I am quite capable of singing the lead vocal but have a difficult time finding the 3rd or 5th harmony in order to harmonize with someone else. Is there a method of learning to hear or find the harmony notes in order to be able to sing them or must this ability be a God given gift?
Singing harmony is just a skill. It can certainly be learned, like any other skill.
You didn't specify what type of context you're planning on singing harmony in (a choir? a home studio? a band? just driving around in the car?), nor what your current level of musical knowledge/experience is (Do you play any instruments? Can you read music? Do you know any music theory? Have you done any ear training?). Both of these factors will influence the answer to some degree. But here are some tips that might help you:
Ear training is a good place to start. There are, in fact, many posts on this site that discuss ear training. Here's a few to get you started:
- How can I train my ear for music?
- What are the most effective ear training methods?
- Are there any games useful for ear training?
Sing frequently... They say practice makes perfect. You should try singing harmony as often as you can, and at every opportunity you get. This will give you lots of chance to experiment with trying things in different ways. This is probably the most important thing you can do.
With other people... If you haven't already, try finding someone else who sings a harmony part well, and try to follow their lead. Listen to what they're doing and try to match what they do. This is useful in a choir setting, where you've got other people around singing the same part.
From written music... If you can at all, try singing the part from written music notation. This will allow you to look at the notes and form a correlation between the graphical notes on the page, and the audible notes that you hear. You aren't listening for absolute notes ("that's a D"), so much as for relative contours ("this part goes up, then jumps down low") and general ranges ("notes above this line feel high to me").
While actively listening. Whenever you have time to listen to music, do not just listen passively, to the superficial sound of the music. Really listen "deeply" or "actively" -- try to hear all the intricate details in the music. What is the bass line doing? What is the rhythm. Are the any countermelodies or little riffs? If you can do this while reading through the written music (as above), so much the better. That little countermelody that you just heard... stop the recording and try to sing it back without the melody. This may involve rewinding and replaying several times.
Now, if you're singing material for which you don't have the score, than listening is even more super-important, because you will have to learn to improvise a harmony. This isn't as hard as it sounds, but it depends on being very aware of what is going on in the music around you.
Find the tonic (key note) and the dominant (fifth) If you can find the 1st and 5th notes of the scale you're in (also called the tonic and dominant, or 'do' and 'so'), you can often use those notes as anchor points in your harmony, as they tend to sound the most stable, and be the easiest to find. All the other notes in the scale (except one) are within a step of these two notes, so if you can find one, and it isn't the right note, chances are good that you can go up or down a step to find a good note.
Practice with an instrument First try playing some random series of notes on an instrument (probably not a woodwind or brass, and stay in a single key, and move stepwise), and try singing in unison with it. Then try singing in parallel thirds, fourths, fifths, and sixths. To do this, play the starting note of the instrument part (such as a C), then play the starting note of the singing part (such as an E), to get it in your head, then while singing this pitch, go back and play the C. Do this a couple of times. Now move your voice, and the note on the instrument, each up one scale degree (playing C goes to D, while singing E goes to F). Then bring them both back down one. Try repeating that a couple of times. Then try bringing them down one and back up. Repeat both of those a few times until you're comfortable. Then try expanding your range beyond that, scalewise at first, then gradually by small intervals. For a really Medieval Church sound, try doing it with fifths.
No single melody is likely to be harmonized completely in a single interval, but by doing this exercise, you're getting used to the feel of singing something other than what's being played, and getting used to the sound of consonant intervals. This ties back in with the ear training, and with learning music theory should you happen to do so (theory's not strictly necessary to sing harmony, but it certainly doesn't hurt, especially just the basics).
As with most of the questions on this site, the answer is practice. Do lots of singing in harmony, and it will become second-nature.
But how do you get started? Learn a song's harmony part by rote, and sing that alongside someone else singing the melody (or a recording of yourself).
The simplest harmony part is a third harmony -- that is, whatever the melody part is, you sing a third higher, within the major or minor scale of the key signature. Because of how major and minor scales work, sometimes you'll be 4 semitones higher than the melody, and sometimes 3 semitones higher.
Pick a song, and work out the notes of the third harmony part. Depending on the way your brain is wired, and your experience, there will be different ways to achieve that.
- If you can sight-read, write it out as sheet music.
- You could play the notes at a piano, and memorise how they sound
Many choirs use sol-fa to teach harmony parts, and this works well. Because moveable sol-fa is diatonic, working out the harmony part is easy -- if the melody goes do-re-mi, the harmony goes mi-fa-so. If you're used to singing from sol-fa, you can read that part and sing it straight away.
Start by learning the harmony part on its own. Once it's solidly in your brain, do it with someone singing the melody.
Keep doing this with more and more songs. It will become easier the more you do it. Over time you will find that the preparation becomes more and more easy, and eventually you'll find that you don't need to prepare at all -- you'll be able to harmonise to a known melody on-the-fly.
One key concept in singing harmony is knowing what chord you're singing. You can't always just sing a third or a fifth. For example, if the melody note is an E and you want to sing one chord tone below that, the note you sing could be:
- C# (minor third) if the chord is an A major or C# minor
- C (major third) if the chord is a C major or A minor
- B (fourth) if the chord is an E major or E minor
If you want to sing a note above the E and just automatically tried to sing a fifth, it would be wrong for any of those chords except the E major/minor.
Of course, you don't have to know any theory in order to sing harmony. I'd wager a vast majority of singers have no knowledge of theory whatsoever. But after singing for decades and learning more theory as I go, I've found harmony singing to be a blend of doing it by ear and analyzing the harmonic structure. For many years I did it strictly by ear. But learning theory has made me much better at building harmony lines.
Another thing that has helped me immensely is singing in choirs. I've sung in community college choirs and local auditioned choirs. Even if you aren't crazy about the music (at first–it grows on you), the education and practice is invaluable. I can't recommend it highly enough.
And it's easy to practice by singing along with music in the car. Listen to bands that have strong harmonies and do what those singers do.
Sing arpeggios for common chords and recognize the third and fifth to begin with. Listen to the end of Twist and Shout from the Beatles and you will hear how harmony works. Each voice comes in right after each other building the chord.