Vocal harmonies can go a long way to adding a touch of sophistication to your songs. Check out these tips.
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Too many times I hear vocal harmonies that sound like they’ve been randomly created, and come across as a bit of a mess. When they’re well written, and sung with precision, vocal harmonies act as a kind of songwriting tool, creating a new layer of emotional impact that can’t be produced easily in any other way. It’s hard to think of what Queen’s music would sound like without those rich, 4-, 5- or 6-part (or more) harmonies at those crucial moments.
Because of the positive impact that vocal harmonies have on a finished song, I like to think of creating them as part of the writing process, not just something you add to a song to “make it pretty.” But for those who simply add harmonies because it’s fun to do, harmonies are fun, but possibly missing their greatest role: deepening the emotional impact of your music.
For many, writing effective harmonies will be hard to do because the best harmonies (in my opinion) are thoughtfully written, requiring at least a rudimentary understanding of the nature of chord function. For those who have no practical rudimentary theory, it’s going to be a bit hit and miss. If you do an online search for how to create vocal harmonies, you’ll notice lots of people mentioning that it takes a lot of “experimenting” before you find something that works.
If you do have a bit of theoretical knowledge (i.e., you can read music in at least the treble clef, and you know which notes belong to which chords), you have a chance to add something great to your song.
Check out the following tips for adding vocal harmonies to your songs.
- If your melody sits around the tonic note, it should be fairly easy to add a harmony part that’s a 3rd above it, and also one that’s a 5th above.
- If your melody sits around the dominant note (i.e., the fifth note of your chosen key), you’ll find that adding a harmony that’s a 3rd below (i.e., around the tonic) should be easy.
- Adding 3-part harmony (i.e., the melody plus two other vocal lines) is trickier, but keep in mind that the best harmonies will often move independently of the melody. So just because your melody rises doesn’t mean the accompanying vocal harmony must rise as well. In fact, it often works best if there is a sense of independence between the three lines.
- Vocal harmonies don’t need to stick only to chord tones. Just as you do with melodies, try creating lines that move from one chord tone through other non-chord-tones, to another chord tone.
- Vocal harmonies work best in a chorus. If you use them in a verse, try no vocal harmonies in verse 1, introducing them in verse 2.
- Adding vocal harmonies to a chorus is a great idea especially if the verse and chorus use identical (or almost identical) melodies.
- Use a good mix of wordless accompaniment (Ahhh, ooooh, mmmm, etc.) and text accompaniment.
- Be judicious regarding where you add vocal harmonies. Constant harmonies can get musically tiring, and you can compromise the effect you’re going for if all people hear is constant harmonizing.
With regard to that last point, there are several songs that demonstrate intelligent use of vocal harmonies, where they’re added not because the singers can, but because they contribute to the structure of the song. Listen to these songs, and make note of where harmonies are used, and where they aren’t:
- Monday, Monday (The Mamas and the Papas). Notice how there’s a great mix of singing with wordless harmonies (ba da…), then “oooh”, then harmonizing above the melody, and so on. An excellent example.
- The Light Dies Down on Broadway (Genesis). Mainly Peter Gabriel singing without harmonies (common for early Genesis), then switching to “ahh”-type backing vocals to build energy. The moments with 3- or 4-part harmonies are short and cleverly calculated.
- Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen). What more can be said about Freddie Mercury and his amazing toolkit of vocal abilities? Harmonies like these can’t be arrived at by chance. They show clever construction and voice leading as you might get from the world’s best classical composers.
- Rainy Days and Mondays (The Carpenters). In my opinion, two of the most intelligent musicians that ever graced the pop world. What’s great about this tune is making note of the places they don’t sing vocal harmonies. Because they use harmonies sparingly, and save them more for the latter half of the tune, they’re extremely effective.
- Hide and Seek (Imogen Heap). Ignore for a moment the vocoder effect on the voices. You’ll see that every note is harmonized. There are times when the harmonies follow the voice very closely (i.e., very “tight harmonies”), and other times when the voice is somewhat higher than the harmonies. The effect is instrumental (sung through a synth, where the harmonies are created artificially).