How Can I Write Good Vocal Harmonies?

by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website:

Vocal harmonies can be the perfect touch your song is looking for. Harmonies have a lot to do with controlling energy in a song, so in thatsinger sense, how and when to use vocal harmonies is an issue of formal design; you can make your song seem disorganized and confusing if you simply indiscriminantly throw harmonies in.

As with instrumentation, a song’s energy will often increase with the addition of vocal harmonies. This is particularly true if the harmonies are rhythmically identical to the melody: if all voice parts are singing together, it pumps up the power.

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You may want to add harmonies without overly increasing energy. If so, you should use harmonies comprised mainly of long notes above or below the melody (the “ooh” type harmonies).

Here are some other tips for adding harmonies to your song:

  1. If the melody dwells in and around the tonic note (i.e., the key note), consider adding an upper harmony part that stays mostly a 3rd higher than the melody.
  2. If the melody dwells in and around the dominant note (i.e., the fifth note of the key), consider adding a lower harmony part that stays mostly a 3rd lower than the melody.
  3. Three part harmony adds a nice sense of fullness to the vocal sound. While you can use your ears and experiment to do 2-part harmony, 3-part may require a bit more understanding of chord structure. But in general, here’s what will work nicely: Add a harmony above and one below the melody by using the tones of the chords you’re using. Then add passing tones to connect each voice’s part, so that they don’t have to jump from one chord tone to the next.
  4. Constant vocal harmony becomes tiring; Use your discretion when adding harmonies, and save them for moments where you need to increase energy, like the chorus of your song.
  5. If your chorus melody is identical to your verse melody, adding harmonies to the chorus is a great idea.
  6. Using harmony on one isolated word within your melody will draw attention to that word, and can be a great way to direct your audience’s attention to certain aspects of your lyric.

It stands to reason that if you’re going to use harmonies, you need to get your background singers to practice. There’s nothing quite so bad as out-of-tune singing to make a song sound amateurish.

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4 Comments

  1. Hi Gary, I have a few questions for you.
    When you have a vocal song(this is consider a melody,right?) and you want to create an instrumental melody but doesn’t want to be the same but has the same feeling. Tips for that?

    I have a vocal song on Ab major that the chorus melody goes: C – Bb – Eb – C – Db – Ab – Bb – Ab – C – Eb – C – Eb…looks like it dwell in around the tonic, so you already gave an tip for that.
    “consider adding a lower harmony part that stays mostly a 3rd lower than the melody.”
    Did you mean that for each note of the melody use 2 notes chord that its root note is a 3rd below.
    Like for C use A?
    Which of your books tells more about this in details?

    Again, love your blog and I am telling about your blog to everyone who needs help like me on foruns.
    Thanks for doing this.

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