Singing Harmony vs. Harmonizing

As barbershoppers, singing harmony is something we do on a regular basis.  But singing harmony and harmonizing are two very different things!  Said another way:  just because you are singing harmony does not mean you are harmonizing.  If this sounds confusing, don’t worry!  I’ll explain it several different ways below.

Dispelling the Myth


First, consider this very common scenario for many barbershoppers:

Your quartet decides to sing a new song.  You obtain the sheet music, on which an arranger has organized the notes and rhythms for each part so that the desired harmony is created.  You study the sheet music and listen to the learning track, committing your part to memory.  Your quartet meets again, and you sing your learned part along with the other three guys singing theirs.

This is singing harmony.

Now, consider this very uncommon scenario for most barbershoppers:

Your quartet decides to sing a new song.  The lead learns the melody of the song then sings that melody to the other quartet members so they are aware of how he is going to sing it.  The lead sings the song again, but this time the other three guys join in, singing their respective parts creating four-part harmony — made up on the spot without reference to any existing arrangement.

This is harmonizing.

If you thought singing harmony and harmonizing were the same thing, hopefully the above descriptions have dispelled that myth.

Singing Harmony is Still Ok

Singing harmony is clearly an important part of being a barbershopper, and it takes some skill.  However, you are not required to harmonize in order to sing harmony successfully, whereas harmonizing requires an additional skill that singing harmony does not.  Of course you are singing harmony when you harmonize, but there is an additional step:  you must create the harmony in your ear (head) before you can sing it.

Harmonizing is singing harmony that you, the singer, creates in real-time by listening to the other parts and determining on your own which notes to sing.  Singing harmony is when you sing a pre-determined part that someone else has already harmonized for you.

“This all sounds like semantics,” you say?  I don’t think so, but just to make things a bit less confusing, let’s take our new definition of “harmonizing” and use a different word.  Let’s call it WOODSHEDDING.



While most barbershoppers will report that they have participated in woodshedding at some point, they likely have not done so according to the definitions we’ve outlined above.  Woodshedding means something different depending on who you talk to, and unfortunately, the skill has been degraded and given a bad reputation partly because of these varying definitions.  The Ancient Harmonious Society of Woodshedders (AHSOW), a small-but-growing subsidiary of the Barbershop Harmony Society, tries to preserve the art and skill of true woodshedding, which simply-put is creating barbershop harmonies by ear in real-time.

Typically, this is the arranger’s job.  Arrangers harmonize.  They listen to a song, create harmonies in their head, then write those harmonies down for others to sing and enjoy.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with this, but with all the wonderful arranging that has been going on the last 60 years, we have lost the wonderful aspect of barbershopping we call woodshedding.  Reliance on sheet music for the source of harmony has replaced the further development of “the ear” in most barberhoppers.

Why Can’t I Just Sing Harmony?


At this point, it would not be unheard for people to wonder, “Why do we need to be able to woodshed when learning written arrangements is so much more efficient?”  A valid question.  Here are a few thoughts to consider:

  • Firstly, I should point out that very few, if any, advocate woodshedding instead of singing harmony from written arrangements.  Singing written arrangements may be more efficient, but that does not negate the importance of learning the higher skill of harmonizing.
  • Secondly, woodshedding is such a fundamental part of our heritage.  What a shame it is to neglect the very methods used by not only the “original” barbershoppers (pre-1930’s), but also of the men who founded the Society and those after.  Our barbershopping forefathers didn’t just sing harmony, they harmonized!
  • Thirdly, being able to harmonize makes you a better harmony singer.  Lastly, if none of the above reasons are sufficient answers, real woodshedding is fun.  It gives you another way in which to enjoy this great hobby and artform.

That last point is going to be key for most guys reading this article.  We should all strive to be better at what we do, both inside and outside of barbershop.  So consider learning how to properly woodshed if for no other reason than to become a better singer and a better barbershopper.

Drop By For A Visit

logoIf you think you have a good ear already, you should stop by the AHSOW Room at a District or International convention and see if you have what it takes to really woodshed.  If woodshedding doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, that’s okay, but don’t reject it all together until you’ve tried it with three other guys who know what they’re doing.  You may be surprised at what you find.   And if the thought of making up harmony on the spot leaves you pale and clammy, you should stop by the AHSOW Room anyway.  This is a skill that can be taught.  One of my new favorite vocal instructors, Debra Lynn, says, “If you can hear a phone ring, you’re not tone deaf, and you can sing.”  I would say, “If you can sing, then you can harmonize.”

If this article has piqued your interest, keep your eye out over the next several months for a series of articles on how to develop your ear, which is another way of saying how to harmonize on your own on the spot.  This is what real woodshedding is all about.