Let’s start with a general description of “barbershop harmony.” We start with a melody, with a higher harmony part above that melody, a bass part on the bottom, singing mostly roots and fifths of chords, and a baritone in mostly the same range as the lead (melody) filling in the four-part chords, resulting in a lot of seventh chords. Most of the songs we sing come from the Golden Age of Songwriting, from about 1910 to 1980. There will be exceptions: songs written way back that don’t fit the mold of “circle of fifths” and the kind of harmony we expect, and songs written last week that fit that mold perfectly.
“Mixed” in this context means males and females singing together. Most – but not all – mixed quartets will have two men and two women. There has been some discussion about how “mixed” quartets should be constituted, and an agreement has been reached – with misgivings by some – that three women and one man, or three guys and a gal will also be considered a “mixed” quartet. There will be mixed groups where the average age is 15, and some where the average age is — – well, older than that.
So who sings what part? The answer to that will be as varied as the individual voices that make up the group. Most mixed groups of two men and two women will tend to sing closer to the all-male range than to the all- women range. A male lead typically sings from F below middle C to the F above middle C. A male bass typically sings from low G at the bottom of the bass clef to about Bb right below middle C. A male tenor typically sings from middle C to the C above that.
So if a female lead is generally an alto with a nice low range, who can do justice to, say, an F below middle C, then maybe that quartet will sing male arrangements exactly as written. Or maybe the female lead has a higher range, and the group will sing male charts up a step to a step and a half. In this case, a male bass doesn’t need to be Mister Deepvoice – necessarily. Maybe a baritone can sing a good bass up that step and a half. In certain cases and with certain voices a group may find that it’s better for that group to have a guy singing lead and one of the women singing baritone. It just depends on the voices in that group. There won’t be any hard-and- fast rules.
Most written barbershop arrangements – unless they are specifically written for all women – will have the melody (lead) and tenor written in the “double-treble” clef. It looks like a regular treble clef, but there is an “8” dangling from it on the bottom. This means that everything will be sung an octave lower than it’s written. Middle C is now the third space. The reason for that is mostly to eliminate ledger lines. A low G for lead would otherwise have two ledger lines and a space below that to designate that note. Just easier to read all around to have most of the notes in the staff.
Some people seem to think that men have to cut way back to balance a female lead. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I’ve been known to be buried (singing bass) by a good alto-lead singer. It all depends on the voices in a particular group. Just my opinion.
We are going to develop a decent repertoire of arrangements for our budding Mixed Association. This will be slow but sure. With the publishers asking us to follow the rules better, we’ll have to make sure that all written music is “legal.” One way to do that is to use songs that are in the Public Domain (written in 1922 or before).
We don’t have to clear those songs with a publisher. So get out there and do some “mixed” singing!
– Brian Beck