Improving Your Song With Good Vocal Harmonies

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Two SingersOne of the things I’m working on right now is a manual to help musicians write good vocal harmonies. It’s an important part of making your song sound polished and professional. Good backing vocals can bump your son up a few levels. But done badly, background harmonies can sound haphazard and amateur. Getting those backing vocals in tune is crucial, but badly written vocal parts will sound just plain bad, no matter how well they’re sung.

I’ve posted about this sort of thing in the past, but I like to come back to this topic occasionally because I get a lot of email from people asking about how to write good vocals. Also, I get MP3 files of songs sent to me occasionally where I think that some good backing vocals would have been the icing on the cake.

Background vocal parts are, in my opinion, best written by songwriters or arrangers who have a solid understanding of music theory. How harmonies work is something that’s been with us for a long time. And in a sense, writing good vocals is an art form, quite apart from one’s ability to write a good song.

So here are six tips to help as you construct background vocals for your next 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.

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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  1. Pingback: Your Finished Song Missing Something? Try These Quick Ideas | The Essential Secrets of Songwriting Blog

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