Learning how to harmonize when singing can seem intimidating at first. However, with some music theory basics under your belt and consistent practice, harmonizing can become second nature. Read on for a comprehensive guide to mastering vocal harmony, from understanding basic chord structures to practising with other singers.
What Is Vocal Harmony?
Vocal harmony is when two or more vocal parts sing complementary notes to the main melody. The melody is called the lead vocal, while the supporting vocals create harmonies by singing other notes in the chord.
Singers can harmonize in thirds, singing notes that are the interval of a third above or below the lead. Common examples are singing in third intervals to harmonize with the melody. Harmonies can also be sung in sixths, perfect fourths or fifths, octaves, or even dissonant tones outside the key.
The effect of vocal harmonies is to support and enhance the lead vocal line. Well-executed harmonies can make a performance incredibly powerful and emotive. Mastering the skill takes some music theory knowledge and practice, but the payoff of wrapping your voice in rich, resonant chords is well worth it.
The Basics of Harmony Singing
To start harmonizing, you first need to understand some basic music concepts:
- Chords – Harmonies are built by singing notes from chords. Chords are constructed by stacking notes in thirds on top of a root note. Major and minor chords are the most common chords used in harmonizing.
- Intervals – The distance between notes is called an interval. Harmonizing relies heavily on singing in intervals like thirds, fifths, and octaves from the melody. Understanding intervals is key for finding the notes to harmonize with.
- Keys and Scales – Songs are based on keys and scales, which indicate the collection of notes that harmonies can be built from. Knowing the key helps you identify chords and intervals to harmonize with.
With some basic music theory under your belt, you can start applying it to find vocal harmonies. interval identification, chord construction, and understanding keys and scales will give you a framework for learning how to harmonize.
Why Add Vocal Harmony?
Harmonizing has many powerful impacts on music:
- Makes songs fuller and more interesting to listen to
- Adds emotional resonance
- Makes melodies stand out more
- Makes vocals sound richer and more professional
- Makes chord progressions clearer
- Can create cool modern or vintage sounds
Layering vocals on top of lead vocal lines tap into the innate power of harmony to make music more affecting, complex, and beautiful.
How to Harmonize
Here are techniques for getting started with vocal harmony and progressing from basic to more advanced harmonizing.
Learning How Harmonies Work
When first starting, focus on nailing simple harmonies before attempting more complex chords.
Sing a C major triad to get a feel for intervals
Try having one person sing middle C. Have another person sing the E above middle C, and another sing the G above that E. This forms a basic C major chord. The interval between C and E is called a “third” while between E and G is another third.
Listening closely to the sound between the 3 notes in a simple triad chord is a great way to train your ears to recognize harmonic intervals.
Practice finding a root note’s major third
Have one person sustain a note like A. Then have another person try to find the note that’s a major third above the root A. For A, that would be C#. Getting comfortable singing major third intervals specifically helps form the foundation for more advanced harmonies.
Move onto minor intervals after getting a feel for major chords
Minor third intervals create minor chords instead of major chords. Have one person sing a note like D and another find the minor third (F). Distinguishing between minor and major third intervals will help in finding the right notes when harmonizing.
Try holding and moving the harmony note as the melody note changes
Have someone sing a simple 2-3 note melody like C-D-E. As they change notes, you change your harmony note while trying to maintain the proper interval. This helps train your ear and voice to stay in harmony as melodies progress.
Getting a feel for singing simultaneous notes, finding basic intervals above melodies, and moving your harmony part alongside melodies are critical early harmonizing skills to practice.
Practicing on Your Own
You can become a skilled harmonizer even without other singers to practice with. Useful exercises include:
Continue practising with a piano
A piano lets you first find intervals and harmony notes theoretically before singing them. Play a note like A2, then the A3 above it to hear the octave. Then play A2 again and play C3 to hear the major third. Use this to train your ear and voice.
Listen closely for harmonies in your favourite songs
Actively listening for harmonic elements in songs trains your ear over time. Notice when harmonies happen, what intervals they use, and how they interact with the lead vocal. Reverse engineering professional harmonies are a fantastic practice.
Practice with a sing-a-long harmony app
Apps, like Sing Harmony and others, provide karaoke-style tracks for practising harmonies. They’ll analyze your singing and score how accurate your harmonizing is. Great for solo singers!
Harmonize with recordings of yourself singing melodies
Record yourself singing a melody, then play it back and try to harmonize with your vocals. This tests your ability to apply harmony theory on the spot. Doing multiple takes builds consistency too.
Practicing harmonizing on your own takes some creativity, but is very doable. Use the help of technology, carefully listen to songs, and keep trying to apply your music theory knowledge through regular practice.
Harmonizing with Other Singers
Practicing harmony with other vocalists introduces new challenges – but the collaboration can lead to amazing results too!
Practice singing chords with 1 to 2 partners
Start by grabbing just a couple of other singers to harmonize simple chords with. Get used to blending and tuning your voices together on triads, seventh chords, and two-part harmonies. A capella groups swear by extensive trio practice.
Learn your part perfectly to avoid getting distracted by other singers
In larger groups, nail your vocal line first before harmonizing, otherwise hearing other parts can throw you off. If not confident improvising harmonies, write out parts initially.
Join a choir to put your harmonizing skills to the test
Choral groups teach harmonizing in the context of larger arrangements. The blend of many voices provides great harmonic foundations. Take the theory you’ve learned and apply it to sight reading choral arrangements.
Take lessons from a voice teacher
An experienced teacher helps diagnose problem areas and gives personalized exercises for harmonic ear training. Especially helpful if struggling to hear/produce certain intervals or chord qualities well.
Be patient in learning to harmonize with others – blending multiple voices can take time. But the joy of creating intricate harmonies together makes the effort worthwhile.
Harmonizing, at its core, relies on using intervals and chords identified through music theory knowledge. Start simple, focusing on easy intervals over basic triad chords. Slowly build up your harmonic vocabulary.
With regular ear training exercises, recordings for practice, piano assistance, and performance experience, your harmonizing can progress quickly. Blend your voice with partners to add fantastic layers. Infuse your music with rich harmonies!
The basics are easy to grasp but take consistency in practicing both solo and eventually in a vocal group. Learn music theory fundamentals. Apply them through practical exercises. And over time you’ll unlock the magical alchemy of vocal harmony!