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The power of harmony...
Human voices can resonate and magnify each other like violins can. Singing harmony can be incredibly fulfilling as it emanates from you in the middle of a rich multi-layered, co-created sound and connects you to the people you're singing with.
If you are or are seeking to become a professional vocalist, being able to find and sing harmony can add a significant revenue stream to your career. Here are some instances...
- When your lead career is on pause or not happening at the moment, you can get employment singing backgrounds for someone else's live show or studio project.
- There can be significant networking and career-building possibilities if you can sing harmony with another artist, say on a TV show, a co-tour or a writer's round.
- Musicians who don't normally sing can learn to do so pretty quickly. I have taught touring players who never considered themselves singers to sing harmony confidently in live shows and in the studio.
How to pick a part...
Harmonizing is a bit tricky because there's more than one choice of notes you can make that work with the same melody. For instance:
- 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.
- If the melody goes all over the place, you could cross voice in harmony without going too high or low.
- Or as a group you could create block harmony, inverting chords to move as little as you can while letting the melody do as it wishes.
- And of course when you create more than one part (three or four (or more) -part harmony), you have to take into consideration how each harmony note works with the other.
- Blues uses lots of flat 7ths, bluegrass does NOT.
- Jazz incorporates major 7ths, 4 sharps, diminished and augmented chords, etc and these more complicated chords are taken into account in harmonies.
- Western music is instantly recognizable with 4 part barbershop-like tight harmonies, often using 2s and 9s in note choices.
- For rock music, sometimes your harmony choice can be so 'wrong', disregarding the underlying chords and chord progressions 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 that uses one harmony part. Bluegrass commonly fills choruses with full simple triads, strong progressions and sometimes momentary suspended notes leading into the next chord, mostly sung straight tone. Check out Alison Krauss and Union Station performing 'Down To The River To Pray':
- 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 or more parts, but are so masterfully arranged they sound like a sonic tapestry with no seams.
- Harmony choices can indicate generational eras. These days 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!
How to train for harmony singing...
You can see why creating good background vocal arrangements (harmony), takes experience. Most professional singers who do a lot of studio session 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 might not have occurred to them otherwise. That doesn't mean you can't learn to sing parts without this history; I've successfully trained many singers to do so. Here is my harmony training strategy:
- First I create a cool harmony the singer or group 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.
- Then I have the singer(s) practice. I use a plastic gadget called 'HearFones' to help singers zone into their own parts instead of being pulled into the melody or another part. It works great with groups of any number. After having the singer practice the harmony line a few times, I have them sing with the melody or other parts. If using them, I take the HearFones away and have them practice 'holding their own'.
- And lastly, I have the singer work on controlling the volume of their voice while singing the harmony part. If the harmony is too loud, it will overtake the melody. If too soft, it will not create the sonic envelope that compliments the melody. Getting the volume just right is as much of an art as finding the right note!
What I find is that with time and experience memorizing harmony, singers start being able to create their own harmony lines. Sometimes they use their favorite harmony strategy to create their unique artistic definition. The country duo 'the Judds' comes to mind, where Naomi typically sang a haunting bluegrass-style part or two to Wynonna's lead melody. You'll hear that she didn't always trace the melody in parallel fashion in their early hit 'Grandpa'. When Wynonna went solo, her first single was "She Is His Only Need". I sang backgrounds with the writer Dave Loggins as Wynonna doubled her own melody to create three part harmony including the male voice. It was, on purpose, a different sound.
Some examples of great harmony...
The Washington Performing Arts choir illustrates the power, complexity and resonance of Black Gospel:
And let me finish with the vocal group pictured in this post's header that I've been thrilled to work with (thank you, Diane Kimbrough, for putting us together!) The Hall Sisters really do sing this precisely - even live with no electronic tuning!
Harmony is everywhere, weaving through the melodies creating the music of the spheres. Oh, I know I've left out some other incredible examples, so please... feel free to add a link to your own favorite harmony performances in the comments!
As always, I'm here if you need some help... just write me at my contact link.