Mysteries of Barbershop

Barbershop quartet music, like ragtime, is a great source of common-tone diminished seventh chords, when it’s time to teach those. It’s also full of parallel tritones in chromatic descent implying root motion around the circle of fifths. It actually has a lot in common with postminimalism: a use of voice-leading so consistently circumscribed that it tends to generate the same consonant (but not always functionally-related) sonorities over and over again. But the style contains one common chord I haven’t seen in any other context: a dominant seventh built on the leading tone, nominally a V7/iii but never resolved as such – rather, a chromatic neighbor-note chord to the tonic triad, given here at the two X’s:


Does anyone have a name for this chord? It often appears between two tonic triads, and the use of the seventh (G, here) helps avoid parallel octaves that might otherwise occur between two B-flats and two A’s. It’s almost identical to a common-tone diminished seventh and serves the same function, only the common tone is done away with, which drops down to the leading tone. The entire assemblage also occurs a perfect fourth higher – i.e., as a D dominant 7th making a neighboring chord to E-flat. Anyone have a name or term for these dominant sevenths used as chromatic neighbors? Anyone ever see them in any other context besides barbershop quartet music?

UPDATE: Allow me to emphasize, since it keeps coming up in the comments, that the entire song is in B-flat major, with no other key ever noticeably implied, and that the chord in question occurs in several varied contexts: quick, drawn-out, passing, neighbor, and so on.


  1. says

    As the dominant 7th first appears – in 2nd inversion following IV – it could very well be a passing chord to I6, which could also be heard as VI6/iii. Couldn’t the actual progression via the root position dominant 7th to I be extrapolated from that?
    KG replies: Yes, in this context it’s a passing chord, but not always. It is intriguing how the first three chords spell a N – V7 – VI in D minor, with a deceptive cadence, though there’s no other hint of D minor in the song. The dominants on 3 and 7 are often passing chords or neighbor chords, but it’s always clear – as with the difficult-to-sing E-natural to A in the bass here, which kind of messes up the passing-tone thesis – that the arranger simply considers them part of his available harmonic vocabulary. “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” dates, by the way, from 1919, though that’s not to prove that these chords do.

  2. Anthony Creamer says

    Imagine what it would be like if Kyle and Paul used their analytical skills for financial arbitrage ! I for one would open an account with them.

  3. Richard Voorhaar says

    Boy, maybe I have a weird ear, but I do hear this as a deceptive cadence. V7 of iii to VI of iii, though iii dosen’t occur, the next chord implies that it does, as it is V7 of ii. So if there had not been the deceptive cadence-V7 of iii to VI of iii, the progression could have been V7 of iii to iii to V7 of ii

  4. says

    What’s interesting is that it’s exactly the way Neapolitan and Augmented 6ths went from being voice leading chords to being “part of the available harmonic vocabulary” and in the process begat their root position versions.

  5. says

    Hmmm. I’m trying to figure out what it means to consistenly circumscribe a use of voice leading. I suppose it’s actually the voice-leading that is “circumscribed” (i.e. there’s a limited variety of voice-leading?), but a little clarification/elaboration would be helpful, especially for those of us curious about but unschooled in the hallmark harmonic motions of post-minimalism.
    KG replies: No, that’s exactly right. A lot of postminimalist music is written within systems that allow only a very limited variety of voice-leading possibilities, or a limited number of sonorities, or a limited range for each voice, and so on. I’ll be beginning a series on postminimalism soon to accompany my series on metametrics.

  6. Noah Creshevsky says

    Even after a series of non-functional harmonies, a dominant seventh chord followed by a major or minor chord with a root a fifth below will be perceived as V-I. It takes only two chords to create a simple functional relationship. Try this with root position Major triads (space them C-G-C-E and transpose them up with that spacing): C major — E major — G major– B flat major- D major- F major – A flat major- B7 (B-F#-A-D#) – E (E-E-G#-E). That’s perceived (by musicians and non-musicians) as a series of non-functional major chords (“false” relations or “cross” relations), followed by a V7- I cadence in E.
    The point is that A7 followed by B flat Major is perceived as a deceptive something or other. It’s not a cadence, but a progression, and it’s “deceptive.” It’s V7/VI as a function of an omitted and nearly irrelevant iii chord.

  7. says

    In jazz harmony, that’s just another flavor of deceptive cadence (when it’s coming from a semitone below). When it’s coming from a semitone above, it’s a tritone sub.

    My favorite use of this type of chord movement is at the end of the bridge to “The Song Is You.” The tune is in C major but the bridge is in E major. The bridge ends in a B7 (V7) that modulates back to C by resolving chromatically upward to the original tonic (CMA7), with the B melody note used as a common tone between the two chords.

    KG replies: Now we’re talking. I’d wondered if it was some kind of tritone sub for the subdominant, a sort of Neapolitan in reverse.

  8. Richard Voorhaar says

    Hey, I go with “secondary dominant 7th” (maybe I’m wimping out”), but if you like. let’s call it the “Voorhaar” 7th. Has anyone noticed that the relationship between the IV and the V7 of iii is a “Neapolitan” one? If the IV was in 1st invesion you’d have a garden variety N6-V7 ending in a deceptive cadence.What might be as interesting, might be the use of IV as a secondary Neopolitan in Root position.

  9. Richard Voorhaar says

    Though you didn’t show an example, you mentioned the progession VII7-I. You hear this sort of movement in slide guitar with open tuning (I think that’s the guitar term). If the VII-I progession is in parallel motion, it reminds me of the double leading-tone cadence of the Ars Nova. This leads me to think that the chord could be called a triple leading-tone 7th.
    KG replies: Is A-C#-E-G to Bb-D-F (chords 2 + 3 in the example) not the progression you mean?

  10. Richard Voorhaar says

    Sorry, Kyle, your right, my brain wasn’t working! This progression reminds me of “Richard Strauss” cadence of an augmented V to one ie. G-B-D# to C-C-E

  11. says

    KG replies: Now we’re talking. I’d wondered if it was some kind of tritone sub for the subdominant.

    Yes, that’s exactly the way jazz musicians think of it. Of course, in practice IV7 and VII7 aren’t quite as freely interchangeable as V7 and bII7, but the idea is the same.

    It probably wouldn’t be too hard to find examples of a 12-bar blues in Bb where the rhythm section plays A7 in the fifth measure of the form. I can’t think of any recordings off the top of my head, but it’s a device I’ve heard (and used) on the bandstand countless times.

  12. says

    UPDATE: Allow me to emphasize, since it keeps coming up in the comments, that the entire song is in B-flat major, with no other key ever noticeably implied, and that the chord in question occurs in several varied contexts: quick, drawn-out, passing, neighbor, and so on.

    I think another point worth emphasizing is that in Tin Pan Alley(/jazz) harmony, any valid harmonic device is pretty much considered “just part of the available harmonic vocabulary” and can be used freely in just about any context. The arranger was most likely not thinking “well, this A7-to-Bb resolution might be okay as a quick passing chord, but I’d hesitate to use it as a neighbor” or whatnot — he’s thinking, “this deceptive-type resolution is a standard part of my kit bag, and I’ll use it whenever and wherever I need that kind of motion.”

    A somewhat related example of this looseness is “All The Things You Are,” which has the V7 chord in the “wrong” spot — i.e., m.3 of the first four-measure half-phrase. In this style, in this type of half-phrase, the dominant chord normally goes in m.4. Jerome Kern took the stock I – vi7 – ii7 – V7 – I progression and shifted it all left by a measure, lopping off the I chord and starting cold on the vi7 chord. But it’s still a valid progression and can therefore be plugged in wherever the composer needs to plug it in, even if it reverses the usual harmonic phrasing.

    (Of course, this is only first of a series of cunning harmonic tricks Kern deploys in this tune.)

  13. Russell Platt says

    Chords like these must be in Wagner, somehow. That’s where the French got them, from whence they were disseminated with liberty, equality, and fraternity to all corners of the musical globe. But their natural appearance among barbershoppers is just good ol’ American ingenuity, like those affectingly weird, “wrong” harmonies thought up by unlettered New England cobblers and carters in 18th century hymnody. Please teach all of these, side by side.

  14. says

    Though barbershop theory can be analyzed similarly to common practice, it takes some liberties with notation and rules, creating a blend of common practice and popular notation.
    First of all, chords that normally function as secondary dominants are simply noted with the Roman numeral and the dominant “7”th notation. In other words, I assure you that the chord in question is simply noted as “VII7” within the scope of barbershop.
    The motivating reason is that “barbershop seventh” chords need not tonicize the chord a fourth away (though preferable). Within the rules, it is also acceptable to move to other chords, specifically those a third away and a minor-second away.
    In other words, this VII7 serves as a neighboring chord between two I chords. Deceptive or not, for an art fundamentally based on “ear singing” it’s perfectly acceptable.
    KG replies: Of course it’s acceptable, I just wondered if they had a term for it.

  15. says

    The A7 is the secondary dominant in G minor. Tin Pan Alley writers used to use tonicization all the time and mix modality. It was common to write and harmonize in parallel minor/Major or relative minor/Major. They really used minor third stacks which we call diminished in many ingenious ways. I am taking the Schillinger System class on line, which meets on Thursday Nights at 7:30pm at The Society has a web page and a facebook page as well.
    The term for VII to I is V/V to III in G Minor.