In a number of private, group, and full-band sessions lately, this question has come up: How do you sing harmonies?
First, let’s make sure we are on the same page with a couple of terms. I’m defining them in my own lay terms here, but click on the terms to go to their definition on Wikipedia if you wish.
is the most prominent succession of lead notes (vocal or instrumental) in a song. It’s what you sing when you sing along just about any song.
is a set of notes distinct from the melody, usually remaining either above or below the melody, sung or played to compliment the melody.
This is going to be a two-part article. The first part is about singing harmonies on the fly – i.e. without any advance planning for the song. The second part will talk about how to sing harmonies when you have time to plan them out.
Singing Harmonies on the Fly
People start out with very different natural abilities for picking out harmonies. Some people just seem like naturals at it. Still, even if you have a really hard time singing them, you CAN learn to sing harmonies on the fly.
But first, you have to develop some skills:
- singing and hearing intervals,
- singing one thing while hearing something different, and
- anticipating chord changes… or at least hearing when they’ve happened and responding quickly!
And while you develop these skills, at the end of this post I’ll give you a bit of a shortcut that will help you produce some acceptable harmonies over almost any chords.
Learning to Sing and Hear Intervals
Think about those voice exercises you may be doing. A lot of them probably use this melodic pattern:
In other words, you probably sing a lot of voice exercises on the root, third, fifth, and then root (octave) of a given scale – first going up, then going down. You are not singing every note of the diatonic or chromatic scale, you are skipping notes.
Since you’re skipping notes, you’re singing intervals. In this example, you would be singing a major third, then a minor third, and then a perfect fourth as you go up. Then reverse that coming back down.
This scale is useful for developing your ability to sing harmonies, because a lot of simple harmonies you might sing will fall either a third (major or minor) or a perfect fourth above or below the melody note! So using this pattern for voice exercises is a perfect model for the most common intervals you need to be able to hear and sing in order to make up harmonies on the fly.
Test your ability to find a harmony note by:
- Playing a note, such as C, and then singing a major third above it (E).
- Playing that third note of the scale (E), and singing a minor third above it (G).
- Playing that fifth note of the scale (G), and singing a perfect fourth above it (C).
Then change to another key and test yourself there. How long does it take your ear to adjust?
Next, test your ability to find a harmony note by:
- Playing a note, such as C, and then singing a MAJOR third above it (E).
- Playing that same note (C), and then singing a MINOR third above it (Eb).
- Playing that same note (C), and then singing a perfect FOURTH above it (F).
And finally, test your ability to find a harmony note by singing the entire scale, starting and finishing two notes higher than the root while you play the scale starting at the root. For example, play C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C while you sing E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E at the same time. (Thanks to Lee Gattenby of Lee Gattenby Music
in Alaska for this idea.)
Learn to sing one thing while listening to another
The next critical piece of singing harmonies is to separate the vocals you HEAR from the vocals you PRODUCE. If you tend to get drawn right to the melody line, unable to maintain a separate harmony line, you need to work on this. While working on the above exercises, you are already developing this ability. But here are some additional ways to do so:
- Sing along to existing harmonies on song recordings.
- Sing along to song recordings, and make up harmonies – while still listening to the melody.
- Sing a song in a round with someone. Look them directly in the face and see if you can maintain the right place in the song!
- Record your own voice singing a simple melody such as “Amazing Grace.” Then sing harmonies over it.
Note that the skill is not to sing one thing and tune out whatever else you hear. It is to sing one thing while actively listening to another. (This is the kind of skill that helped me in Girls on Top! when one of us would make a mistake and land on the others’ harmony. We would listen in the moment to what each other was singing, and quickly make adjustments to separate ourselves back into distinct parts.)
Learn to anticipate chord changes
As the chords in a song change, the notes that sound good sung over those chords also change. An Eb may sound fine over a C minor chord, but it doesn’t sound so good over an E chord. You need to be able to anticipate how the note you’re currently singing is going to work over the chord that’s about to be played.
The easiest way to work on this is simply to jump in and do it. Buy or make some backing tracks, and just start singing over them, paying attention to the chordal movement and seeing if you can anticipate whether the note you’re holding will work with the upcoming chord.
Where to get backing tracks?
Check out Jamstudio.com
for a very cool place to make your own basic backing tracks online – quick, easy, multiple instruments, varied styles. Or, various singing programs such as Brett Manning’s flagship product, Singing Success
, include some backing tracks in various style. Or record your own, or ask a musician friend to record some for you. Or buy some instrumental jazz and improvise over it. It doesn’t have to be complicated scatting – just try to anticipate whether whatever you’re singing over one chord is going to work with the next chord in the progression.
Once you have developed these three skills, singing harmonies on the fly will be MUCH easier. But until then, here’s that quick tip I promised you:
Quick tip: Move only when you have to!
In a nutshell:
- Find a harmony note above or below the melody.
- As the chords change under you, stay on that note as long as it continues to work and as long as you’re out of the way of the melody.
- When the note no longer works, slide up or down a half or whole step until you find a new note that does.
You’re never more than a half or whole step away from some note that works over whatever chord is being played!
Next week: singing planned harmonies!
(c) 2010 Adrienne Osborn
Adrienne Osborn is a vocalist and performance coach based in Colorado. For more free articles and tips, visit https://PerformanceHigh.net.