Mixed Barbershop Quartet FAQ

A MIXED BARBERSHOP QUARTET? HOW? Who sings which part? What arrangements do you use? What key? Responses from the MHBQA to commonly asked questions
  1. WHO SINGS WHICH PART? Why does it work better with a male voice on lead and bass, and a female voice on bari and tenor? Will other combinations of voices work? There can, of course, be any mix you wish, but this is usually the most successful combin- ation if you wish to sing barbershop. The reason for this lies in the structure of the barbershop chord. The lead and bass lines have most of the roots and 5ths of the chords, which need to be dominant. The thirds and 7ths of the chords are assigned (most of the time) to the tenor and baritone in both Sweet Adelines & SPEBS arrangements. This is why directors are always telling the tenors "lighter, not louder." Using a scale of 1 to 10, the tenor is often at a 2 while the lead and bass are at a 6. The baritone part is a little more complicated; when singing below the lead, the bari needs to "fill" the gap between bass & lead with a bigger sound than when above the lead (above calls for a lighter, more tenor-like sound.) If you've heard the term used a few years ago, "barbershop cone," it visually explains what the barbershop sound is:

             /  \
            / T  \
        / bari/lead  \
      /     bass       \
    Bass is at the wide bottom of the cone, and must be the "biggest" sound. Baritone is bigger than lead or vice versa, depending on which has the lower note in the chord. Tenor is the very tiny top of the cone, often only lightly touching the notes, to reinforce the overtones that have already been created by the lock of the other three (pitch accuracy, vowel match, etc.)

    It's a fact of physics that a sound wave has more waves per second on a high note than a low note, so a high note carries more. Thus you need your stronger voices on the low bass and on the melody (which should of course be more easily heard than the bari). When the director or music staff is determining which part an individual should sing in the chorus, it is as much the vocal "tamber" (light/dark/light/laser/fuzzy, and general blending capabilities) as the actual range of the voice which determines which barbershop part is appropriate. This is unlike SATB music, which is more determined by voice range. (Side note-- modern harmonies, such as sung by Take 6, The Edlos, the Real Group, use an inverted cone, with the bass being lightest and the highest parts sung the loudest.)

    What is the result of all this? To achieve the reinforcement of sound necessary for barbershop harmony (which results in all those wonderful overtones), the root & 5th of the chords (commonly sung by lead and bass) need to be predominant, and the 3rds & 7ths (nearly always sung by the baritone and tenor) more in the back- ground. This fits in naturally with the volume/power levels of most male & female voices as a rule, with a few noteable exceptions. If it is a female voice singing the barbershop lead, in order to match with a male bass she must sing volume 8 (on her own personal scale of 1-10), while the bass sings about a 4 (on his personal scale of 1-10). There ARE mixed quartets doing this, doing it successfully, and having a lot of fun -- which is really what it is all about. However, a male bass and bari must realize that they will probably never sing more than half of their maximum volume, in order not to bury the lead.

  2. DO THE ARRANGEMENTS NEED TO BE TRANSPOSED? If it is a male bass and lead, the men's arrangements, sung in the men's range, work fine, especially if the bari is sung by a Sweet Adelines bass and the tenor by a Sweet Adelines bari, lead, or -- if she has a wide range -- a Sweet Adelines tenor. Men's arrangements have a wider range than Sweet Adelines arrangements (the range of male voices is wider), so work better for a mixed group. If you sing a Sweet Adelines arrangement, that will work too-- one member quartet sings San Francisco Bay Blues, arranged for SAI in the key of Eb, but sings it in Bb. Their bari is a Sweet Adelines bass (lowest full sound range is the C below middle C, with gradual switch to head voice starting at G# above middle C, and a useable octave in head voice above the break, the same (within a note or two) as the lead. This quartet explains: "we sing all men's arrangements, usually in the same key as the "original" quartet did them. We try not to transpose any parts, as that can affect the overtone production, but occasionally the lead and bari do trade for a measure or two when we find it improves the sound. We have discovered that many of the champion quartets singing these songs have made the same trades!"

    For more information on voice ranges, see the separate information on VOICING: ARRANGING BBS -- MENS vs WOMENS ARRANGEMENTS.

    Some quartets, who have a men's baritone handling the bass, and a low Sweet Adelines or Harmony Inc bari or lead doing the quartet bari or lead (and a men's tenor doing quartet lead or bari) will raise the key of an arrangement by one or two steps. There is no strict rule... only do what seems to work best! The goal is to (1) create music, (2) ring barbershop chords, and (3) entertaining an audience. As long as we understand HOW the chords are produced, we can do whatever is possible to juggle things around to create the best sound... as is done in any quartet, mixed or not.

  3. HOW BALANCED IS THE SOUND IN A MIXED QUARTET? DOES IT BLEND? Well, if it's done right... (see the above) the sound can be perfectly balanced! That's barbershop. A mixed quartet has to work on balance and blend just like any non-mixed quartet. The best voicings, plus arrangements for those voices which are within the quartet's current capabilities... those just make it easier. There is still vowel matching, balancing, dipthongs, phrase endings... etc, etc... lots of work! And any good SPEBS, SAI, or HI coach has the knowledge and ear to help.

    A mixed quartet does have a little more leeway in trying varying styles and voicings, since they're usually not concerned with barbershop competition. Another member quartet writes "We do vary our voicings in order to vary the entertainment styles. Sometimes the tenor or bari (female voices) will sing the lead --such as on What'll I Do, where the two women trade off melody & tenor, and our male lead sings the bari part. In our very modern (Jim Clancy) arrangement of My Funny Valentine, the melody is in the tenor line for the most part, so the male lead and female bari sing bari #1 & bari #2. And on several songs each of us has the melody for a while -- it's REALLY fun, and drives barbershoppers in the audience crazy trying to figure out who's doing what. But we only switch lead lines on non-barbershop, or loose barbershop- style songs, where we are not sacrificing the barbershop sound and the ring of the overtones! On barbershop songs we do, however, often have the bari take the high note on a screamer tag, especially if it is right at the lead's break."

  4. WHY AREN'T MORE PEOPLE DOING THIS? HOW ACCEPTED ARE MIXED QUARTETS? We didn't think many were doing this, when the Mixed Harmony Barbershop Quartet Association formed in late 1995. However, more and more mixed quartets are beginning to surface! Many quartets have found, at the beginning, that it was rather difficult to be accepted as a quartet. Of course, the Sweet Adelines also had a hard time being accepted as singing barbershop, when that was originally an "all-male-sport." There are still many "traditionalists" in the men's (and now in the women's) organizations, but many of them think that way because they have only heard mixed quartets who didn't observe the balance and blend needed for barbershop, so did not produce a sound anywhere near the barbershop that they claimed to be singing. Also, if the mixed quartet chose to sing up in the women's range, the sound is not nearly so full and pleasing (many of the overtones, even if created, are above audible range), and the men's voices would sound strained... not a way to convert listeners to an approval of mixed barbershop quartetting. (See the separate entry Voicing for Mixed Quartets -- men's & women's "good-sounding area," as originally defined by Rene Craig.)

    Also, as outlined above in #'s 1-3, it's not all that easy to form a successful mixed quartet... you need to find just the right voices, just as you do to create a top competing quartet -- and how do you tell your husband (or wife) that their voice just doesn't fit, and you'd rather sing with somebody else ??? Right... YOU DON'T ! But, whatever you do, remember that it SHOULD BE FUN!

    Another reason that mixed quartets are scarce... it's hard enough to get four people of the same gender to agree and work for the same goal for a lengthy period of time, and it takes ANY quartet a year or two to really lay a solid foundation. When you get mixed genders in a quartet, especially if married to each other, it makes for an even more complicated diplomatic adventure!

    Mixed quartets ARE becoming more common -- and the MHBQA (Mixed Harmony Barbershop Quartet Association) is helping all of us learn how to be successful. There has been a well-attended class in mixed quartetting at the NZAB annual convention in New Zealand in 1994. Both the Airwaves and Mixed Metafour have performed on a wide range of US and foreign barbershop shows, as well as producing multiple tapes and CDs. More success stories (as well as the background on how they did it) are coming in to the MHBQA and being published in the newsletter as more mixed quartets hear about and join the Association.

    Acceptance does not come about for any quartet overnight, and this is even more true for a mixed quartet. Each quartet puts in many "free" performances for local charities, and hours of singing in halls and hospitality rooms (and being careful to sing real barbershop!) to establish their credentials in the barbershop world before being accepted enough to be asked to headline a show! We just need to remember: mixed quartets are the "new kid on the block," and we are still earning our place in the limelight.

    For more information on mixed quartetting, contact the Mixed Harmony Barbershop Quartet Association (MHBQA) c/o Kim Orloff, coordinator, P.O. Box 1209, Aptos CA 95001 U.S.A. e-mail:

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