Introduction to Singing Harmony
Singing the 'lead' part seems to come very naturally to most singers. This is because you really don't need to fully understand note relationships and music, all you want to sing is the 'lead' part, you need to know (and sometimes feel) where the music is headed, but it is pretty easy to pick put what you should be singing when its just one voice to deal with. This all changes when you want to do a 2, 3 or 4 part harmony. When you start harmonizing with voices, it all has to be mapped out beforehand and all members need to be able to anticipate where and when they should be singing their parts.
Having multiple people all sing the same part may sometimes work, but, depending on the music, it often just sounds pretty much like a single singer double tracking their voice. Somethings favor expanding the sounds of the vocalist. This is much the same thing as the difference between playing single notes on a guitar or piano versus playing a chord. Understanding how chords are formed (and the Major/Minor note relationships) is how you need to approach vocal harmonies. You can learn this without extensive musical training, however you will benefit greatly by understanding what you are doing.
NOTE: The focus in this article is for singers using a PA system (or working in a recording studio)
with Microphones for the vocalizations. It is not directly aimed for those who are singing without
amplification. The same general rules apply, however, solving some problems
will not be the same. Suggestions provided for dealing with PA related issues will involve
recommendations that are meaningful only with proper use of Microphones and some electronic
This is a very complex topic area and I may not address your needs very well. You will want to discuss
other options with people who focus on your specific area of need or are vocal instructors.
This is a very complex topic area and I may not address your needs very well. You will want to discuss other options with people who focus on your specific area of need or are vocal instructors.
Harmony singers are singing in tune together as a single instrument, creating chords. Done well, it sounds as if its one voice. The challenge for many people is to hear the separate voices when listening to existing recordings or hearing live performances. Once you can pick out the 'lead' parts versus the 'harmony' parts, it becomes easier to emulate them. Make up a tape, CD or MP3 mix that you can sing along with while you are by yourself - once you can pick out the parts, try to sing those parts - they often sound quite odd without the 'lead' vocal part.
2 part harmony is a great start point to work from - this limits you to 2 voices to decipher; the 'lead' vocalist and one other 'harmony' voice. The 'lead' vocal often follows the melody line, and is usually very easy to hear. The 'harmony' vocal usually does not sing the same notes as the lead vocalist - this is where chord theory comes in - the notes that the 'harmony' singer uses are notes that complement the 'lead' vocalist by forming a chord (just like a guitar or piano would do).
Some people may need some help to work these out - there are music teachers in schools and local colleges that can provide general help, or you may want to seek out a vocal instructor to assist you. Be aware that your goals may not always fit in with peoples experiences in this area; learn what you can from them and apply it to your needs.
One big difference between the 'lead' and 'harmony' part is that the 'harmony' part may need a bigger vocal range. You need to know what your vocal range limitations are in order to define what you are going to sing. If you can't hit certain notes, you may have to either change the key of the song, swap some notes by an octave, or swap notes with the 'lead' vocalist for that part. Your vocal range limitations may impact your ability to sing along with pre-recorded music.
If you have vibrato in your voice, this can cause all manner of Harmony problems with other singers - you'll need the ability to back off (eliminate) as much vibrato as possible.
You'll also find certain parts where the person singing the 'lead' part will be far too loud and the person singing the 'harmony' part is very quiet (a compressor can help), and you'll need to address that, otherwise there is not much of anything to blend. When this situation occurs, you may find it in a single passage (with only one note causing the problem), or it may occur in many places. If it only occurs once, either the 'lead' vocalist or the 'harmony' vocalist needs to know why its too loud or too quiet. The ability to work a microphone (moving closer or further away as you anticipate your volume level) can make a big difference - this is a learned skill and takes a lot of practice and self control. Alternately shifting the problem note up or down an octave may also address the issue. If the whole passage is causing problems, using a different chord note might be in order, or possibly shifting the key up or down to match the vocalists ability is in order. If you are recording this, it is possible to downshift the vocals by as much as 5% for the recording and then bring it back up for the final mix - To some people, this is considered cheating, but you hear the results of this all the time in popular recordings.
The key here is to blend and never overpower your singing partners. It sometimes falls into place easily, or may require many hours of working out how to deal with subtle vowel sounds. Your style will be normalized in a way that it does not compete with the other vocalists, this may be very hard for the vocalists to deal with (some demand that its other persons task to 'follow' them - this is not always possible). A good exercise is to take a chord (a major triad - root/third/fifth) and practice single words - each singer holding their notes for 2 to 4 counts - matching the vowels up.
NOTE: Having a guitar, piano or an electronic keyboard handy to help people find notes and can solve a lot of confusion that can arise. Being able to select notes at different octaves may allow you to better choose your parts.
Singing is about melody and rhythm. Different songs have different rhythmic styles. Examples are Jazz (sometimes using 5/4 and other uncommon time signatures), Swing, Hip-Hop, Funk, Shuffle, Waltz (3/4 time), Slow and Fast Rock. You need to be aware of the basic timing of the music and how it relates to your ability to feel if you have to work in time with the rest of the band. You only have so many notes available to put your parts into to follow the beat. There may be syncopation associated with the vocals and the band - its all very dynamic. Listen to everything - its a whole lot more than just your vocal part. Some people have difficulty with timing - singing 'harmony' requires that you have worked to resolve your timing issues so that you complement the performance.
Why mix it dry? Trying to sing along with slap-back echo of yourself is quite a challenge (not impossible, but very very hard to do). Floor monitors usually have limited frequency response that happens to be strongest in the vocal ranges, usually having the Bass and very high treble cut (attenuated) so that you hear only what you need to hear. Usually, the Monitors will have EQ and Compression from the vocalists, but not the reverb or any other vocal signal processing (such as those that will 'tune' your voice and fix slight flats/sharps). The monitor mix often brings up the vocal levels so that the people singing can actually hear themselves. Some monitor systems are wireless giving the vocalist their mix into a single headset speaker or earphone. As a singer, you don't want the processed signal coming back at you - you will not have the ability to respond to your own voice if you do. The Mains will have reverb and other effects added, so what you hear will not exactly be the same as the audience hears. If you are singing harmonies, you have to be able to hear the vocals. If you can't hear yourself in the monitors, you tend to sing louder to compensate - this messes up any practicing that you have done to get a good blend, and most likely you will strain your voice. After 4 or 5 hours of this, you might find that you can barely speak, much less sing.
Make sure that you have worked out hand signals with the person running the sound to adjust those levels while performing - Sound changes when the room is empty (your sound check) and then filled with people. Listen for your voice in the monitors background vocals, any instruments, and finally the percussion.
This is a loaded question. You may find that some people can hit the high notes and others can't. As a result, you might end up singing mostly the lead part and an occasional high note harmony that the other singers cannot. Its likely that when you sing your part, it sounds out of place compared to what you think its supposed to sound like (and only sounds right when others are singing thier parts). Its a learned skill.
You will not always be singing harmony notes when singing with other people - you may find that only some of the words will be harmonized. You might also have to slide in and out of these notes. You may need help working this out in your own compositions; don't be afraid to ask someone to help you. A Cassette recorder (or other Audio recording method) may be very useful to work out complex harmonies.
Figuring out what your 'harmony' notes are is simpler when you are copying someone elses well defined 'harmony' part. This is a good starting point for people to learn from - find some recordings that you like (even if its not in the style of your long term goals) and figure out how they put together the sound. The notes will always form some sort of chord, like the chart below shows.
You will probably find that you don't really need to know all of these possible relationships and you
will settle into mostly using 'Major', 'Major 7', 'Minor', and 'Minor 7' chord types. Depending on what you
are performing, you might need some of the others. As an example, the last vocal 'harmony' in the Beatles tune
'I want to hold your hand' is a 'Major 6'.
In order to read this chart, you need to know what the Components symbols mean.
If preceded by 'b' then its a flated note, if preceded by a '#' the note is sharp.
These are relationships to the key of a song or the notes in a chord. Many Musicians know what these are (and many times musicians will simply be told the songs key and the pattern it uses to perform it - these relationships define it clearly).
For more on what this all means (and it is complex to describe, but simple once you understand it), see Music Theory 101
Once you know how to play basic chords on a guitar or Piano, you will discover that many require only 3 notes, most use 4 or less. If you are trying to do 2 part harmonies, obviously, you can only pick 2 of them to use. Normally, you always use the Root note, so you really only need to find the other note that you will be utilizing. and a 3 note chord, it can only be one of the remaining 2 notes. For a 4 note chord, you pick one of the remaining 3 (most often the one that is in addition to the regular 'Major' or 'Minor' chord.
Once you start working with these, you'll hear what the relationships sound like, and you'll be able to feel what you are supposed to do to get the desired effect. Occasionally, you'll need to refer to a relationship that you don't encounter often, thats what this chart is for.
Please note, no Octaves specifics are listed here - match that up to your singers and thier vocal range.
Sample Chords as they relate to the Root note ('C' shows many variations):
Normally you think of acid reflux as heartburn, but it can also affect your throat. If you have this condition, don't eat for at least two hours before you sing and take medication if it acts up. If you are doing all day performances, eat something immediately after your finish your set that has the largest break in it and give your stomach time to digest the food.
As many as 40 percent of Americans suffer from acid reflux, when stomach-produced acid washes into the esophagus, the tube connecting the mouth and stomach. But singers are exceptionally prone to it due to heightened throat sensitivity, lifestyles that force late-night eating after performances or singing in smoky rooms, and the mechanics of singing, in which abdominal muscles press against the stomach.
Acid reflux is a major cause of problems in singers. Often the esophagus doesn't get sick, but vocal cords are more sensitive.
Don't try to sing too loud. If you can't hear yourself in the Monitor mix, work out with the sound person how you will address this issue. Screaming is not good for your voice and probably the wrong thing to do for the song.
To be successful requires that you all rehearse everything thoroughly so that each singer knows exactly what parts they are supposed to be singing. That will prevent your mind from going blank and accidently singing the wrong part when you get in front of an audience. Over time, it will become second nature.
When it works, it can really be an amazing effect and can make you (and your band) really stand out from your competition.
NOTE: Frank Sinatra often did not sing the medoly notes for his songs, he often mixed up notes from melody and the harmony parts. It makes for a unique singing style. You may want review some of his recordings to see if you can pick out what he is doing. You may not care for the style of music, however you can learn from his approach.
I also wanted to give you information on the throat problems and acid reflux. This may sound strange but the cause is actually INSUFFICIENT stomach acid. It needs to be a pH of less than 1.5 (extremely acidic) to digest food. Age, sugar, grains (esp white flour), alcohol, soda, diet, use of acid blockers and acid inhibitors, and many other things decrease our ability to create enough stomach acid. SO if your pH is 3 (7 is neutral, 14 pure alkaline), it's not strong enough to digest, say, a burger! Then it sits in the stomach and starts to ferment (eeeww!), and, in other words, putrefy. That's when the esophageal sphincter loses and you have reflux. Since a pH of 3 is still quite acidic, it burns. That's why Tums work. It further decreases the acidity so it doesn't burn. Then you really have a hard time digesting. The more Tums you take though, the worse and worse it gets. Then you go to the doctor and they give you Prilosec or Xantac. Then a few years later you need surgery...or end up with cancer.
The solution? Do NOT take acid blockers, etc... Try drinking a shot (or two) of diluted apple cider vinegar before eating (or after if you need it). Experiment with how much does the trick. After a while your stomach will be able to create enough acid for good digestion. Sometimes if it's gotten really bad it's best to see a Naturopath (they address the causes, not the symptoms) or Nutritionist. HCl (Stomach acid) supplements are even available, but quality varies greatly.
Had to share this, as I went through this myself. As a singer, that dry, burning throat does not work! I'm on a mission to expose this medical farce. Pharmaceutical companies make billions of dollars on all these drugs- profit, at our cost.
Questions? Comments? .
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