By Deanne Ledebuhr
Harmony is an important part of all genres of music. You’ll most often hear harmonies on the refrain or chorus part of the song. This is sometimes called the “sing-along” part of a song. While the verses create a narrative, the chorus invites other voices to join in. There are a few guidelines and exercises that can help you become familiar with singing harmony.
Practice with a Partner
Before the invention of music production, harmonies were sung by more than one person. From the earliest days of campfire singing to barbershop quartets, layering voices has always been a core part of the music. We are so used to hearing harmonies that unless you listen for them, you might not even notice them.
A great way to learn to sing harmony is to practice with a singing partner. It will help to have a piano or another instrument to accompany you. Lower voices sometimes create bassline harmonies. Higher voices add the upper notes of harmonic accompaniment.
Start by finding the melody line on the piano and play the harmony line as a mirror, one-third step up. The third chord, major or minor, is the most-commonly used harmony. While practicing, use the piano to first find the melody and harmony, then assign the parts.
Practice with your Instrument
You can incorporate harmony exercises into your daily music practice with your instrument. It may help to find the melodies on the instrument first and then to sing along with them. You can repeat the harmony line with the instrument several times. Then, let the instrument carry the melody and sing your harmony line. This will help you understand what is being played.
Choosing Notes for Harmonies
A simple guide to choosing the notes for harmony is to play notes in the chord that are not already taken by the melody. For example, if the note in the melody is C, you can choose any other note in that chord to find a harmony note. There are many other ways to choose harmony notes that will give different “feelings” depending on the interval.
Since harmony means two notes played together, dissonance can be harmony, too. With an instrument, play two notes together, and gradually move one of them up the scale. Listen to the kind of sound and feeling that each combination of notes creates.
It’s important to pay attention when you are singing harmony. Listening is very crucial, to stay actively engaged and ready to sing your harmony. Timing your breath and matching the timing of the onsets and offsets of the melody is important. That is, starting and stopping exactly in time with the melody.
Whether your harmony is part of a duet or as a backup singer, it’s important to know the song well. If you’d like to gain confidence, take the time to learn both parts of the song. Blending your phrasing with the melody voice is a good practice. If you are singing a higher harmony, in general sing with your head voice rather than “belt” out the notes. Generally, the harmony supports the melody and should blend but not overpower it.
Timing is again very important in lyrical harmony. Even a simple one-note harmony requires good timing to match with the melody. Vocal blending that includes timing, dynamics, volume, tone, pronunciation, and rhythm is crucial to good harmony.
Example of Harmony
The song “Cuatro Vientos” by Danit is a folk-style song in Spanish that is a great example of how harmony can create interest. This song features vocal harmony and repetition with a guitar, strings, and percussion. Harmony occurs during the verses and refrains of the song.
There is a higher-pitched female harmony throughout most of the song. Two-thirds of the way through the song, a male voice sings a percussive bass line harmony. There are times during the song that the harmony vocal becomes a call-and-response. The lead melodic vocal sings dynamically louder among the many harmonic voices during the final crescendo of the song.
Once you are comfortable with singing harmonies, it opens up many new musical possibilities.
You’ll be able to add harmonies to your recordings which makes them sound more professional. Keep listening to music with great examples of harmony from The Everly Brothers to Lana del Rey, and keep practicing!