I had the opportunity recently to engage in a comprehensive study of a particular type of song: the barbershop contest uptune. Most people in America are aware of barbershop quartets and have a passing familiarity with the barbershop style of four-part, a cappella singing. What many of these folks are not aware of is the barbershop contest. Every year dozens of these contests happen all over world. Barbershop quartets and chorus compete against each other at a variety of levels. At these contests you will generally hear two types of songs: the barbershop ballad, which emphasizes sustained harmonies and a liberal use of rubato; and the uptune, which features more rhythmic elements and is sung at a faster tempo.
Organized barbershop quartet contests, in their modern form, have existed since the late 1930s. In that time the barbershop style, although retaining many important qualities, has gone through some changes. The uptune has moved from a song that is characterized by a steady tempo, with occasional sections or introductions that include rubato, to a highly athletic endeavor that impresses by including tricky rhythms and almost unnatural feats of singing.
Below is “Somebody Stole My Goal,” as sung by The Orphans, who were the 1954 International Quartet Champions. Notice that this song is a straightforward tune that is driven by the steady tempo. Interest and variation are generated from passing the melody between different voices, a patter verse, and a bridge that briefly moves into a minor feel.
The next example is from Max Q, the 2007 International Champions. This track is the “Smile Medley.” Notice that this quartet is not only using a different technique for sound production in their singing, but the arrangement they are singing includes more difficult rhythmic elements. Also notice that the introduction and coda, called the tag by barbershop singers, include an almost unnaturally long, sustained tone. This is called a post by barbershop singers. Posts are often placed at the ends of both barbershop uptunes and ballads.
By listening to these two examples back to back, one can easily hear that the style has gone through significant change, but it is also important to notice what has remained the same. Both these songs are characterized by a simple and clear melody, and they both move smoothly through the circle of fifths through progressions of secondary dominant chords.
These changes of course did not happen overnight, they represent over fifty years of development. Barbershop, while dedicated to principles of preservation of style and the old songs, is still a living, breathing style of music that continues to grow and change.
barbershop.org – The Barbershop Harmony Society, the men’s organization of barbershop singers. This website includes general information about the barbershop style and men’s barbershop quartet and chorus singing.
sweetadelineintl.org – Sweet Adelines International, the largest worldwide association of female barbershop singers. Their website has information about women’s barbershop quartet and chorus singing.
aicgold.com – The Association of International Champions, the association of men’s barbershop quartet International Champions. You can find information about all the International Quartet Champions.