Choral music is a little slice of what makes us human. One the one hand, our voices are capable of more subtlety and nuance than any other instrument; singing is a very personal, creative, and individual art. On the other, choral music requires a true gift of self, choosing to work together to produce something more beautiful than I can create on my own.
And, to me, music with vocal harmonies is the most human of all.
Singing in parts is an art to practice and develop over time, but here are a few tips to get your started.
Understand what harmony is.
Harmony is what gives a song depth and complexity. (Imagine a choral masterwork like “The Hallelujah Chorus” or a classic rock song like “Let It Be” in only one part—boring!) Every note in a song is really a part of a chord of at least three notes. The melody, or basic tune of any song, is just one note in each chord. In a song with harmony, a singer sings one of the other notes in the chord. As you learn to sing harmony, you’ll learn to hear the notes in each chord that aren’t already a part of the melody—and sing them yourself.
Sing in perfect unison.
Good harmony requires precision. That’s why it is a good idea to practice singing a melody in unison with other singers before you learn to sing harmony. When two people sing in unison, they sing exactly the same pitch. Once you’ve mastered singing the right notes, try to match the other singer in other ways—the same tone, the same pronunciation, the same sound. Perfect unison feels good on your throat, like drinking a cup of tea with lemon and honey.
Listen to bands with great harmonies.
Go back to some of your favorite bands, turn down the volume a little, and really listen to the vocalists sing notes that aren’t a part of the melody. It takes a little discipline not to get swept away by the tune, but the more harmonies you actively listen to, the better your sense of harmony will be. As you learn to really hear a harmony, practice singing along. Don’t get discouraged if you slip back into the melody—find the harmony and try again.
The parts in classical choral music can be difficult to hear, so try starting with something more modern. Here are just a few of the many bands that do harmony really well:
- The Beatles (classic rock)
- The Beach Boys (classic rock)
- *N’Sync (boy band—really!)
- Plain White T’s (pop-punk)
- Wailin’ Jennys (bluegrass/country)
Gospel and barber-shop songs almost always have great harmonies.
My husband’s middle school choir teacher shared the secret of great harmony—“Sing a different note than the melody. When it starts to sound bad, sing a different one.” You’ll only learn what works from trial and error. (That’s why it’s a good idea to start out singing along with your radio.)
Start out simple.
Remember the chords melodies are a part of? In the simplest songs, chords have three notes—the first, third, and fifth note of an eight-note scale. Do-Mi-So. These three notes make up a major triad. The melody is usually the bottom note—the Do—of the chord. The simplest harmonies for the simplest songs are sung in thirds. That means you sing the harmony by singing Mi when the melody sings Do.
The Beach Boy’s song “Barbara Ann” is the classic example of a melody in thirds. The first “Ba-ba-ba-ba-bara Ann” sings on Do. The next group sings on Mi. And the last group sings on So. In three lines, they build a major chord and a lovely harmony.
Singing in thirds is just the beginning. Once you’re comfortable harmonizing in thirds and fifths, look for other kinds of harmonies. Many more complex harmonies add other notes in the chord—for example, the seventh note creates tension and complexity. Singers with high voices might enjoy learning high, descending soprano lines called descants. Or, those of us with lower voices sometimes harmonize by singing the very same note for measures at a time.
One of the great things about harmony is that you can’t create it by yourself. Don’t be afraid to break out your new notes next time you’re singing in public. If you’re afraid of embarrassing yourself, consider these unwritten rules for singing harmony:
- Wait. Especially in church music, harmony usually comes in on the second verse or the second repetition of the chorus. Make sure everyone else has had a chance to hear the melody before you throw in the harmony.
- Back-up the melody. Harmony is supposed to support the tune—not supplant it. Adjust your volume so the melody is always louder than the harmony. Keep in mind that higher notes sound louder.
- Put the music first. Sometimes you can’t find the harmony. When that happens, take a deep breath and move back to the melody. Good unison is much lovelier than bad harmony.
- Enjoy yourself.
A beautiful harmony is a gift to those who hear it—and to those who sing it.
What is your favorite vocal song? Let us know in the comments.