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I'm not good at singing harmonies. In my mind to harmonize, you can just sing an alternate melody and that usually sounds good with the main melody. I don't think to myself that I have to sing a 5th (I can't do that anyway)

When I try to sing harmonies, I can't seem to distance myself from hearing the main melody. I have to sing really loudly so that the main melody does not distract me.

What other tips and tricks should I know in order to harmonize?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Learning to create your own vocal harmony part along with a melody is often something that musicians learn intuitively, through listening to a lot of music, but also by singing in a band or choir. Having said this, there is nothing wrong with taking a short cut towards gaining this skill, by using a little musical knowledge. You can create vocal (or any other, for that matter) harmony parts, using some basic knowledge of harmony (certainly not as advanced as harmonising chorales in the style of Bach, but a good deal above the level of simply trying to find what "sounds good" with a trial-and-error approach).

Below is a very simple melody; following it are a series of steps designed to create a reasonably interesting harmony to go with it. Following these steps will help you to connect more closely with the harmony, and separate yourself from the main melody.

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Importantly, the underlying chords (the harmony), are also shown; the melody and any harmony parts need to predominately use notes from these chords, unless you are specifically trying to have your melody or harmony parts reacting "against" the harmony (dissonant), which is quite a bit more advanced.

So, the first chord "C" has the notes C, E and G; the second chord "F" has F, A and C; the third chord "G" has G, B and D. The easiest approach to harmonisation is to simply have the harmony part follow the underlying chords, and the easiest way to do this is to just follow the root notes C, F, G:

enter image description here

Okay, this will work, but it is pretty dull, especially as the harmony and melody parts mostly have the same notes. Instead of using these root notes, we could use other chord tones:

enter image description here

Right, this is starting to sound far more interesting, now let's make the harmony part match the melody part by using: chord tones when the melody has chord tones; non-chord tones when the melody has non-chord tones:

enter image description here

This results in the classic "harmonisation-in-thirds". What if we want the harmony part to sound a little more distinct from the melody? Well, we could use different chord tones to start with, let's try having the harmony part move in contrary motion (opposite direction) to the melody:

enter image description here

Nice! (Even if I do say so myself…) Now we could finish off by putting non-chord tones into the harmony part:

enter image description here

This is just a very simple example of course, and as I say a lot of this becomes intuitive as you sing, play and listen to more music. I am also aware that you may need to read up on some of the terms here (chord tones, non-chord tones etc.) I'll put some links in...

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DAMN! I wish every answer on SE was so informative! You even included scores 'n shit. High five! :) –  Speldosa Apr 24 at 14:07

It sounds like you’ve got some intuitive knowledge of what a harmony should be, which means you’re 90% of the way there. Further practice will let you figure out what sounds good and what doesn't.

The best way to practice harmonizing in singing is to work with another singer. First one of you sing harmony, and the other melody, then switch up. Find somebody else who wants to learn to harmonize, or who is patient enough to sing very simple stuff and to listen to your mistakes while you learn. Some tips you can try:

  • Go slow. Trying to come up with a harmony on the fly is difficult. You need to know what the melody is, where it is going, what would sound good against the melody, and where to find that note relative to the note the melody singer is going to sing next. That’s a lot to do all at once. Sing slowly enough that on each note, you have time to find the harmony note you want. At first, this might be holding each note for a full second or more. It’ll get faster with practice.

  • Sing single notes. One singer sings a note and holds it. The other singer aims for a harmony a third above that, or a fourth above, or a fifth. Or whatever arbitrary interval you decide on. Use a keyboard to check yourself. If neither of you knows enough to use a keyboard, get a really cheap one, put stickers with the note names ( or even 1-2-3-4-5-6-7), and stick to the key of C, which is all white notes. Just google to find out which key is C.

  • Sing slowly. Yes, I mentioned it before, but it bears repeating.

  • Look for songs with a very small range, no more than a five note range between the lowest and highest notes is best. This way, you will be less likely to run out of range for your harmony.

  • Look for songs with a simple chord structure. You want something that sits on the same chord for most of a line, if not the whole things. American gospel songs often do this. If you don’t know chords, look up guitar tablature. They have chords written out as letters. When the chord changes, the letter above the music changes.

  • Don’t try to harmonize with a song until you know the melody really well. Christmas songs, nursery rhymes, and patriotic tunes can all be good early choices, if you stick with tunes with limited ranges.

  • Slow is the way to go. Seriously, this one suggestion will help you hear what you are doing, and give you time to figure out what you should be doing. Ignore the rest if you want, but not this.

If you don’t have someone else to sing with, a piano makes a distant second choice for learning to harmonize, but then you really will have to learn enough to find notes and intervals on the keyboard.

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Are you an instrumentalist as well? If you play an instrument, such as guitar or piano, it may help you greatly to pick out your original melody line on the instrument, and then pick out the harmony melody.

Practice singing the harmony part alone with the instrument and then try to sing it together with a recording of your original melody. It's easy to fall into singing in unison, but working on the harmony melody alone can help your vocal muscle memory to remember it.

Another good way to practice harmony singing is to listen to and sing along to songs with vocal harmonies. Practice singing the main melody as well as the harmony parts.

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Learn about chord structure and voicing.When harmonising, the other voice(s) SHOULD be clear to you, otherwise you have nothing to pitch off.A lot of people find they need to hear their own voice above the others, so that's not unusual. What is more important overall is that all the voices blend - if you're using mics, your voice might need to be louder to YOU, but think about the other guy - why would HE want to hear YOUR voice above HIS ?

A basic harmony may be just singing the notes of the main melody, but a third above. This works in many songs, and is not so bad to do - when the other singer goes up, you do too, by the same amount. That's not technically true, but it'll do for now.Listen to stuff like the Everly Brothers for this sort of harmony.

It's also very important that the other voice keeps to the tune. Sounds basic, but it's so easy not to. I used to sing with someone else who was great at harmony, and sometimes we'd both be trying to harmonise with each other, and the main melody was lost. Not so good !

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