Mavourneen, both mentioned in the text of The Whiffenpoof Song, are good examples of this structure, as is the even better-known Aura Lee. The Whiffenpoof Song is itself a hybrid in which the melody ranges over the upper three parts.

There is a practical and an aesthetic reason for locating the melody in an internal part. If the melody were placed in the highest voice, then the range of the four parts together would become uncomfortably wide, or the melody would have to cross into the middle parts. Aesthetically, barbershop harmony does not follow a ‘melody and accompaniment’ regimen; in fact, its structure promotes greater emphasis on the contribution of other parts to a distinctive overall blend and less emphasis on the melody as a separately distinguishable line.

PART 2: BASS LINE Next, the bass line defines the harmonic context. A singer can easily extemporize this line, since most chords are sung in root position, as in hymn singing. In the present example, this amounts to only two notes, G and C, corresponding to the only two harmonies found in the first eight bars (see above). In fact, many songs set in barbershop style exhibit a simple harmonic framework that lends itself to an uncomplicated base line. Other barbershop settings embellish these basic harmonies in inventive ways, creating the rich sound associated with straw hats and striped blazers.

PART 3: DESCANT The first tenor part adds a line with a restricted range and typically less activity than the melody.

PART 4: BARITONE The baritone line completes the quartet sound, often adding the missing note in the chord when two voices happen to sing the same note (as occurs in the fourth bar).

Because the melody line in the second tenor moves over a relatively wide range, however, the baritone performs an additional role, that of switching vocal ranges with the lead to complete the harmony. For this reason, considerable crossing of the middle two parts often occurs in barbershop arrangements. There were exceptions to the rule that baritones were relegated to filling out harmonies, however: Old Grey Bonnet, a popular four-part ballad recorded by the Whiffenpoofs as early as 1938, features the melody in the baritone part. In discussing quartet singing Bartholomew quotes a sardonic but accurate source on the role of the baritone:

When some character discovered that a well rounded fully packed chord contained four notes, the baritone entered the picture. . . Being the last one in, he was handed the missing note that nobody else could sing. . .The baritone is inspired to keep on with it only by the realization that the quartet would sound incomplete without him.

Bartholomew, who graduated two years before the founding of the Whiffenpoofs, contrasts the Glee Club practice of singing from written music with the informal a capella singing of the early Whiffenpoofs:

Meanwhile, in singing for fun at Mory’s, Heublein’s and Tuttle’s, the barbershop method ruled and the ‘close harmony’ characteristic of so-called American barbershop would be developed by experimentation, regardless of conventional rules of harmony or counterpoint.

Thus, the music sung by the early Whiffenpoofs progressed from improvisation to written arrangements in a style that continued without much change up until World War II. From that point on, complex jazz harmonies began to enrich the close harmony associated with barbershop, opening the door to a dramatically new style of arranging that Whiffenpoof arrangers gradually perfected in the following generations.