The history of
close harmony singing
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
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
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