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Ethics and aesthetics: the social theory of barbershop harmony

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 November 2008


Until recently, the world of the British barbershop singer was a self-enclosed community whose existence went largely unrecognised both by musicians involved in other genres and by the public at large. In the last few years this has started to change, chiefly due to the participation of barbershop choruses in the televised competition ‘Sainsbury's Choir of the Year’. Encouraged by the success of Shannon Express in 1994, many other choruses entered the 1996 competition, four of them reaching the televised semi-finals, and two the finals. During this increased exposure, it became apparent that television commentators had little idea of what to make of barbershoppers, indeed regarded them as a peculiar, and perhaps rather trivial, breed of performer. This bafflement is not surprising given the genre's relative paucity of exposure either in the mass media or in the musical and musicological press; the plentiful articles written by barbershoppers about their activity and its meanings are almost exclusively addressed to each other, to sustain the community rather than integrate it into wider musical life. The purpose of this paper, however, is not to follow the theme of these intra-community articles in arguing that barbershop harmony should actually be regarded as a serious and worthy art, or to explain to a bewildered world what this genre is actually about; rather, it aims to explore the way that barbershop singers theorise themselves and their activity to provide a case study in the relationship between social and musical values. That is, I am not writing as an apologist for a hitherto distinctly insular practice, but exploiting that very insularity as a means to pursue a potentially very broad question within a self-limited field of enquiry.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1999

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