By Camille van Niekerk
What is Harmony?
First, to understand how to sing harmony, we need to know what melody is! Melody is the principal part in harmonized music. It’s the lead line, the part we remember and sing along with. If I asked you to sing "Happy Birthday," you’d be singing that song’s melody.
Harmony occurs when more than one note is played simultaneously, creating chords and chord progressions. When we’re specifically talking about vocal music, harmony can be defined as any vocal part that is sung with the melody, but is different from the melody.
In general, harmony parts follow the shape of the melody. For example, if the melody goes up, the harmony part usually goes up. This isn’t always the case. A harmony part could stay on the same note for an extended time. Or it could do something completely different from the melody, in which case we might classify it as another kind of vocal part, like a descant. But for the most part, harmonies tend to mirror the movement within the melody (pitch going up, down, or staying the same).
How do I get started?
The best way to begin singing harmony is to learn the harmony parts that exist in your favorite songs. That means: instead of singing the melody with the lead singer, you’ll listen for the background vocal parts and sing along with one of them.
Listen for the harmony part on the chorus especially, and see if you can sing along with the backing vocalist. A few good ones to start with: “Africa” by Toto and “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Pretenders. You can also choose a duet and sing along with one of the singers, since they often switch off singing melody and harmony. Try “Señorita” (Shawn Mendes & Camila Cabello) or “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” (John Legend & Meghan Trainor).
Beginner tip: it’s easier to hear the distinction between two voices when they sound very different from each other. So choose songs that have a girl singing lead and guy singing harmony, or vice versa; that way, you’ll know that you’re either singing along with the guy or the girl.
How do I stay on my harmony part?
In the beginning, ignore the melody! You’ll eventually get used to singing harmony and staying on your part. But if you’re just starting out, you may find yourself defaulting to the melody, since it’s the part you know, and it’s louder in the mix of the song. Do your best to tune into the supporting vocalist and sing along with them!
How do I create my own harmonies?
You don’t need to read music or be an extremely advanced singer to create your own harmonies! Most singers start “hearing” and singing their own harmonies once they’ve been learning harmonies for a while. You intuitively begin to pick up on the song’s chord structure and sing a harmony part that both fits within the chords and follows the melody line.
Instruction in sight reading, ear training, and music theory will also help you create your own harmonies, as you learn about chord structure and progressions within popular music.
How do I know if I’m doing it right?
There’s no actual “right” and “wrong” in music, but there are some rules that, when followed, produce music that sounds most pleasing to our ears! The only two “rules” for harmony creation would be: don’t clash with melody, and don’t clash with the chords. There’s a musical term for “clashing” called dissonance and it is sometimes intentional! But in most contemporary and popular music, your harmony should sound like it fits. It’ll be pretty obvious if you sing a note that doesn’t fit with the melody and chords; but if you’re unsure, ask a more experienced singer or your voice teacher!
Which kinds of songs are easiest to harmonize with?
The simpler, the better! If you’re just starting out, look for live acoustic performances. That way, there will be no extra recorded vocals to worry about. Look for duets, and learn the supporting vocalist’s part, ignoring the lead.
Then when you’re ready, look up solo performances and practice creating your own harmony. If you play an instrument like guitar or piano, you can learn the chords to a song and slowly work out a harmony part using the pitches in the chords you play (that aren’t already being sung in the melody).
If you’re into a capella music and want a challenge, try singing along with just one of the singers in an a capella group (like the Pentatonix).
Good luck, and have fun harmonizing!