Guiding Principles for Writing Good Backing Vocals

Backing vocals can add a professional touch to your music – but only when done well.

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SingerIf you’re trying to write backing vocals for your next song and you’re running into problems, it could be that you’re violating some basic principles. Backing vocal harmonies, when they are well written, well-performed and well-recorded, can give your music a truly professional sheen.

The guidelines for writing good background vocals could (and probably should) be a long list. But that’s because every separate genre of music has its own particular way that vocals sound. So the kind of principles that might guide your writing of country backing vocals would differ considerably from what you’d find in jazz, folk, or other styles.

Having said that, there are two basic guiding principles that apply to almost any genre of music. If you’ve tried creating backing vocals recently, and it’s not working out for you, see if you are violating either of them:

  1. Vocal harmonies are more prevalent in a chorus than in a verse. That’s because vocal harmonies tend to add musical energy to a song, and increased energy is what you’re often looking for in a chorus.Using vocal harmonies everywhere can be tiresome. Unless it’s a style that’s known for its treatment of harmonies (e.g., Barbershop, vocal jazz, etc.), good songs often show a mix of unharmonized and harmonized melody lines.
  2. The kind of harmonies you write has a lot to do with musical genre. So it’s important to be listening to lots of recorded music in that genre, and try to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes the harmonies work.

So when backing vocals don’t work (and assuming that they’ve been recorded well and performed well), your first course of action to fixing the problem is to ask yourself: Is there just too much vocal harmony everywhere in my song? And if that’s not the problem, then ask yourself: “Am I violating the norms of vocal harmony for my chosen genre?”

If you can say ‘no’ to those two questions, then the problem lies with the actual writing – you’re using notes that don’t fit the chord of the moment.

Here are some things you can do to make sure that the notes you’re asking your backing singers to perform are the right ones.

  1. Familiarize yourself with the melody, and finalize the chords you want to use as your basis for harmony. Let’s assume that I want to harmonize this melody line in a folk-pop style: [LISTEN]
  2. Notes on strong beats should be in the chord. Here’s a basic strong beat harmonization (the melody has been removed so that you can hear the harmonies more clearly).
  3. Notes on weak beats don’t have to be in the chord, but should be on their way to the next strong beat chord tone. Here’s that strong beat harmonization with some passing tones added in to the vocals.

That will get you a basic harmonization. Beyond that, you’ll want to make other choices:

  1. Where to sing actual words, and where to hum or use a neutral-syllable (“doo”, “la”, etc.)
  2. Where to have 1 harmonizing vocal line, where to have 2 or 3.
  3. Where to have harmonies at all, and when just to have a solo vocal melody.

When I listen to backing vocals that aren’t working, it has more to do with the fact that I’m hearing them incessantly, and my musical brain gets fried. Even with excellent backing vocals, the ear can tire of it. Groups that are known for their backing vocals know when to use them and when not.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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