Barbershop vocals are characterized by the second tenor (the “lead”) carrying the melody, with the first tenor singing harmony above him. The lowest voice, the bass, provides the foundation, and the baritone fills in the middle spaces. All done a cappella, of course.
Even though barbershop is considered an American invention, the idea had its roots in England. During the 1600s, Muzak was not yet available, so British barbers kept a cittern (a stringed instrument similar to a lute) handy for their customers to strum while awaiting their shave and haircut. Sometimes customers got inventive and did things like fill candlesticks with coins to add a little percussion to the mix. The resulting cacophony was referred to as “barber’s music.”
Flash forward to 1830s America. The local barbershop is a common gathering place for Average Guys—the ones who couldn’t afford to join posh social clubs, and who didn’t hang out in saloons (which still had something of a stigma at that time). Sometimes to while away the hours on his feet, the barber would start crooning a tune. Eventually, patrons added their harmonies in a call-and-response type format. By 1890, both the proliferation of printed sheet music and the presence of a piano in most middle-class homes made barbershop-style singing a bona fide fad.
How did the oversized mustaches, striped jackets and straw hats become synonymous with the genre? It started with Vaudeville. Barbershop quartets were often used in front of the curtain to entertain while other acts were setting up. In order to be seen by those in the “cheap seats” they donned distinctive costumes.