Posted by: Andrea Day | December 17, 2013

Barbershop blend; Why I sound different to you

I had such a phenomenal response to the last Barbershop geek blog that it was clear there was an audience out there that, like me, wants to know the more technical reasons as to why we are so hooked on the genre. It was lovely to receive comments about how understanding some of the technical stuff has helped you become better singers.

So, with that said – here is the first of (hopefully) a few more blog posts of stuff that fills my head.

Today’s lesson – Why do I sound different to you?

A flute sounds different to a violin, even when they are playing the same note. And, you can recognise someones voice on the end of the phone out of all your friends with them just saying the word,  “Hello”.

But why? and how does this even relate to Barbershop?

Every sound has a unique fingerprint and our ears are clever enough to be able to decipher this and differentiate between them. To look at what some of these fingerprints look like, we need to cover off some basics.

waveformSound is a wave of air at different pressures and is called a “waveform”.

The most simple form of wave looks just like a single line, going smoothly up and down; its clean, uncomplicated and quite frankly pretty dull to listen to.  It’s called a sine wave, as it is often the way that sound is represented when drawn.  Have a listen to this sine wave.

A on treble cleff

This sine wave goes up and down 440 times a second, so is said to have a frequency of 440 hertz (hz).  Us musicians much prefer to call it an “A” and normally we see it looking like this.  Notes of different pitches have different frequencies; the higher the frequency the higher the pitch of the note. So tenors sing higher frequencies than basses.

Back to this fingerprint thing – not only do we hear differences in pitch in the sounds that we hear, but we also hear differences in timbre.  Timbre is just the posh word that describes a notes’ colour or tone quality – the thing that allows us to work out that we are listening to a violin and not a flute for example.

A sine wave is a pure tone made up of just one sound – we can liken it to a glass of water – simple, clean, pure.Sine Wave1

So, if we look at the fingerprint of a sine wave (or its spectrum analysis if you want the posh word) then it looks like this.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 20.58.39

The frequency of the note is along the bottom and the volume of it on the vertical axis.  You can see one single spike of one single frequency.

Another wave to look at is a Square wave – funnily enough – it looks a bit square.  We can liken it to a cordial drink, its got lots of water in it, but some added bits too which adds a bit of interest.Square

Have a listen to this – and really listen.  Compare it to the sine wave.  Hear how they both are the same pitch, but the square wave sounds different.  Why does it sound different?  Can you hear something extra in there?

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 20.06.14Here is the spectrum analysis of a square wave.

Listen back to the square wave and see if you can hear the extra higher notes that are in there.  Extra points to you if you can work out the relationship between the additional notes that you can hear! (the answer and explanation will appear in a future blog post!)

Now we all live in the real word and would go bonkers if all our music was created out of just sine and square waves.  Ouch!

Have a look at the spectrum analysis of a flute and a violin. To continue the analogy, let’s say the flute is like green tea and the violin a spiced pumpkin latte.

Flute violin

We know just from listening to the sound of a flute that it has a very pure tone  and a violin is much richer and warmer.  See how that this difference in timbre is reflected in the spectrum analysis; the violin has more tones that make up the sound that we recognise.

So why on earth does comparing violins with flutes mean anything to the way that we sing barbershop?

Well, it’s all about the blend!

Listen to a flute and a violin and you hear two instruments but listen to a well blended quartet, and you hear just one voice.  Tell me… can you ever pick out the baritone in the top flight quartets?  I know I can’t! and that’s because all the voices will have a similar spectrum analysis for them to blend.

Singing an a1

Here is the spectrum analysis of me singing an A. (I’m going to go with comparing it to a cosmopolitan cocktail – ummmm)

If you check out the frequency in the bottom right hand corner than you will see that its not exactly in tune; Im slightly sharp (a true A is at 440hz).  You can try this out for yourself (download an app for your smart phone here) and you will see how hard it is!

This first spectrum analysis is of me singing the purest cleanest “00” that I could muster.  See how there is a big peak in the middle and then a slightly smaller on the right.  There are a lot of other frequencies that a lower level being picked up – mainly background noise including the neighbours TV! It looks a little bit like the flute fingerprint above.

Singing an a 2This second analysis is me singing the same note (but a tad on the flat side this time), but as fluffy and wide and “arh” as I could manage – more violin.  Compare the two, see here how there are three definite peaks rather than two – you can clearly see a difference.

These fingerprints are what our ears hear and we can hear the difference between one instrument and another, one voice and another and even the same voice singing with two different timbres.

So, what does this mean to your barbershop singing?

  • work together to have similar sounding voices, similar fingerprints and spectrum analysis’ then your voices will blend to sound like one
  • to work on this blend you HAVE to listen to the singers around you – and I mean really, actively listen.
  • Sing in unison – lots.  This takes away the need to have to listen to your vertical tuning (where you fit in the chord) and gives you more head space to concentrate on matching your sound.  The more that you practice, the more it becomes second nature.
  • get your lead to record themselves singing the song, and sing in unison with it away from group rehearsals, then sing against it with your own part.
  • different songs, different parts of songs and even different words of the same song might require a bit more “green tea” or “cosmopolitan” in them to achieve the best music marks and head towards those artistry scores. Experiment!
  • every quartet and chorus is different so, if you move parts, change choruses or quartets, then you need to start your listening all over again.
  • get the blend right then nail the tuning on top, you can make the chords ring and have an expanded sound – exactly what barbershop is all about.

And if you have got to the end of this, you have done really rather well! Im always interested in your feedback and what questions you might have for me to base further blog posts on – please do let me know!


  1. So you’re suggesting that we can make our spectrum more similar by singing unison? It’s not just the way my vocal mechanism is made?

    • You can develop, over time, different voice qualities. It’s the same as if you move to a new area, you start to pick up the accent and the intonation of the new place where you live (however much of that is vowel shape too!)

      So yes. Singing – and most importantly, listening to how others sing around you will change your timbre.
      You are born with a voice that is always going to be “you”, but slight modification from each individual in a group to come together to improve the blend.

      Hope that helps!

  2. As a fellow tech and barbershoper I enjoyed reading your explanation of sound and blending. I will also enjoy playing with the new app. Thank you for the link. I may use it at work on occasion as well. (audio visual and sound system integrator.)
    Looking forward to hearing more.
    Indianapolis, Indiana

  3. How do you find voices that match your voice?

    • Unfortunately I don’t think that there is a quick fix for this question!
      I would suggest doing as much tag singing and scratch quartet singing as you can and you will bump into people that when you sing with them, it just works. You need to get along with them and have similar goals for your singing as well as having matched voices – so it can be a difficult task.

      However, you can improve the match and blend of your voices over time – whereas your goals and ability to get on together are less likely to change, so these do play a really important part of the choices of who you sing with.

  4. Great post – I’m sharing it with my SAI chorus in the US. What spectrum analysis tool you are using? Any chance it’s an app – I’ve used Voce Vista for a while but I’d love recommendations on a good phone app if you have on you like.

    • Thanks Jennifer – its great to hear that it will be useful for your chorus. The spectrum analysis tool is indeed an app. ( I cant say that I use it much, but its a great way of helping people to visualise what they sound like as for some they need that picture in their heads to understand the concept.

  5. Thanks for sharing. This is cery usefull info

  6. Fantastic explanations, which I think I – finally – understand!!! Thanks so much

  7. […] Barbershop blend:Why I sound different to you […]

  8. Andrea am sitting in Wales surrounded by motorbikes (hubbys hobby) and no internet when I tried again to access FB and your post about apps popped up along with other posts about barbershop – my hobby!! Yeah. Yeah I am very happy now 🎶 thank you
    See you in August

  9. Fab article, I’m new to Barbershop and soent the first 12 months trying not to hear the Leads around me (I’m a Bari). Recently I got the lead next to me to record her part and I’ve been practicing my line alongside it and it’s made a huge difference to me. Now I’m totally inspired to really listen to the other parts so I can blend much better. Big thanks for writing this x

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: