Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Creating and Singing Harmony

Claire and Merideth of Flyte Three with me... 
working out their great harmonies

Many singers want to know about how to sing harmony. I got another question about it this week, and thought I'd share my answer with you, my dear blog readers.

Harmonizing is a bit tricky because there are many ways to harmonize the same phrase. You can simply sing an exact parallel distance above or below the melody (say thirds, fifths or sixths) or you can sing different intervals to different notes. Or you can do like Emmylou Harris and create a contrasting melody to be the harmony part. And of course you can create more than one part for three or four (or more) -part harmony. 

You also have to take into account the musical genre in which you're singing. There are certain harmony choices that sound more true to specific genres; you must immerse yourself in that music and study it to chose parts wisely. For instance, blues uses lots of flat 7ths, bluegrass does NOT. Jazz incorporates major 7ths, 4 sharps, etc in chord choices and these are taken into account in harmonies. Western is instantly recognizable with 4 part barbershop-like tight harmonies, even using 2s and 9s in chords. For rock music, sometimes your harmony choice can be so wrong, disregarding the underlying chord changes in the track, that it's just right! Celtic music prefers 5ths and I really like to leave 3rd's out for some traditional mountain-country music and old hymns. As to multiple parts, there are some brilliantly complex arrangements in many pop as well as black gospel music that frequently change from unison to 4 parts but are so masterfully arranged they sound like a sonic tapestry with no seams. And nowadays there are a whole lot less oohs and aahs in background vocals than there used to be, so if you use them you need to take care that it doesn't make the song sound 'dated'... unless you're going for retro. And then there's the fact that for every rule created for harmony, there is usually a hit song that broke that rule. Whew!

That's why creating good background vocal arrangements (harmony), takes experience. Most pro singers who do a lot of session (recording) work or live background vocals have been harmonizing since they were children. Many times they have also worked for veteran producers who ask for certain harmony, and thus learn various strategies for arrangements. That doesn't mean you can't learn to sing parts; I've successfully trained many singers to do so. What I do for artists wanting to sing their own live or recorded parts is to first create a cool harmony the singer likes that fits the genre of the song. Then I sing and/or play it on piano and record it so the singer can practice and memorize it. If it's a group I'm dealing with, I'll do this for each part so the singers can individually learn their harmony before putting it all together. 

What I find is that with time and experience memorizing harmony, singers start being able to create their own harmony lines.

The gadget called 'Hearfones' can help, especially with groups. You can really zone into your own part while singing together and gradually take the hearfones away.  

How about you? Have you found other ways to successfully sing harmony? God help us all if we ever stop learning:)

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  • At November 21, 2013 at 8:27 PM , Blogger Sara Campbell said...

    Very nice. I especially enjoy how you highlighted the intervallic tendencies in various genres. This could make a really handy chart for musicians to keep in the studio! (Or in their back pocket!)

  • At November 22, 2013 at 2:06 PM , Anonymous Leigh Ann said...

    I love harmonies. It's interesting to hear about how different genres even have different styles. I wish more popular music on the radio had great harmony.

  • At November 22, 2013 at 2:09 PM , Anonymous Pete Mickelson said...

    Really nice job, Judy! My buddy Ray has been playing with harmony since he was seven years old, and was singing barbershop in the Marines on their way to Iwo Jima in 1945. When we first met (1996), our talking about harmony, and the influence of uncontrolled vowel sounds and their overtone partials (did you say "oohs and aahs?") mismatching between two people -- even on the same pitch without harmonizing -- is what led Ray to invent HearFones in the first place . . . so a singer can actually hear their own vice and how it sounds while they work on honing it to fit in context.


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