The history of close harmony singing

Close harmony singing is essentially a method that attempts to make the most creative music with the least amount of freedom. By definition, close harmony arranges its notes in a narrow range, usually within the confines of a single octave. Occasionally the rules are bent to accommodate a random bass notes for balance. However restrictive this technique may seem, many close harmony singers found a loophole: confining each individual to a separate octave to extend the composite past the original restrictive range.

While the idea of close harmony singing may sound foreign, many famous musicians utilized this method with extreme success. Imagine any time you have heard a barbershop quartet or another a cappella group. Most likely they were singing in close harmony. Some more mainstream examples include the Andrews Sisters, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Beach Boys. Even Bach incorporated close harmony methods into his renowned masterpieces.

For as restrictive as close harmony singing is, its history expands across cultures and nations. The first recorded incident of close harmony singing took place in New Zealand in 1773. During one of James Cook’s adventures, he witnessed the traditional ceremonies of the natives and took an instant liking to their close harmony method of singing during funerals, weddings, and any momentous occasion. Cook took a lesson from the islanders and brought back to Europe new inspiration. While established music was not abandoned, Cook did take it upon himself to alter many of his church’s hymns in the manner of close harmony singing.

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This isolated experience was simply a revelation for Cook. After his spirit for close harmony singing faded and with it the immersion of it into European culture, it again took a back seat for over a century. While it was still believed to be prevalent among slaves and the Western bar scene, it did not gain mass attention until the 20th century.

Close harmony singing did gain a small amount of popularity before the widespread effects could be felt across the nation. In 1924, the first Glee Club was established at the University of Florida. The uplifting spirit of this men’s group did not receive recognition of their own; instead, they performed during sporting events to pump up the athletes. It appears close harmony singing groups were the first cheerleaders.

The 1930s began the true emergence of close harmony singing into mainstream culture. Amateur singers attempting to make it big recorded their own close harmony a cappella for radio play time. This also spurred the revival of the Barbershop Quartet that demonstrates the epitome of close harmony singing. While barbershop quartets are no longer common occurrences in street life, they are an extremely identifiable piece of music culture and history.

The years after WWII brought a surge of soul and gospel groups that built on blues and big band. These two music genres at first glance appear to be at the opposite end of the spectrum as close harmony singing. Take a closer look at how the large groups work together. Each individual contributes their own strength, or from a close harmony perspective, their own octave.

Close harmony singing is still common in pop musicians today, but the effects are drastically reduced due to the synthesized music machines, multiple guitars, and flashy music videos. Despite the background noise that abides by no restrictions, the lead vocalist often does not stray from that octave known as close harmony singing.

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