The Role of Vernacular Music Theory in the American Barbershop Community


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships




This project examines how American vernacular music institutions instrumentalize music theory to influence and uphold discriminatory sociopolitical values within their communities. The primary case study is the Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS), an organization founded in 1938 with the explicit goal of preserving the barbershop style. This style, however, has historically been intertwined with a culture of white heteropatriarchy that sought to portray segregation (masked as the more palatable “preservation”) as a moral obligation. This resulted in racial segregation within the Society until 1963 and gender segregation until 2018. This project spans from the BHS’s founding to their contemporary diversity initiative, “Everyone in Harmony” (2017–). Drawing upon archival research, music analysis, theoretical frameworks from critical race and gender studies, and ethnographic interviews, this project argues that the BHS used music theory to delimit the musical aesthetics of the barbershop style, in order to achieve deep-rooted goals of musical and demographic “purity.”