I have been trying to improve my songwriting, and have hit a block when it comes to vocal harmonies. To train myself in this regard I have been listening to a lot of Beatles tunes and other rock songs that involve harmonies, and I am having a really hard time picking them out. I can usually sing along with the main vocals, but if I try to sing the harmony parts I get stuck pretty quickly.

I am sure voice lessons would be the best path to take, but that's not an option for me right now, but I hope to take some eventually. For the time being, I have done some research on constructing vocal harmonies and learned about using thirds and sixths, contrary motion, certain intervals to avoid etc., but I want to figure out how to begin to hear the different voices in a given song and eventually be able to pick out a part and sing along with it. I would assume more work on recognizing intervals would help, but is there anything more specific to vocal harmonies I can do to follow along?


4 Answers 4


Beatles harmonies are a little difficult to figure out because Paul and John used a lot of diminished 7ths and 5ths and were quite unconventional. Not to mention that they would usually harmonize down scale (using lower notes than the main voice) instead of up scale (using higher notes than the main voice) as is most common.

I would suggest starting with something a bit easier. Something with simple up scale 3rds and 6ths to complete a harmony. These are called tight harmonies. For example, The Eagles, STYX, and practically every other pop song you hear out there. Try these kind of harmonies first until your ear is trained to recognize the notes automatically. Then you can take on chord harmonizers like The Beatles; Simon and Garfunkel; Crosby, Stills and Nash, and The Indigo Girls.

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A good start point will be thirds. A lot of the more simple harmony is sung this way. Think Everly Brothers, or Beatles All My Lovin'. The basic tune is sung, and the harmony is a third on top. Consider the scale - we'll stick to C maj. Going up the scale, if a C note is sung, a third above it will sound good, thus, E. Next, D, and a third above is F. Then E, and the harmony note is G. Some of the intervals are major, some minor thirds, but as long as the two notes are from the particular key, it works. On a keyboard, it's easy to see. When in C, the 'main tune' note will have a harmony the next-but-one white note above.

Obviously, this will work for any key, using the appropriate scale note - minor as well.The harmony that sounds a bit bare is the 5th. It fits in with the underlying chord (that's the main point), but because there's no third involved, it sounds hard. Use it as the third note in harmony. As in, going back to the first para., if a C and an E are sung, the third harmony is usually the G, which gives 1,3 and 5. That can be under or over. Ears are pretty good at deciding.

This is only a start point. The harmonies will follow the chord structure, otherwise they will not fit. Look at barber shop stuff. The harmonies go where least expected, but still fit with the underpinning chords. Some of the old 'theory and rules of harmony' don't seem to be adhered to these days, as music and tastes change, but it's the old adage 'if it sounds good...


There may be some good ideas to be found in the answers to this related question:

How do I learn to detect chord voicing by ear?


Recognizing intervals is the vertical method. That's when you hear a chord and pick out the root, 3rd, 5th, 7th, etc. It's useful, but you should also do ear training with the horizontal method. Often this is easier. You pick any note that's being sung or is part of the chord, and you "follow" it across several measures, going up or down only a step or two. So if you have a chord progression C -> F -> G, you might start with the note C, and if you followed it, you would either go C -> C -> D, or C -> C -> B. Then you would go back listen to E, and you would hear E -> F -> G, or E -> D -> D, etc. This is helpful for determining chords, but can help with harmonies, especially when the harmony is the same note several times in a row.

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