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Daniel B.

Lee

Making Music out of Noise: Barbershop Quartet Singing and Society1

Citation:

Please direct correspondence to Daniel B. Lee; California State University; Camarillo, CA, 93012 (daniel.lee@csuci.edu). The author is indebted to Achim Brosziewski, David Robbins, and Julian Mueller.

2 Lee, Daniel B. 2005. Making Music Out of Noise: Barbershop Quartet Singing and Society. Soziale Systeme: Zeitschrift fuer Soziologische Theorie . 11:271-292.

Making Music out of Noise: Barbershop Quartet Singing and Society Abstract A traditionally American form of music, barbershop is a style of unaccompanied singing with three voices harmonizing to the melody (an ensemble of four voices). Depending on the production and perception of noise for its own operations, the social system of barbershop organizes and codes human vocal noise into a form of music with the help of communication. With a functionalist interest in observing how society solves problems of understanding and order, this ethnographic study describes how barbershop singers restrict the variety of their own vocal noise to conditionally reproduce the specific form of their art. The emergence and continuation of barbershop as an empirically operating social system can be considered highly unlikely, requiring much more than the willing participation of singers. The improbable connectivity of barbershop depends on semantic and structural resources made available within interaction, organization, and society: three differentiated unities of communication.

Zusammenfassung Die traditionelle US-amerikanische Musikrichtung, Barbershop, ist eine spezielle Form des ACapella-Gesangs mit einem vierstimmigen Akkord auf jeder Melodienote. Die selbstreferentielle Organisation dessen, was sich zunchst nur als Rauschen darstellt, aber zu Musik werden soll, gelingt dabei mit Hilfe von Kommunikation. Diese Perspektive, die sich dafr interessiert, wie eine Gesellschaft Probleme der Verstndigung und Ordnung lst, verdankt sich zunchst einem funktionalistischen Interesse. Auf ethnographischer Basis wird dabei nachvollzogen, wie das soziale System des Barbershop-Singens diese besondere Form des Gesangs herstellt, indem es die Variationsmglichkeiten vokaler Gerusche einschrnkt. Entstehung und Fortdauer des Barbershop-Singens als empirisch operierendes soziales System muss als hochunwahrscheinlich angesehen werden, insofern es mehr als der Zustimmung zur Teilnahme bedarf. Es hngt darberhinaus von semantischen und strukturellen Ressourcen ab, die auf drei verschiedenen Formen der Kommunikation beruhen: Interaktion, Organisation und Gesellschaft.

Making Music out of Noise: Barbershop Quartet Singing and Society There is no such thing as an instantaneous, intuitive comprehension of harmony. --Niklas Luhmann2

This paper describes how communication functions to produce a traditionally American form of music: barbershop quartet singing. Based on ethnographic observations of barbershop quartets, I explain how human singers socially organize and cultivate the musicality of the sounds they produce together. My socio-cybernetic approach to this form of music begins with noise, difference, variety, contingency, and the absence of order. I outline a social science of acoustic harmony that focuses on the problem of socially organizing sound into music. Imagine, for a moment, four beaming adult men appear before you and stand closely in a row. They all take a big breath of air and, low and behold, begin to produce tremendous vocal noises. What might this quartet sound like? Showing off their human capacity for acoustic variation, our men might pant, hoot, roar, yell, recite poetry, or belt out high and low pitches of short and long duration. We might hear them utter explosive consonants or soothing vowels, intelligible words or mysterious sounds. They might utter their sounds together, in perfect cadence, or deliver them as random bursts of cacophony. A quartet of men can make very many kinds of different noises! This open-ended noise potential points to the improbability of organizing and coordinating sound in any specifically meaningful waysuch as in barbershopand the unlikelihood that observers (singers and listeners) will recognize any significant difference between noise and music. How can four different men ever come to share expectations about how each will contribute to the practice of producing barbershop harmony? Barbershop creates this problem for itself and then offers its own functional solutions. With quartets of men in mind, this investigation of how music may be winnowed out of noise increases our appreciation of the empirical variety and organized complexity of musical forms. In this paper, I describe music as a medium of communication within which cultured observers may anticipate, recognize, and connect selected forms of acoustic harmony (and dissonance). My analysis features the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA), an organization that plays a pivotal role in structuring the
2

(Luhmann 2000, 21)

4 musical possibilities of barbershop and in conditioning its members to observe the boundaries of its specific form. With each successive confirmation, the form of barbershop confirms and condenses itself, programming the connectivity of its own future operations. Quartets are described here as if they operated as interaction systems, relying on face-to-face communication to reproduce themselves by restricting and calibrating the noises made by four men. It is important to note, however, that barbershop quartets are also registered ensembles within an umbrella organization that can, by its formal decisions, determine the limits of the art form. Thus, this investigation indicates the quartet as an interaction group that empirically produces the form of barbershop; but it also indicates SPEBSQSA as an organization that makes and connects decisions about the aesthetic boundaries of barbershop. The singers do the singing, but the organization decides whether or not barbershop was produced. Both of these social systems, the interaction and the organization, continuously operate within the greater confines of society. The conclusions presented here are based on a content analysis of materials produced by barbershop quartets (recordings and performances), in addition to publications, compositions, and photographs distributed by SPEBSQSA. Approximately thirty-five singers and organizational officers were personally interviewed about their barbershop experience, self-understanding and motivation as singers, and interpretation of the art form. I participated as a member of the society for one year, attended weekly chorus practices, and took part in weekend conferences (Harmony College) and interstate singing competitions conducted by SPEBSQSA. I also joined an established, registered quartet as a tenor, replacing a member who had moved too far away to attend rehearsals. This quartet engaged in several public performances and eventually competed on stage in front of a panel of officially appointed judges.

The Meaning and Form of Music What is music? One provocative definition suggested by social scientists asserts that music is the organization of sound in time (Sakata 2002). The usefulness of this essentialist, ontologically minded definition hinges on how one understands the concept of organization. Morse code, telephone ringers3, knock-knock jokes, and church bells also organize sound in time, but do they also demonstrate musicality? This definition makes no attempt to describe what special difference
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One might suggest that modern phones offer much more than the traditional ring, they can play famous musical overtures, folk diddies, and pop tunes. Such music, however, is useful as a ringer only if we are prepared to stop it and answer the phone. A telephone ringer having meaning as music would not be answered.

5 music itself makes in organizing sound in time. If music is to be defined as the organization of sound in time, the impression of organization cannot plausibly be attributed to that which is actually heard. There can be no organization, meaning, or music directly in sound: any alleged organization must be attributed to an observer who cognitively separates music from aural perceptions. This capability is demonstrated by barbershop singers. Before I relate how barbershop quartets produce their musical order from noise, I will assert the need for a definition of music as communication. Many scholars presume that human musicality is selectively structured or organized by human nature. Thus, the meaningful expression of music is guaranteed by an underlying, innate Chomsky-esque grammar. This view is shared, for instance, by Wallin, Merker, and Brown (2000, 45): There are musical and linguistic universals that characterize human thought. They are expressed by basic rules that constitute a core grammar common to all languages and to all musical systems. These basic rules produce the sequence types or forms that we find everywhere in all cultures. Regarding music, analysis of diverse musical grammars should gradually allow better understanding of what these universal elementary forms are, whose structures are attributable to psychological systems that produce them, and that are presumably common to all human beings. Thus, for these authors, musical expression appears to be locked into a closed, mechanical, grammatically correct sequence or form. Language, music, and even psychological systems are thought to be structured in the same way, according to a presumed natural order of human beings. This perspective seems to suggest that psychological systems produce music and language; indeed, that they are able to do this by nature. Barbershoppers, as we shall see, must study and practice their highly stylized art of singing. Instead of expecting inborn basic rules or a universal musical grammar to organize their singing, barbershop singers conscientiously work hard at what they do, as if successfully ordering sound and time could not be guaranteed. Indeed, barbershoppers (and other musicians!) seem to operate as if humans, as humans, could not make music.4

As does every other social system, the organization of barbershop depends on the continued success of communication. From the perspective of social systems theory, however, humans cannot communicate. Only communication communicates (see Luhmann 2002, 156). Extending this understanding of autopoiesis and self-organization, one could assert that only music makes music.

6 The proposition of an innate, cross cultural, universal musical grammar common to all psychological systems suggests that music can have no social organization: it has already been ordered. The notion suggests that humans have been hardwired to produce music according to basic rules that cannot be changed. Such rules would equally bind every human, leaving no room for creativity, virtuosity, cultural programming, accidents, or surprise. Making music would be as natural, predictable, and unavoidable as coughing, sneezing, and having the hiccups. If, thanks to the constraints of human nature, there is no possibility for musical disorganization, then it makes no sense to define music as art or a form of creative expression. If the artistic decisions have already been made by nature, what can an individual musician add? Even more troublesome is the suggestion that psychological systems produce elementary structures of music that are common to all human beings. If the structures of music are instinctive and universal, how can their production also be attributed to psychological systems? From this perspective, it would seem that there is no escape from music, that the successful production of music may be taken for granted. Observing the work of barbershop singers takes this feeling of security away: they know that their music is constantly threatened by the resurgence of noise. The always already organized account of a universal musical grammar runs away from the key problem for which organization appears as a solution: it fails to explain how music is different from unorganized noise or random perturbations. Music, like language, is a form of communication that organizes noise. As communication, music is accomplished when three separate selections are combined and related to each other: information, utterance, and understanding (See Luhmann 1995, 1997; Baecker 2003). Music emerges out of this recursive combination of selections. A musician selects the informative difference that she wants to make as an artist; she selects a particular sound; and she demands attention by staking a claim, expressing the expectation that her sound will be understood as a meaningful and contingent selection by those who hear it (See Luhmann 1995, 195). The sound of barbershop is reproduced when the separate selections of each member of a quartet (contingently related and different utterances) are meaningfully related to one another to simulate its own recognizable style. An emergent unity in difference, barbershop produces barbershop by programming human noise makers and helping them imagine a distinction between predictable and random sounds. The meaning of music is imagined as the difference between what is heard and what could have been heard; or, in other words, between actual and potential sounds. To have meaning, music must take on a contingent form, one that is neither necessary nor impossible. To observe music, the acoustic energy waves one actually hears from moment to moment must be cognitively

7 connected with impressions of meaning tied to sounds that came before, as well as to possible sounds that might, to a conditioned listener, be expected to follow. Thus, forms of music result from tight couplings between sound and meaning. One hears a sound, remembers all of the sounds that could have been heard, and evaluates the sound as a selection that either fits or does not fit what came before. When it comes to observing the form of music, observers culture themselves to expect certain sounds to accompany and succeed one another (and not others). According to Niklas Luhmann: Music functions as communication only for those who can realize this difference between medium and form and who can use it to make themselves understood. Only for those who can also hear the decoupled space within which the music is played; only for those who can also hear that the tonality of music makes many more possibilities for noises than what might be normally expected, and this from the vantage point of disciplined regulation through form. (Luhmann 2001, 203-4) Music disciplines the unorganized complexity of noise, suggesting imaginary preferences for the actual delivery of certain pitches at certain times. Styles of music, such as barbershop, condition preferences differently. Music opens up its own possibilities for organizing variety, inventing its own rules of inclusion, by closing down the surplus options of noise. As the cyberneticist W. Ross Ashby might have put it, only the variety of music can destroy the variety of noise. Depending on the perception of noise for its own operations, the social system of barbershop provides a particularly apt illustration of how communication functions to order noise. I use the term noise (random perturbations) with reference to the order from noise principle of general systems theory (von Foerster 1960). Participation in communication conditions singers, enables them to inform themselves with respect to the possibilities of sound, and meaningfully establishes the self-referential standards to which they must accommodate themselves in order to function as members of viable quartets. The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America is the self-appointed organization that oversees cultural efforts to sustain and increase the variety and complexity of barbershop music, in spite of the greater odds of hearing noise.

Organizing Noise: The Case of Barbershop

8 The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA) held its first formal convention in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1939, with 150 men in attendance. Today the organization has more than 34,000 members in approximately 800 local chapters in the United States and Canada. Established to preserve a particular form of unaccompanied vocal harmony, the organization informs its new members: As time passes, youll make friends and create memories that will last a lifetime. Youll share the excitement of preparing for a major show, feel the heat of the stage lights and enjoy the roar of applause. Youll touch the hearts of audiences with tender love songs and ballads, and delight them with comedy and rollicking uptunes. Youll bring light in the lives of shut-ins, and help a new generation of singers learn the simple pleasures of a cappella singing and the good old songs. (SPEBSQSA 2001, 2) Members of SPEBSQSA meet to practice their art each week, perform for the public in annual shows, compete in regional and national contests, and attend weekend clinics with arrangers, directors, and music educators. Members begin each chapter meeting by standing up to sing their theme song, The Old Songs, and close by singing their motto song, Keep the Whole World Singing. When they finish milking the last chord, members raise their right fist in the air and exclaim together: Its great to be a barbershopper! Several sociologists have already investigated SPEBSQSA (Stebbins 1996; Averill 2003; Kaplan 1993), but focused on describing how barbershop singers share solidarity, collective values, expressive needs, and feelings of community. Barbershoppers are without a doubt interested in experiencing camaraderie and expect to have a good time with their brothers. O.C. Cash, the founder of SPEBSQSA, once wrote: Only at our Society conventions do I find the genuine, oldtime, small-town, neighborly affection and fellowship so manifest when our bunch gets together (O.C. Cash 1941, 3). Barbershoppers expect one another to be respectful and sociable, but at some point they must also demonstrate the ability to sing, to operatively engage in practices that reproduce the art of barbershop. How this is accomplished by the replication and organization of noise is the primary focus of this investigation. Friendly men of good character may make pleasant companions, but reproducing the form of barbershop requires the fulfillment of very different conditions. Musicians define barbershop singing as a colloquial term for a type of harmony used in popular American part singing as formerly practiced in barbershops. It is typically arranged for four

9 unaccompanied male voices, the melody being carried by the second voice from the top (Randel 1978, 40). This definition is further refined by SPEBSQSAs own description of the form: Technically speaking, barbershop harmony is a style of unaccompanied singing with three voices harmonizing to the melody (an ensemble of four voices). The lead usually sings the melody, with the tenor harmonizing above the lead. The bass sings the lowest harmonizing notes and the baritone provides the in-between notes, either above or below the lead to make chords, specifically, dominant-type or barbershop sevenths, that give barbershop its distinctive, full sound. (SPEBSQSA 2001, 5) SPEBSQSAs official definition effectively specifies four of the most critical restrictions required to observe the unity of its form: singing, four voices, harmony, and a distinctive sound. Other styles of music may certainly share one or more of these specific traits, but barbershop represents a combination of its own. In his comprehensive sociological account of barbershop quartet singing, Averill (2003) notes that those who arrange music in the barbershop style understand that cultivated listeners will recognize a song as barbershop if it features dominant seventh-type chords (barbershop sevenths) between 35 and 60 percent of the time. 5 When singing is conditioned by these four qualifications, trained observers may recognize the form of barbershop, in contradistinction to both other types of music and forms of unorganized noise. In what follows, we turn to a more detailed description of the reciprocal knowledge singers must have before they can conditionally relate their own selections and reproduce the form. This description is followed by a closing discussion of the form of music and of barbershop as a symbolically generalized medium of communication.

Singing Singing entails the production of musical tones with ones voice. A singer must sing, but this implies that he or she must also listen. In this sense, singing forms a unity of both singing and listening. This insight underscores the improbability of barbershop as a social system. Four
5

Understanding barbershop is difficult without the chance to sing and hear it. Readers interested in sampling this music may appreciate the audio files available at SPEBSQSAs website, located at the following internet address: http://www.spebsqsa.org/web/groups/public/documents/pages/pub_id_051957.hcsp.

10 singers must simultaneously produce and monitor sound, organizing the complexity of perceived noise even as they actively contribute to it. Singing barbershop is not the same as singing scat, jazz, doo-wop, Sacred Harp, madrigal, or other forms of a vocal music. Singing a cappella is also not the only way to sing. And, of course, singing is not the only way to make vocal noise. Whatever the style, the art of singing emerges out of the difference between human vocal noise and music. Barbershop is a specific way of informing or programming this difference. Most American men can make plenty of vocal noise, but they do not spend much time singing. The first major task of SPEBSQSA is to recruit men who are willing to sing. As with other forms of vocalization, singing is a powerful way to disturb and capture the attention of other people. Singing fascinates the ears and draws in the awareness of listeners. In this way, singing is an unusually effective form of communication (see Luhmann 2000, 15). The members of a barbershop quartet coordinate both sound and dramatic physical movements to impact their audience. Consequently, it takes a certain kind of person to perform barbershop; one who is willing to exhibit himself, one willing to irritate other peoples ears and compel observation. A barbershop quartet requires men who are willing and able to sing: producing the medium in which the form of barbershopor some other form of singingmay be differentiated and recognized by observers. Four Voices The musical form of barbershop entails role differentiation and a functional unity in difference: four voices are expected to sing different parts but form only one sound. The form of music contributes many familiar structures that serve to coordinate the actions of barbershoppers. For instance, the members of a quartet observe the same tempo, artificially structuring the flow of real time so that each performer can orient himself to a common beat. Many toes tapping together is not a coincidental phenomenon: the beat made within meaning structures the unorganized complexity of time. Pitch, the perceived highness or lowness of a sound, is unnaturally standardized in music so that performers can meaningfully restrict and identify intended frequencies. As a form, pitch opens up the possibility for musicians to observe the difference between being in and out of tune. Pitch itself is a wide open horizon that cannot close itself. To appreciate the importance of familiar musical structures, one must remember that each musician retains the individual freedom and requisite variety (Ashby 1957) to make

11 completely unorganized noise, without regard for a controlling tempo or pitch. 6 Structures constructed out of meaning cope with the problem that the environment is always more complex than the system (Luhmann 1995, 182). Differentiating members of the quartet by vocal part is a crucial step in organizing this latent environmental complexity. According to one official judge appointed by SPEBSQSA to evaluate barbershop quartets during competitions, each of the four members of a quartet has a unique operating directive, or o.d. The leads o.d. is to sing out the melody and sell the song to listeners. In the words of the judge, the lead must shine above all else as the one who really tells the emotional story. The baritones o.d. is to build an incestuous relationship with the lead, harmonizing as tightly as possible without singing the same notes. The lead and baritone voices playfully switch between soothing harmony and unnerving dissonance, at times carefully crossing over each other in pitch. In the society of barbershop, baritones are often called by the nickname Phil because they must creatively search for a note that has not yet been taken by the other voices, thereby filling up the chord and completing a full sound. The operating directive of the bass is to envelope the quartet with sound, giving full support to the lead. The judge asserted that a good bass places each of his notes into the mouth of the lead, constantly working through the lead. Finally, the tenors o.d. is to deliver the overtone produced by the other members of the quartet. In the words of the judge: When the trio does its job well, the tenor note is always already there and must only be reinforced. The tenor should focus on matching the tone that appears by nature, whenever the trio sings as it should. The tenor has the easiest job of all and should let the other guys work the hardest, while always looking relaxed and comfortable. The judges discussion of operating directives names four essential voice parts and metaphorically describes how each is expected to perform within barbershops own division of labor. By restricting the operational freedom of each singer and differentiating functions, the social system of barbershop conditionally relates four voices, creating the possibility for harmony.

Harmony

W. Ross Ashbys law of requisite variety refers to the necessary availability of system complexity for the reduction of environmental complexity: Only variety can destroy variety (Ashby 1957, 207). A system cannot handle the total variety available in its environment: it emerges by selectively reducing environmental complexity. A barbershop quartet destroys the variety that is latent in its singers: selecting from their possibilities only what is meaningful within the form of barbershop. If the quartet fails to do this, SPEBSQSAs official judges will disqualify their performance, signaling that only noise was produced, not the sound of barbershop.

12 In pursuit of their different operating directives, the members of the quartet must work constantly to conditionally relate their separate sounds together. The four singers must not only deliver their sounds at the same time and place, but they must acoustically blend, simultaneously articulate consonants, match vowels, and remain in tune. As I have stressed above, the achievement of vocal harmony is a highly improbable event. As one barbershop singer told me, The barbershop hobby (or singing accapella) is a challenge for anyone. It requires a very good ear, a lot of memorization, and certainly a lot of work. But more importantly, it requires a person to express ones feelings through song. A particular songs emotional effect is highly dependent on its chord structure, tonal progression, and harmonic character. Imagine singing a love song out of tune! Artistically expressing ones feelings through song requires tonal accuracy. But how does one sing in tune with others? Music is an artificially constructed horizon of meaning that replicates, among other things, the natural possibilities of pitch in a manner that can be ordered through signs. A birds song can be arranged and transcribed in musical notation so that it can be simulated by a human singer. With the help of signs and the difference between black ink and white paper, an actual pitch can be virtually doubled and represented on paper. Barbershoppers learn how to read music, as if printed notes could determine the pitch a voice produces. The self-reference of music closes itself to open up meaningful possibilities for musicians, creating a context in which sounds can be imitated, identified, transposed, and connected with others. The four members of a quartet monitor and condition one anothers sounds, attempting to ensure musicality. Before a song begins, one member of the quartet sets the beginning pitch by quietly and steadily humming while the others wait attentively. This initial note is typically located with the help of a tuning fork, pocket-sized pitch pipe, or piano key. The other three singers then join in humming the same note, reinforcing the standard and conditioning themselves, before switching up or down to their own beginning notes and building a chord. Listening to the four pitches, one or more members may decide that the humming failed to produce a well-tuned chord. One may signal with a hand wave or shake of the head that the quartet failed to tune up and that it should try again. Sour facial expressions and verbal accusations may be exchanged: Come on, Bill, you were flat. Another member might attempt the initial humming sound, or else a pitch pipe may be blown a second time. In any case, the first hummed chord permits the quartet to check and condition each singers sense of being in tune and harmonic balance. This is the first critical test of musical viability and acoustic compatibility, the time when the first problems can occur. The test is subsequently repeated with every single chord of a song. After the last chord is rung, a rehearsing quartet might again blow the pitch pipe to check how well it was able to maintain a

13 constant pitch. According to one barbershopper, Taking a pitch and tuning that first chord is the key. Barbershop harmony depends on everyone in the quartet staying right in tune, right from the beginning. Some people can sing great alone, in the shower, but they fall apart when they have to stay in tune with others. The members of a quartet police each other and keep each other honest. Each member of the quartet experiences the other three voices as elements in his own acoustic environment. While perceiving the sound of the other three voices, each member of the quartet must observe a corresponding difference between noise and music, distilling musical information from environmental noise and demonstrating his understanding by responding with an appropriate sound of his own. Each singer is obligated to contribute only that difference that makes an immediate difference between harmony and dissonance; between being in tune and out of tune. When four singers produce barbershop harmony, the art itself integrates them without violating the operational closure of both psychic and social systems (Luhmann 2000, 48). Theories that account for the organization of music by way of universal grammars or intersubjective constraints assume an implausible unity of consciousness and communication, a unity that would kill music as an art form. Each member of the barbershop quartet comes to the group as an individual noise maker equipped, more or less, with his own sense of music. The form of barbershop requires these four singers, each one a divergent complex with his own operating directive and requisite variety, to function as a unified system of difference. In barbershop harmony, one singer emits a particular note, actualizing a pitch from a continuum of possible sound waves. The selection of this note (recognizable as a redundancy within the form of music) and not another determines the meaningful possibilities open to the other singers, who in turn make further selections with reference to the initial note. A selected pitch is a function of the relative frequency of a sound wave: when a singers vocal chords vibrate more frequently, releasing more energy into the air, the pitch seems to rise as air molecules are pressured into oscillation. The opportunity to produce acoustic harmony results from this physical ability to selectively produce more or less constant sound waves at the same time. Each musical note has a standard frequency of cycles per second. On a piano, for instance, middle C has a standard frequency of 256 cycles per second. Doubling the frequency of a note produces the same note an octave higher, while reducing the frequency by half results in the same note an octave lower. As a musical construct, harmony suggests that different pitches can be coordinated in ways that physically reinforce each other and form socially meaningful acoustic relationships (for example: fourths, fifths, octaves, or even the risky barbershop seventh). Some combinations of acoustic energy waves sound good, while others sound terrible; and this

14 aesthetic difference is defined and conditioned by the contingent preferences of musical forms. Without any ability to count cycles per second, the members of a quartet adjust their pitches and disturb the air around them, negotiating the boundaries of barbershops own form of harmony during every live performance. Using musical notation, the progressive self-organization of barbershop harmony may be visualized as follows:

Beyond the written music, however, many other things can happen besides harmony. The bass may decide to sing the same note as the lead. The baritone may sing too loud, too fast, and out of key. Even if everybody else conforms to expectations, the tenor may just sneeze. Established barbershop quartets know about obstacles like these and other problems caused by the multiple constitution or double-contingency of social systems (Luhmann 1995, 103). Though it may cause the chord to collapse into noise, multiple constitution is precisely what makes harmony possible. There could be no barbershop system without noise. If everyone sings contingently, and thus everyone could also sing differently and knows this about oneself and others, it is improbable that ones own singing will find points of connection in the singing of others (compare to Luhmann 1995, 116). Yet this is the unlikely conferral of meaning that must take place in the production of harmony. Noise makes noise, but barbershop controls noise to make harmony. How is this possible? With so much environmental complexity, how can barbershoppers ever successfully strike a chord? The members of a quartet must trust each other to observe the closed form of barbershop and to limit the possibilities open to them as individual singers (Luhmann 1990). Each member must say to the others: I will limit myself to barbershop if you will limit yourselves to barbershop. When

15 each member practices this kind of discipline, continence, training, and good faith, the quartet gains the chance of emerging as a self-referential social system sui generis, a circular unity that cannot be reduced to any one of the participating singers. A barbershop system gains the unlikely chance of producing itself because quartet members are cultured observers (Fuchs 2001), selfsocialized to reciprocate each others willingness to fit into the form of barbershop. As I will relate below, SPEBSQSA cultures singers, rewards accommodation, and makes decisions about the relative quality and viability of quartets.

Distinctive Sound The social system of barbershop music reproduces itself by organizing the unorganized complexity latent within singers (i.e. singer/listeners) and listeners. This self-organization depends on singers (and listeners) conforming to the selective behavioral determinations made available by the form of barbershop. Harmony often occurs in other forms of music, but the distinctive sound of barbershop harmony, an experience of contingency, must reference barbershops own program: its own history, themes, expectations, and conditions for success. The form of barbershop selects certain possibilities and manages only those possibilities, excluding all others. This self-limitation and the need to overcome the resulting artistic problems is what grants barbershop its distinctive sound. For example, barbershop singers are not accompanied by musical instruments. The four human voices are left alone with the problem of building a full and satisfying sound. The strict functional differentiation of four partslead, bass, baritone, and tenorand the prohibition of solos helps the quartet deliver a rich sound with substantial chords. Drums are also excluded from the form of barbershop, and singers may not add percussive vocals or other purely rhythmic sounds such as finger snaps or hand claps. Working without a conductor, the exclusion of percussion places a tremendous burden on the members of the quartet to coordinate themselves in time. Several practices have evolved to help solve this problem. The members of a barbershop quartet sing while standing in a semi-circle, so that they may see and hear each other as well as possible, while still projecting sound to an audience of listeners. The moving hands and lips of the lead give subtle, but constant temporal clues to the other members. Following the leads cadence, the other members are prepared to progressively hold two of more chords while singing a single word or syllable. This hallmark of barbershop style is known as a swipe, and serves to add forward motion to the lyric (SPEBSQSA 2001, 5).

16 The distinctive sound of barbershop is also notable in the structural coupling of music with language. Not only does the quartet make music, it also recites lyrics designed to make a meaningful artistic difference for listeners. The quartet provides an intelligible linguistic utterance, but the audience is expected to remember that the meaning of the utterance is entirely fulfilled in its musical delivery. From moment to moment, the quartets sound is adjusted to match the semantic intent of words and sentences. As a consequence, the barbershop sound tends to reflect unusual sentimentality and an unabashed, melodramatic appeal to emotions. Barbershop lyrics typically describe nostalgia for the good old days, affairs of the heart, memories of friendships past, patriotism, and a longing for the comforts of home. Though it might appear obvious, the words of a song also assist in the achievement of temporal consonance, with articulated consonants serving a rhythmic function. Opting to sing songs with words, of course, creates the opportunity for members to forget the correct words. Barbershop quartets tend to practice singing with the aid of musical notation and written lyrics. When they perform, however, barbershoppers are expected to have the words and their individual voice parts memorized. Traditionally, the form of barbershop prescribes a quartet comprised of only men. Consequently, the distinctive sound of barbershop is tied to the acoustic quality of single sex ensembles. Social programs suggesting gender integration and equal rights do not seem to make a difference within organizations devoted to barbershop. Although there are some unregistered mixed quartets, there is no organization or movement that acknowledges their contribution to the form of barbershop. 7 One might argue that the tight harmonies and compact sound of a barbershop quartet would be sacrificed if males and females sang together. Whatever the reason for the single sex limitation, a mixed ensembles wider range of sound does not present advantages within the form of barbershop. The limited range of a unisex quartet presents an artistic problem, but a good barbershop quartet accepts the challenge and aims to complement the middle voices of the lead and baritone with the extremes of the bass and tenor. To escape the normal confines of the male vocal range, tenors frequently sing in falsetto with their head voice. As in the case of the contra tenor featured in early renaissance compositions, the soft and airy sound of the barbershop tenor typically adds harmonic completeness rather than melodic contour. The resulting sound of barbershop contrasts sharply with the well known doo-wop style of the 1950s, in which tenors frequently covered the melody line in falsetto, while the bass contributed a driving rhythm. A fascinating feature of the distinctive sound of barbershop is the mysterious occasional sound of a fifth voice. When the four members of a quartet successfully achieve barbershop harmony, the
7

Female barbershop singers established a separate organization called the Sweet Adelines in 1945 (Averill 2003, 127). Sweet Adelines may be viewed as another self-appointed observer of barbershop, communicating its organizational decisions about what lies in and outside of the form.

17 sound frequencies each emits may physically reinforce one another. Members of SPEBSQSA describe this phenomenon as ringing the chord: Probably the most distinctive facet of barbershop harmony is the phenomenon known as expanded sound. It is created when the harmonics in the individually sung tones reinforce each other to produce audible overtones or undertones. Barbershoppers call this ringing a chord. Singing in a quartet or chorus and creating that fifth voice is one of the most thrilling musical sensations youll ever experience, leading to goosebumps the size of golf balls. (SPEBSQSA 2001, 6) If there is a test to decide whether or not a quartet is producing barbershop, it would have to be the successful ringing of a chord, the organization of vocal noise to create a supplemental noise from natural harmonics. One sees four singers, but hears the sound of more. According to one member of a registered quartet, When we all get our notes just right, when everyone gives the chord just what they are supposed to, thats when it happens. The quartet is suddenly joined by another member, one who floats sound all around us, giving us the pay off experience that makes singing barbershop like finding the Holy Grail. Another member of SPEBSQSA, one who has sung baritone in the same competitive quartet for more than ten years, explained, Its difficult to put into words what it feels like to get four voices to sing in tune and ring a chord except to say its a thrill. Its even more thrilling when it happens in front of an audience. There is nothing more inspiring than standing in front of an audience and watching their emotions and reactions when you sing them a song. Barbershop unfolds itself as organized noise within the dimension of real time, with the sound of each consonant and tonal change arriving and departing in succession. Moment by moment and sound by sound, the quartet works to connect its successive operations in conformity to the expectations of cultured observers, both singers and listeners. The quartet produces a dynamic string of constantly vanishing perceptions, surprising listeners with a display of controlled variety, always remaining within the redundant and stable form of barbershop. A quartet intentionally slides in and out of tune, changes keys, slows and quickens its tempo, adjusts its volume, and tweaks melodic lines: all in an artistic effort to create something new without leaving the expected form. Each song must form a unity of different sounds, each with its own history, and each quartet must form a unity in the style of barbershop. The quartets central problem is to recursively connect its operations within the established form of barbershop, but it must do so in resistance to all other quartets. The sound of an accomplished quartet must be

18 recognizable as barbershop, but it must also be fresh and new and entirely of its own kind. As Luhmann suggested with regard to art, Only novel works can please (Luhmann 2000, 44). As a social system operating within art, the barbershop quartet paradoxically reproduces a singing style while also innovatingavoiding imitation and repetitionand carefully pressing the boundaries of music.

SPEBSQSA and the Reduction of Complexity The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America is committed to realizing one of its guiding statements: Barbershop harmony is music thats easy, fun, and anyone can sing it. The organizations official motto song, Keep the Whole World Singing, is sung by members at each weekly rehearsal and at other official events. How does SPEBSQSA reduce the complexity of barbershop so that it can be described as easy and exportable to the whole world? As a social system, barbershop organizes itself within society. Before, during, and after they sing, barbershoppers participate in communication. Communication creates a boundary around four singers, assigns the different vocal parts, decides which song to sing, and chooses the key in which to begin making noise. Language makes itself available to music by differentiating itself within communication. Lyrics reference the world without indicating the world beyond the song. The singers may not mean what they sing, but they do mean to sing and language must be implicated in the process. The complexity of communication must be effectively managed and reduced by speakers who want to sing barbershop. Someone must first say, Would anyone care to sing barbershop with me? Three other cultured observers of barbershop must hear the sound of the question (more noise!), understand its meaning, and return signs of affirmation. Producing barbershop requires the improbable success of society. Operating as a formal organization, SPEBSQSA contributes music, recordings, and other cultural material that restricts singers to the possibilities selected as meaningful and appropriate within the self-constructed form of barbershop.8 It decides whether or not to officially register individual
8

From the perspective of social systems theory, an organization organizes communication in terms of its own decisions. According to Luhmann, Since (organizational) memberships are founded in decisions and the subsequent behavior of members in decision-making situations is dependent on the membership, one may characterize organizations as autopoietic systems that operate on the basis of communicating decisions. They produce decisions out of decisions and are in this sense operationally closed systems. In the form of the decision there is also a moment of structural uncertainty. And because each decision evokes other decisions, every decision reproduces this uncertainty (Luhmann 1997, 830).

19 members, quartets, and choruses. SPEBSQSA maintains a corporate presence, prints music, operates a website, distributes newsletters, collects dues, markets products, and unifies central and peripheral social networks. Much like other large organizations, SPEBSQSA uses a hierarchical chain of command to ensure that official communication is supervised by directors at its central office in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Organizational decisions are then passed down to the district stratum (Mid-Atlantic District, Seneca Land Distict) and finally to the board of directors of local chapters (Altoona Horseshoe Chorus, Chorus of the Genesee). The organization recruits members, appoints officers, directors and board members, trains arrangers and conductors, and selects judges to evaluate contests and performances. SBEBSQSA also sends music educators into public high schools to expose students to barbershop and help them form quartets. The organization publishes a special collection of music designed to appeal to younger singers, with barbershop arrangements of hit songs by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Drifters. SPEBSQSA organizes contests during which competing quartets take turns performing a few songs on stage. A panel of officially appointed judges evaluates each quartet according to musical ability, conformity to barbershop style, and showmanship. The established evaluation criteria are maintained by SPEBSQSA in order to preserve the authentic sound of barbershop. Immediately after a competition, quartets spend private time with individual judges, discussing their numerical score, singing through difficult sections of their material, and receiving constructive criticism. A winning quartet must not only please the audience and demonstrate musical excellence; it must above all else respect the boundaries of barbershop. Championship quartets receive trophies, widespread publicity within the organization, invitations to coach other quartets, recording contracts, and requests to perform in shows across the country. Reducing and organizing the complexity of quartets, SPEBSQSAs judges decide which quartets will become the standard bearers for the organization. Their decision making conserves, condenses, and limits the form of barbershop, making it possible for observers to expect, recognize, and make sense of the distinctive sound. The organizational effectiveness of SPEBSQSA may be conveyed with a specific illustration. The national organization provides each new member with a publication entitled, The Barberpole Cat Program and Songbook (SPEBSQSA 1992). In a spirit of support, fellowship, and fun, members are expected to work together within their local chapters to memorize twelve traditional barbershop songs compiled in the book. According to the editors: When a member successfully sings his voice part to one of the Barberpole Cat songs, he should, in addition to having his individual record sheet updated, be applauded and have

20 his name placed on a chart, with credit for that song indicated. The chart should be displayed prominently, so that all members can observe everyones progress toward the goal of learning all 12 songs. A special chart for this purpose may be ordered from the Harmony Marketplace catalog (Stock no. 4001) (). Upon completion of the first six songs, the member can receive a Barberpole Cat certificate, when the member completes all 12 songs, he is eligible to receive a Barberpole Cat lapel pin (). Award certificates and pins should be presented with appropriate fanfare. (SPEBSQSA 1992, 2) Hundreds and thousands of men attend the organizations annual regional and national barbershop shows and contests. Each one walks into the crowd wearing a name badge identifying his local chapter and voice part. Having memorized a minimum of the same canonical twelve songs, strangers and old acquaintances alike are able to spontaneously assemble themselves into quartets and reproduce The Old Songs. Strategically supported by SPEBSQSAs semantic and structural resources, simple social systems can create instant vocal harmony inside hotel lobbies, bars, buses, airports, and restaurants, demonstrating the unity of barbershop. After the last chord is sounded, communication may take a completely different tack - a second song, handshakes, a joke, a beer - but always within society. The quartet becomes an interactional system when it clearly identifies four co-present members to the exclusion of all others.9 The selected participants contribute their bodies, marking the boundary of a simple social system. Fifth wheeling is the ultimate barbershop taboo and any listeners must respect the quartets sole authority to make noise. Between songs, quartet members use language to critique their own performance and make future oriented, collectively binding decisions about blend, volume, tempo, and accompanying gestures. Members of a quartet use language to coordinate themselves in time and space. They use gestures to convey messages about one anothers musical contributions, style of expression, and manner of delivery. As they sing along in practice, members may grimace or point at one another, indicating poor pitch, improper balance, or botched lyrics. When a song has ended, the members of the quartet return to society to select another song, repeat the same one again, criticize each other, replace a member,
9

We accept Luhmanns view of interaction as a social system based on the distinction between the presence and absence of members. In his words, Society and interaction are different kinds of social systems. Society guarantees the meaningfully self-referential closure of communicative events, thus the capacity to begin, end, and form connections of the communications in each interaction. In interaction systems the hydraulics of interpenetration is activated. The push and pull of presence works on those who are present to one another and induces them to subject their freedom to constraints. Therefore society is not possible without interaction, nor interaction without society; but the two types of system do not merge. Instead, they are indispensable for each other in their difference (Luhmann 1995, 416-17).

21 socialize, or break up. The following comment from a member of the Miners, a quartet that lasted nearly ten years, conveys that the boundary around the interaction group remains fragile: The Miners finally fell apart. I guess it was time. Hank and I tried several times to get Sam to keep the Miners going but Sam was through with Hank. Sam couldnt accept one more line of Hanks criticism, even when it was needed. Hank is singing in a new quartet from Boston, Slam Dunkers. They sound fair but not as good as the Miners. Sam and I are working with a new bass from our chorus and a baritone that is trying his hand at tenor. The change to tenor didnt work, so we are still in search of () well, you know the story. Im tired of trying to keep Sam singing, so Im thinking about trying to start another quartet. SPEBSQSA cannot sing barbershop, but it organizes communication about singing, guards an orthodox form against entropy, and helps singers find each other and form interaction groups that can gain viability as quartets. Individual members of the organization are also unable to sing barbershop by themselves, as human beings. Rather, they contribute their perceptual and artistic abilities, requisite variety, and inexplicable interest in reproducing a very restricted, highly cultured form of noise. An unaffiliated and unregistered quartet might also find its own way to produce the sound of barbershop, but its members could also not form a unity without participating in communication. SPEBSQSA reduces the improbability of barbershop, making it easier to keep the whole world singing. It generates communication devoted to sustaining the meaning of barbershop and recursively networks quartets, fans, music, events, and its own aesthetic and administrative decisions. With Luhmann, we may observe that A work of art without other works is as impossible as an isolated communication without further communications (2000, 53). SPEBSQSA is the organization that has taken charge of deciding which forms of art and communication belong to the form of barbershop. SPEBSQSA simplifies and routinizes the art so that it can be produced more easily by more singers. SPEBSQSA reduces the improbability of barbershop by structuring society as an organization; quartets structure singers; and singers structure the possibilities of sound. Each unity of communication takes its turn at selfreferentially suppressing and consuming the greater variety offered by its own environment. Trained and restricted by participation in SPEBSQSA, four men may stand together and sing, successfully ringing a chord and conjuring up the overtones that add the magic of expanded

22 sound distinctive to barbershop. A fifth voice without a singer floats into the field of perception, evidence of a social systems ability to create order from noise.

Discussion To observe music within noise, one must draw a distinction between redundancy and varietya cognitive operation that is imaginary and thoroughly dependent on the self-construction of meaning by the observer. By participating in communication, observers may learn to accommodate and assimilate their own callings and selections to the contingent standards of society. If the tenor sings out of tune, the other members of the quartet may rely on communication to make a difference in his sound: You are flat again, Bill! Pay attention to your pitch. Singing in tune is neither necessary nor impossible, and Bill can make all sorts of noise. Nonetheless, the theme of staying in tune is semantically supported by the musical program of barbershop. The quartet uses contingency communication (Fuchs 2004, 22) to socialize and restrict the freedom of its members. If a singer cannot control his own variety of noise, he will lose his social address as a member of the quartet. Examining barbershop singers, quartets, and SPEBSQSA, we come to an understanding of how the self-reference of psychological systems can be trained to organize sound waves into music. Too be observable as something more than noise, music must become a medium of communication. In other words, every form of music must represent a synthesis of information, utterance, and understanding. Only an adequately trained observer can inform himself that a certain noise is music: that what is heard now fits what was heard then. He does this by recognizing the tighter form of music within the looser medium of sound. One hears a symphony because one has heard different symphonies (and concertos), one hears a folk song because one has heard other folk songs (and Lieder); one hears a tango because one has heard previous tangos (and what they are not). Hearing forms of music requires the memory of musical precedents and the ability to recognize what is heard and what could have been heard. The meaning of music is planted in this difference between the actual and the potential. A barbershop quartet is expected to offer the improbable sound of barbershop music, not just any sound. The singers must study and practice the technical skills for producing and controlling vocal noise, emitting only noises that can be connected as barbershop. Barbershop informs the difference between music and noise. The cultured audience waits for the sounds that they expect to hear. They observe the difference between actual and possible sounds, anticipating limited

23 surprises that suggest creativity within the confines of an anticipated form. In this sense, barbershop binds singers to the conditions of its own form (Luhmann 1995: 124-5). When four men stand and sing, barbershop music either happens or it does not, nothing in between is permitted. After the last chord is rung, the quartet rests in silence, waiting for a sign of understanding from listeners; from SPEBSQSAs officially appointed judges, in particular. The successful reproduction of barbershops own special form of acoustic harmony depends on the establishment of a symbolically generalized medium within communication (Luhmann 2001). The four singers and the members of the audience must command the ability to recognize the secondary medium of barbershop music within the primary medium of sound. The singers and the listeners remain separated on the level of consciousness, but share openness to perceiving coded differences in sound. The symbolically generalized medium of barbershop supports connectivity between cultured forms of meaning and possible forms of sound, permitting observers to indicate and recursively reference much more than what they hear at any given moment. Communication turns what should not be expected to happen into something people can nearly take for granted. Music is able to connect performers and listeners because it is a form of communication. Musicians are conditioned by communication to imagine the form of music, an improbable appearance of unity in difference. A form is a distinction with two sides (Spencer Brown 1979; Heider 1959; Luhmann 1997, 45-47; 195-202). On one side of the form is noise, and on the other are all of the recognizable possibilities of sound socially organized as music. Music, because it is also noise, shows that reproducing the form of music always involves the reentry of noise into the other side of the form. This is also the case for language. As does language, the reproduction of music builds itself from its own historical productions. Its future is open, uncertain, and cannot be calculated from knowledge of its available, loosely coupled elements. Nonetheless, for cultured observers, such as barbershoppers, music may emerge from recognizable elements of sound, from tight couplings. In this sense, it shares the self-referential and autopoietic character of all social systems. The closure of the self-referential musical order is synonymous with the infinite openness of noise (See Luhmann 1995, 62). The willing participation of conditionally cultured listeners is required to self-referentially construct music out of one or more aural irritations. The imaginary unity of every composition is emergent and must be simulated in the course of its real-time performance: an original sense of unity cannot be assumed, in stark contrast to traditional theories mentioned at the beginning of this paper. Recognizing harmonic relationships and meaningful connections between different sounds requires an observer trained to expect and identify previously learned unities of sounds.

24 As Stephan Fuchs put it, every observation is a cultured observation (Fuchs 2002). Only cultured observers of music may self-referentially construct the meaning of pitch, intervals, rhythm, scales, modes, and performance styles. Cultured observers may also participate in spoken and written communication about music, discussing methods and techniques, written notational and solfege systems, and even the theoretical boundaries of music. Systems theory places music within the social system of art; a unity of communication that builds itself from its own elements. At the second-order of observation, systems theory wonders how first-order observers (musicians and listeners) limit themselves to reproducing the form of music. If they fail to restrict and organize the noises they make, the chaotic result will not be recognized as barbershop or any other form of music. If they imitate only what others have already contributed, they fail as artists. As artists, musicians creatively combine redundancy and variety, tradition and innovation; the familiar and the novel. Without sound, of course, music could not be perceived. The raw, unorganized complexity of sound is evident in the possibility of making and perceiving high or low pitches. Music also requires the raw complexity of time, which permits the possibility of making and perceiving sounds now or later, as simultaneous or successive events. Given the possibilities of time, one pitch can be delivered before, with, or after another--and the difference between temporal events may appear to reflect harmony and organization rather than happenstance. Music emerges from decisions about high or low pitches, delivered now or later. These decisions require alternatives and an openness to selectivity. When deciding which pitch to produce at which moment, one may seek support from cultural resources that program and establish meaningful possibilities of music. Musicality is not just the organization of sound in time, it is the reliance on music to reproduce music for observers who are prepared to re-construct a contingent form. Barbershop harmony is neither necessary nor impossible; nature does not constrain humans with an intersubjective, innate musical grammar that guarantees the power to ring a chord. To produce this specific kind of harmony, the individual members who sing in a quartet must share a minimum of reciprocal knowledge and conditioned expectations about the possibilities for organizing sound as a symbolically generalized medium. Barbershop is specifically coded noise. SPEBSQSAs formally trained judges are prepared to discern the special form of barbershop and limit its connectivity. The form of music processes distinctions between music and noise, harmony and dissonance, information and utterance. Some sounds fit our expectations, find their preferred connections, and take on temporary form as music; while others simply remain noise. The reciprocal expectations that help support understanding in music depend on the development of semantic resources that

25 are accessible to sociological observers. Instead of chasing after universal grammars, we might ask: what social resources do humans develop to help increase the likelihood that the autopoiesis of music will continue? Barbershoppers, as shown in this study, have developed plenty. References

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26 Luhmann, Niklas (2002): Theories of Distinction. Palo Alto: Stanford. Martin, Deac (1943): The Way I See It Harmonizer. 3:2 (December). Merrill, Charles M (1947): Presidents Column. Harmonizer. 7:2 (May). O.C. Cash. (1941): Founders Message No. 1 in SPEBSQSA Barber Shop Re-Chord-ings. http://www.spebsqsa.org/web/groups/public/documents/graphics/pub_occash.pdf. Randel, Don Michael (1978): Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music. Cambridge, MA: Harvard. SPEBSQSA (1992): The Barberpole Cat Program and Song Book. Kenosha, WI: SPEBSQSA, Inc. SPEBSQSA. (2001): You Are Now A Barbershopper. Kenosha, WI: SPEBSQSA, Inc. Spencer Brown, George (1979): Laws of Form. New York: Dutton. Stebbins, Robert A. (1996): The Barbershop Singer: Inside the Social World of a Musical Hobby. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Stevens, Dave. 1980. Woodshedding Folio. http://www.spebsqsa.org/web/groups/public/documents/native/id_047283.pdf.

27 Diagram 1 (page 14):