This week is the international convention of the Barbershop Harmony Society. Many of you have probably never heard a barbershop quartet before, much less that there is an international organization devoted to this musical style. But there are thousands of people all over the world who are members of this organization, and every year the Society has a convention the week of July 4th. The convention offers classes, workshops, and several contests (including a quartet contest and a chorus contest). It is a great week for those who enjoy this hobby!
And I am one of those. I joined the Society in 1998, and it has given me more fun and more friends than I could have ever imagined. I can’t make it to the convention in Vegas this week, so instead, I thought I would participate virtually by reflecting on why I love this hobby so much. So this week I will give five reasons why I love being a barbershopper.
And here’s the first – the music is beautiful.
For those of you not familiar with barbershop music, it is a style of singing that uses no instrumental accompaniment. It is a cappella – all of the sound must be produced by the human voice. And those voices are divided into four parts. Unlike most choral music, the top voice is not the melody voice, but a harmony part (called “tenor” in our style). The melody line is sung by the second voice down (called “lead”). The other parts are baritone and bass.
“Barbershop” draws it name from the informal origins of this style of singing. At the turn of the previous century, singing was a much bigger part of our culture. Many families would entertain themselves around the piano in a parlor, singing through the great songs of American popular music. And men would gather in taverns or barbershops, breaking out into song as one man sang a familiar tune and three others improvised harmonies around him. Since these harmonies were created by ear, they had to be “ear-friendly,” pleasing to the ear. And so in a very organic sense, barbershop music is inherently enjoyable to hear – and sing!
At least when it is done right! This kind of harmony singing is not for everyone. To do it well requires a tremendous amount of skill. But the great thing about this music is that even mediocre musicians can latch onto a chord every now and again and make it sizzle! And when all four parts line up a chord with proper tuning and balancing, it is majestic. In fact, it creates what is known in music as an “overtone” (or what my wife calls, “the fake note”), a reinforced harmonic that makes it sound like more than four parts are being sung.
But there is another aspect to the beauty of barbershop singing – the lyrics. Songs from lots of eras can be arranged in the barbershop style – this week those attending the convention will hear music originally performed by artists as varied as Al Jolson, Frank Sinatra, and Queen! But the bread and butter of barbershop music stems from the golden era of American songwriting in the early 1900s, music from composers like Irving Berlin and the Gershwins.
Everything went wrong,
And the whole day long
I’d feel so blue.
For the longest while
I’d forget to smile,
Then I met you.
Now that my blue days have passed,
Now that I’ve found you at last –
I’ll be loving you always
With a love that’s true always.
When the things you’ve planned
Need a helping hand,
I will understand always.
Days may not be fair always,
That’s when Ill be there always.
Not for just an hour,
Not for just a day,
Not for just a year,
Always, by Irving Berlin
A few years ago I brought a kid from church to visit one of my chorus rehearsals. As we left, he said, “I can see how you could get addicted to this!” And he’s right. In fact, neuroscientists have discovered that music triggers the same sort of response in the brain that chocolate does, and that drugs create. Except music doesn’t add calories or fry your brain! When you take beautiful words and set them to music arranged in a style of rich harmony, you have all the makings of a blissful addiction.
One time some friends who don’t like barbershop asked me, “Why BARBERSHOP?!” And I just blurted out, “Because barbershop music is such that four average musicians can create a sound much greater than the sum of the parts.” And they replied, “Good answer!” I have no idea where my answer came from, but it does express exactly how I feel. When four people work together to create something much bigger and better than anything they can do on their own, there’s only one way to describe it.
It is beautiful.
This blog is about faith, so you might expect me to make a connection between the barbershop music and belief in God – and you are right! As a Christian, I believe that there is more to reality than just bits of matter. There is a Mind behind our material order, and that divine Mind has given human beings a mind that can create and enjoy the beauty of music. But those hold to materialism (the belief that all that exists is matter) have an enormous difficulty accounting for the mind and consciousness. It is our conscious awareness of music that enable us to experience its beauty. But if you do not believe that the mind is anything other than various brain states acted on by the laws of physics, then there really is no such thing as consciousness – as atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg says, consciousness is merely an illusion. And therefore, that which we think is beautiful, actually isn’t – that is all part of the mirage of materialism.
But if you believe that music (especially barbershop music) possesses true beauty and not merely illusory beauty, then you must believe that human consciousness is real, that matter is not all that exists, and that behind the music of our experience must be a sublime Mind that makes all conscious awareness possible. This is what C.S. Lewis was describing in his famous sermon, The Weight of Glory–
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing… For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
The beauty of music points us to the ultimate Beauty. And every time I enjoy a well-turned lyric built upon a well-tuned chord, I am reminded of that Beauty. That’s one reason I love barbershop.
(And here’s some beautiful music by my friends in Vocal Spectrum)