How To Harmonize Vocals: The Complete Guide

How To Harmonize Vocals: The Complete GuideHow To Harmonize Vocals: The Complete Guide

Learning how to harmonize vocals is an essential skill for any budding singer or musician. Virtually any song utilizes harmonious voices built into the structure of the chord progression, so understanding harmony is essential to making music.

Below, we'll walk you through what harmony is and how vocal harmony works so that you start incorporating harmonization into your music. Let's jump right in!

What Is Vocal Harmony?

To understand vocal harmony, we have to understand the basis of harmony. By definition, harmony is the sound of two or more sounds played simultaneously. Therefore, a harmony note is any note that is played in addition to the melody note. However, when we create harmony, we're usually basing the notes on certain note combinations called intervals.

Intervals depict the distance between certain notes in a scale or a family of notes. You can dive deeper into music theory here , but essentially all you have to know is that there are seven main notes, and each scale is named after the root note, which serves as the first note of the scale.

vocal harmonies

Where Is Vocal Harmony Used?

Vocal harmony is anywhere and everywhere you can find music. Here are just some of the common places you can expect to hear harmony.

Background Vocals

One of the most common places you'll hear a harmony vocal is in a background vocal section of a song. The main vocal is usually singing the melody of a song, but then harmony can be used to back up these ideas by providing a more chordal structure in a song's voicings.

Chord Progressions

Since harmony is essentially just more than one note played simultaneously, chord progressions are full of harmonization. You don't need a lot of music theory to implicitly understand that certain chords sound good next to each other, but this can largely be attributed to the root note, the supporting harmonies, and where those notes are leading to get produce the next chord in the progression.

Adjacent chords in a progression often share some of the same chord tones or notes within chords to transition from one part of the progression to another.

Choirs

Choral parts are designed to create harmony by emphasizing sonically pleasing relationships between different choral parts. It's most common that soprano or tenor parts sing the vocal melody of the song while other singers in the choir emphasize the vocal melody with harmony.

Common Harmonies

voice harmony

So what harmonies are the most common? Harmony parts translate throughout just about any key, though it can be helpful to have a concrete example to demonstrate these relationships. For our purposes, let's imagine you were trying to sing harmonies in the key of C major.

The C key is arguably the most simple since it consists of all of the white keys, or C, D, E, F, G, A B on the major scale without any sharps or flats. The root notes of a key are the defining notes or first notes of a scale. Therefore, the root note in this scenario is C.

It's also important to understand the language of scale degrees and chord tones. Essentially, a scale degree describes at what position a note is on a scale. The root note comes first, followed by corresponding numbers in the scale.

In the case of C Major, C would be the root note, D is the second, E is the third, and so on and so forth. These scale degrees also have special relationships within the context of a chord progression, called chord tones. Chord tones all hold different qualities as discussed below. Here are some of the most common chord tones you'll hear about in relation to harmonies.

Thirds

The third is a key harmony note since it often determines the quality of a chord. For instance, a C major chord made up of the root, major third, and fifth consists of the notes C E G. A C minor chord or minor interval is very similar, but it has a flattened third, making it C Eb G. When you write harmonies, you'll especially want to pay attention to your thirds since they can completely alter the feel of your song.

Note that minor chords typically evoke sadness or mystery while major chords generally have a happier, upbeat tone quality.

Fourths

The fourth interval or perfect fourth interval describes the relationship between harmony notes C and F in the key of C major. The harmony part is four steps away from the root note, and still holds a strong, generally sonically pleasing relationship within the scale. These harmonizing notes are less common than that shown with minor or major thirds or perfect fifths, but they are still worth understanding for singing harmony.

Fifths

The fifth scale degree sometimes called the dominant holds the strongest relationship with the melody note or root note of a scale. Fifths support the underlying chords of a song and can help define a key due to their importance. In a major chord like C major, the fifth is G. The fifth chord in C major is, therefore, G major according to C major's key signature.

Don't worry if you're not a music theory wiz-- the heart of the matter is that root notes and fifths hold a strong bond since they define chords, so if someone is signing melody, practice singing the fifth note of that scale to create some beautiful music!

Octaves

An octave is similar to the melody note; it's only played at a higher or lower interval than the original note. If you picture a piano, scales repeat themselves after 8 notes so C D E F G A B moves right to the next C.

Notes on the piano are assigned a certain note number related to where they are in relation to middle C. Middle C is considered the most central part of the piano and is titled C4. A C note played an octave about is C5, and a C note below is C3, so on and so forth. Melodic choir parts like soprano and tenor are often the same melodic notes just separated by an octave or two.

How To Harmonize Vocals

how to write vocal harmonies

Are you ready to sing harmony? Here are four simple steps to help you sing harmony on any song:

1. Find Your Root Note

To create harmony, you need a melody note to start with. If your ear isn't attuned to distinct tones, start by playing an individual note on the piano repeatedly until you can match your singing voice to it. Sing notes within your range and select a melody note that's easy to build off of. As your harmonizing skills develop, you'll have more room to experiment, but for now, stick with a simple melody.

2. Build A Triad Off Of That Note

Now, for the harmony part! Take your starting note and create a major third interval. To do this, practice singing the root note into your DAW or voice memos. Playback the root note recording while you sing the major 3rd note, or the third note within your melody's major scale. For a challenge, try out minor intervals instead of major intervals.

If you want to take the harmony part a step further, sing the perfect fifth harmony line as well. You might find it more difficult to sing the parts when the melody playing, so you might have to focus on creating harmony only tracks first. This is natural -- our ears naturally want to resolve by singing the melody or root note of the scale.

With practice, singing harmony over the melody will feel like second nature. If you're having trouble reaching your desired notes, take it step by step with an instrument aid. Play the note you're shooting for before singing with your own voice. Match the tones and voila! You've created harmony to the main melody.

3. Experiment With Different Note Combinations

Once you've become more comfortable with singing harmony to a given melody, try other notes outside of third and fifth intervals. Remember, harmonies work by more than one note being played simultaneously, so as long as you are singing the right notes according to a scale, you're creating harmony. Experiment with adding passing tones or other scale degrees and take note of how adding in certain intervals changes the overall feel of the song.

4. Sing Loud And Proud

Remember that learning how to sing harmony can take time but you are more than capable of doing so! Sing loud and proud so that you're able to find your mistakes and improve quickly. When in doubt, invest in music lessons or consider collaborating with other musicians who can help guide you through the process.

5 Tips For Creating Amazing Vocal Harmonies

how to do vocal harmonies

Now that you know how to build harmonies, singing harmonies should be a breeze! Here are some additional tips for helping you create strong vocal harmonies in your music:

1. Look To Chords

If you have trouble making harmonies, focus on creating chords. Most of the time, if you sing a major chord, that is a root note, third, and fifth, you're sure to sound good! Take inspiration from chord progressions and instrumental accompaniment. Match your voice to chord tones and you'll be building amazing vocal harmonies in no time at all.

2. Use An Instrumental Aid

Even if you're new to singing, you can definitely learn to build harmonies with the help of an instrument. Pick a note within your range, and match the tone. Then, build upon it! You can start by singing the root note's minor third or major third and then adding the fifth the create a harmonic chord.

Experiment with different chord tones and record each note in voice memos in your DAW. Start to harmonize with yourself and in time, you'll be able to harmonize by ear with basic melodies. It's all about training your ears, so having an objective reference like a tuned piano or guitar can help you align your voice appropriately. You can even use something like a virtual keyboard app to practice harmonizing if you don't have an instrument of your own.

3. Find References

Part of learning how to sing harmony is knowing how to identify it. Try to listen for any harmonious parts whenever you're listening to music and dissect how it was created. In most western music, harmonies are still built off the 3rd and 5th. Once you start to attune your ear to the world of harmony, you should be able to unlock any song since harmonies follow similar patterns, especially in popular music.

4. Join A Choir

Choirs can provide formal instruction, guidance, and most importantly, other voices for you to practice harmony with. Even if you don't have a local choir, there are plenty of Zoom or online choirs you can join virtually if you're serious about building your skills.

5. Practice Makes Perfect

Learning how to sing harmony is a skill. You might not be able to sing perfect harmony overnight, but practicing a little bit every day can get you there faster than you think. Remember that you have to train your ears as much as your voice. Challenge yourself to sing outside the melody and improvise harmonies on your favorite songs for some serious ear training.

With a little bit of practice and ear training, you'll be able to create pleasing harmony with any song. Enjoy harmonizing anywhere and everywhere!

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