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On songs like Be my baby by the Ronettes or Will you love me tomorrow? by the Shirelles (a Carole King tune), there seems to be a standard style of arrangement where you have the lead vocals sung by the lead singer, and then there's a harmony part sung by three backup singers. My ear isn't great, so all I really pick up is the feeling that the backup vocal style is pretty straight, with no vibrato, the tessitura of the backup singers is sort of alto-ish, and the chords mostly sound pretty close voiced, with the voices either moving in parallel or obliquely. Can anyone fill in more about how this style is typically arranged and what gives it such a distinctive sound?

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This vocal style comes from the American traditions of close harmony. As popular music (and the radio) came into being in the 20th century, it took influence from the styles of its times, just as any emerging style of music does. Looking back even further, the roots of this vocal style can be traced back to the 1800s and are likely also traceable to African harmonies that wound up in North America through the slave trade. Other styles of music that share similar stylistic influences include Blues, Doo-wop, Jazz, Swing, R&B, Rock 'N Roll, Pop, and Soul, although the influence is not limited to these styles.

In general, quartet-inspired background vocals are examples of close harmony - think barbershop quartets. The background vocals in songs like "Be My Baby" (1963) and "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" (1960) have their roots in these traditions, though they do not follow the strict conventions of barbershop music. Here are some things of note from this '60s vocal style:


A main characteristic of this vocal style is that rather than the polyphonic traditions of old Europe where all four parts have their own independent melodies, there is one main melody which all the other parts support. This is typical of the barbershop style, and also of the gospel quartet style, so there was an earlier precedent for that homophonic vocal texture.

The range of the voices is also typical of close harmony textures in general: normally somewhere around the alto range for the women, and for male harmonies a slightly lower range. This is partly to facilitate singing; originally, barbershop music (and other early close-harmony styles) was intended to be more accessible to non-professional singers. Thus, a less-demanding vocal range became conventional for the style. While there were of course professional groups and masters of the style, singing was meant to be a much more social activity in that time period. Doo-wop in particular was rooted firmly in the tradition of streetcorner singing.

Vibrato, while not unheard of or prohibited, is not as prevalent as in classical or operatic singing. Opera singers spend lots of time working on their technique, and tend to develop a certain singing method which gives them wide and controlled vibrato. Vibrato is something that classical singers would more generally have spent lots of time devoted specifically to; however, recall that it is not the classical singers who pioneered the close harmony style, but instead the common men and women who got together and sang as a pasttime. Thus, vibrato may not have been entirely absent from this style, but it was generally not as pronounced as in the classical world. (In fact, to some audiences even today, a wide and pronounced vibrato still carries an association with an older era of music.)

In the Common Practice Era styles of counterpoint, parallel motion in consonant intervals (fifths and octaves, most prevalently) was often to be avoided since it detracts from the perceived independence of the voices. However, that was not carried over into the close harmony styles, since the whole idea of homophony was to have one melody and all other voices acting as one entity.

Voice leading in close harmony does share the goal of smoothness, but many principles of counterpoint are thrown out in the 19th-century harmony styles in favour of the principles of a blended vocal sound. In gospel and barbershop quartets, it is commonplace to have the parts temporarily cross over one another. It is also normal for leading tones to resolve to notes that would not be advised in the classical style: As an example, in C major, it is common to have a treble voice sing F#, F, E when the harmony is D7, G7, and C respectively. By contrapuntal logic, the D7 chord is an applied dominant to G, so F# was a leading tone and should have resolved up to the note G. However, this is not observed in the close harmony styles.

Close harmony also makes frequent use of 7th chords, and also chromatic (non-diatonic) harmonies. Secondary dominant chords are very common, and in general, dominant seventh chord qualities defined the barbershop harmonic conventions, so expect to see many of those in close harmony arrangements - even in places that you might not expect. Dominant seventh chords built on the IV, for example, occur frequently even when the chord is not resolving in a functional manner. This is also a staple of the blues.

Finally, note the specific vocables (a term meaning background syllables) found in the songs. Similar to doo-wop, these meaningless words and sounds characterize early rock 'n roll music and mark the music of that time period. The vocals also act in a sort of Greek chorus fashion by echoing certain lines and words in background harmony for special effect interwoven into the wordless background harmonies. Triad shapes are also very common in the upper voices of almost all vocal arrangements because of the accuracy and precision with which they can be sung and the versatility that allows these structures to cover the bases of the harmonies of a song. And unlike barbershop, church gospel quartets, and other early close harmonies, this 1960s style of vocal is not acapella! The simple fact that the voices are not the only thing in the orchestration of these songs has a massive influence on how the voices are arranged.


This is all just a general overview of the things that make this vocal style unique. The most efficient way to gain knowledge on this type of vocal is simply through experience; reading descriptions of a musical genre is no substitute for an intimate familiarity with that kind of music, and a similar logic applies to these vocal stylings.

Go out there and make music!

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