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Is there a term for a harmony that always resembles the next-closest note above the melody that is in chord (not just in key)?

A friend of mine always does that when improvising a harmony and she sometimes calls it "singing a third above the melody" or other times she just calls it "singing the third harmony".

But in my opinion this doesn't really make sense. E.g. if one note in the melody is a perfect fifth relative to the current chord, then she would sing an octave above the current chord's root note, which would be a fourth above the melody. And then there are also situations where the melody, while being in key, is not always in chord and in "extreme" cases there are accidentals as well, which makes it even less practical to "sing a third above the melody" without going off-chord.

The only thing I would imagine to work, would be to constantly sing a third above the root note of the chord or a third above the third of the chord. ...but that's not what she's doing.

So I'm wondering if there is a term for what she does. And I'm also curious if there are other terms describing other common ways or harmonization.

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  • "if one note in the melody is a perfect fifth relative to the current chord, then she would sing an octave above the current chord": what if it's a seventh chord? What if it isn't, but she turns it into one with her harmony?
    – phoog
    Feb 10 at 9:34
  • 1
    maybe descant?. Feb 10 at 13:52
  • I have actually experienced some folks singing "a third above" the melody's fifth of the chord, creating a non-chordal 6th against the root. It works best when it's a passing tone to a more triadic "third above," but as a violinist playing in the same range as the vocalists, it's been disconcerting to figure out what I play while that's going on! (Often the best answer is "nothing.") Feb 10 at 14:52
  • Interesting question. In Dixieland the clarinet sometimes harmonizes above the lead trumpet. Feb 10 at 21:42
  • The "descant" (classical-flute) recorder apparently did serve approximatly such a role, playing a bit above the "melody line"... though I have no easy documentation of this. :) Feb 10 at 22:37

7 Answers 7

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+50

You are describing singing above the melody in close harmony or tight harmony.

A close voicing is when the notes in a chord don’t skip over any potential chord tones.

  • If the chord is a triad in root position or first inversion then the close harmony note will be a (major or minor) 3rd above. Similarly for a seventh chord in root position, first inversion, or second inversion.
  • For a triad in second inversion the close harmony will instead be a perfect 4th above.
  • And if it’s a dominant seventh chord in third inversion then it will be a major 2nd.

Two voices in close/tight harmony. C major in root position, first inversion, and second inversion.  G dominant seventh in root position, first inversion, second inversion, and third inversion.


As for some other ways of harmonising I can recommend this video by 12tone:

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Singing '3rd above' or (maybe more likely) '3rd below' is a loose description, but a useful one! Sometimes the 3rd will need to be a 4th (or even a 2nd) to fit with the harmony. Or the 3rd might invert to become a 6th. Or a note or two in unison may be appropriate. But '3rd above' will do as a general label.

Just to muddy the waters, I've heard the term 'singing seconds' used for the same thing. 'Seconds' doesn't refer to the interval of a 2nd, just to 'adding a secondary part'.

The Everly Brothers epitomized the '3rds above' style. This transcription demonstrates the expected intervals - mostly 3rds above unless it HAS to be a 4th, and sometimes a 6th (an 'inverted 3rd') - but now and then (if my ear got it right) they slip in a 'forbidden' pair of parallel 5ths!

(Yes, it surprised me too! Feel free to listen to the recording and disagree.)

enter image description here

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  • When I 1st read the question, Everlys were the primary thought for this type of harmony. With, perhaps, the harmonies above the man melody..?
    – Tim
    Feb 11 at 8:54
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    @Tim Yes, the question was about 3rd above, and the Everlys generally harmonised with harmonies above the melody. They certainly did in my example.
    – Laurence
    Feb 11 at 15:55
  • Now I want to start using the term "singing seconds" to indicate singing at 60 bpm, no matter what tempo the rest of the band actually plays at.
    – JiK
    Feb 12 at 12:47
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As far as I'm concerned, "singing a third above the melody" is close enough shorthand for what she's actually doing in most contexts. In a formal theoretical analysis, more precision would probably be indicated.

If you want more precision in an informal context, you could say "a third above the melody, or a fourth when the harmony requires it," but that is of course not very concise. You might call it "parallel thirds and fourths," but I'm not aware of a commonly used term.

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No-one, and no melody, is going to match the chord perfectly, note for note, in every bar. The melody itself can't do that — it needs passing notes, which, while usually being diatonic, won't match the notes in the prevailing chord.

So singing 'a third above' has been the mainstay of many artists, and is probably the usual harmony that most harmony singers will be drawn to before any other. Loads of well-known songs use this as the basis for a couple of singers — it's the harmony that works best, is almost impossible to get wrong, and above all, sounds good, if not great!

Bear in mind that the 3rds will be both m3 and M3, depending on the actual note sung by the main singer. 5ths (and 4ths) sung above (or below) the main melody often sound hard, as in not as melodious as thirds, and usually will be the next ones added after the thirds.

So, yes, singing in thirds above is a good, if loose, description.

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  • Some short and simple chorales have 100% chord tone melodies. Feb 10 at 18:36
  • I don't think '3rd ABOVE' would be a secondary singer's first thought. Let the melody stay on top!
    – Laurence
    Feb 10 at 20:58
  • @Laurence - I agree that it should stay on top but quite often, it is the hamony that is above. Why do you think the harmoniser pedals offer that as one of the main facilities?
    – Tim
    Feb 11 at 8:50
  • @Tim - No 'should' about it! Maybe more singers would naturally sing over than under. I'd have said the opposite, though of course over is not uncommon. Or a man joining a woman might feel he was singing 3rds above when it was really coming out as 6ths below! I can't speak for what a harmoniser pedal decides to do.
    – Laurence
    Feb 11 at 16:04
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Could it be considered a descant?

descant /dĕs′kănt″/ noun

An ornamental melody or counterpoint sung or played above a theme. The highest part sung in part music. A discussion or discourse on a theme.

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    A descant is a separate melody, not just a simple 'third above'. It takes its own path, almost dissociated from the original melody, without ever clashing.
    – Tetsujin
    Feb 10 at 18:24
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    A descant is not really a harmony, but a separate melody, usually over the main one, admittedly, but often not even matching the timing of the original, so, no.
    – Tim
    Feb 12 at 9:36
  • Y'all are more strict than I would be. Yes, ideally a descant is generally its own melody or has some inventiveness separate from the melody. But I've also encountered enough poorly written "descant" parts in hymn arrangements etc. that I can certainly imagine some people might call singing like this a "descant." Historically, the term "descant" just comes from someone improvising against a given melody, and I've heard the term used to mean that recently too, which is again basically what we're talking about here. (I agree it's not a precise description, but it is a description.)
    – Athanasius
    Feb 14 at 0:26
  • @Athanasius - but it's not what we're talking about here. A harmony is just that, another part sung using the same timing as the original, same words, but a different interval from the original. Whereas a descant is a completely different approach to those words, in different timing, which also happens to fit over (usually, if not always) the original. Those who label decants as harmony are sadly erroneous in their thinking.
    – Tim
    Feb 20 at 9:55
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A German colloquial and somewhat derogatory term for that kind of countermelody is "Küchenterzen" ("kitchen thirds"), implying a level of artistry commensurate with serving classes.

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I use the phrase "Singing one chord member above/below."

If, on a C major chord, the lead singer is singing "C", then the next note above is E; If lead is on E, next note is G, and if lead is on G next note is C.

This way we don't have to niggle over minor 3rds, major 3rds, or 4ths.

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