Backing vocals, when they’re done well, can give your song a professional sheen. When they’re done poorly — out of tune, or not well written — no one wants to hear that.
It’s not really possible to solve the problem of writing or performing good backing vocals (BVs) in one blog post, so I’ll do the next best thing: I’ll give you some basic theory behind what BVs should be doing for your song, and then some random tips to keep in mind.
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I won’t be dealing with technical issues that come up with actually recording the BVs, but there are many online sources for getting advice with that part of the equation. I want to deal here with the musical aspect of good BVs.
Writing Backing Vocals – Some Background
Every genre has an approach to BVs that’s a bit distinctive, and part of that genre. You’ll notice that BVs in a country tune don’t sound quite like BVs in a pop tune. Generally, the sound of your BVs will depend on:
- how many individual chord tones you use;
- how you distribute the harmonizing voices;
- how you treat the BVs with regard to rhythm.
If you listen to a song like “Don’t Worry Baby” as performed by the Beach Boys, you’ll get an idea of what good BVs are, and what they can do for your song. They may sound dated to our ears today, but they’re a great model for what all BVs are meant to do: to support the melody line, to fill in and richen the sound, and to provide a kind of gentle counterpoint to the lead vocal:
LISTEN (opens new tab or window)
This short excerpt shows us what all standard BVs usually do no matter what the genre:
- Give the full chord, or at least the 3rd of the chord.
- Sometimes align themselves to the rhythm of the melody, but sometimes (as in this example) fit themselves in and around the rhythm of the melody in a pleasing sort of way.
- Offer more rhythm when the lead vocal is holding a note (bar 1); offer less rhythm when the lead vocal is more rhythmically active (2nd half of bar 2).
The BVs for “Don’t Worry Baby” will sound great with early-mid rock & roll tunes, but the approach to BVs changed to suit a new way of writing songs. Nevertheless, you could still hear all the basic elements of good BVs with every change in pop music. So when you listen to a tune like Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” (1973), Phil Collins’ “Sussudio” (1985), or Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” (2014), you still hear the full chord (or the 3rd), sometimes aligning to the vocal lead and sometimes not, all performed with a new sense of style to suit a new era.
Writing Your Own Backing Vocals
Here’s the best advice I can give you for coming up with your own backing vocals:
- Know your genre. Listen to lots of music from your genre of choice, and get a good sense for what BVs should sound like. Don’t be afraid to experiment and come up with something unique, but use the expectations of your genre as a model.
- Use your instincts as a starting point. Most of the time, your musical instincts will tell you what the BVs should sound like, and because music in the pop genres is strongly guided by an improvisatory approach, your instincts are important.
- Don’t leave BVs to chance. Get something written down, or committed to a recording so that all singers can learn their part. By having an isolated BV track for singers to use (or written musical notation), you get a chance to hear every moment clearly, and you can fix anything that doesn’t sound right.
- Be sure that at least most of the time you’re giving the 3rd of a chord. But having said that, be open to experimentation. For example, humming a 5th over (or a 4th under) a melody note will give a stark quality to that moment, a quality you may be looking for. You’ll know if what you’re writing isn’t working.
- Don’t necessarily use BVs everywhere in a song. Successful songs are a demonstration of the contrast principle. So contrast sections where there are less BVs (typically a verse) with sections that use them more (the chorus, for example).
Practicing Backing Vocals
When practicing BVs, use an instrument like a keyboard or guitar at first, to be sure everyone is singing the correct pitches. Once you feel comfortable with that, and everyone has their part learned, switch to practicing with no instrumental accompaniment.
This a cappella approach to polishing BVs will add lots of sparkle to your performance. When singing sounds bad, it’s usually the case that a singer hits the note slightly off, and then uses an accompanying instrument to correct that. But by then, another singer in the group has heard your bad note, and is trying to adjust to it, and so now they’re off.
By singing without an instrument, you get to hear right away if the pitch is correct. So the sooner you feel comfortable singing without an instrument guiding you, the better.
And one last bit of advice: be fussy. Don’t accept even slight out-of-tune singing as “that was OK.” In fact, you should call out-of-tune singing what it really is: singing the wrong note. There really is no way to raise your level of performance without raising your standards.
To hear what a good measure of fussiness can do for you, listen to this rehearsal by The Beach Boys. They were relentless in their search for vocal perfection. It will inspire you to keep your standards high.
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