Microphone - Song melody

What Kind of Backing Vocals Are Right For Your Song?

How to write (or even if you should write) backing vocals is usually a step beyond songwriting. In other words, it’s usually something that comes under the heading of production more so than songwriting.

These days, though, where technology has blurred the line between songwriting and production, you may find yourself thinking a lot about what to do about backing vocals (BVs) as you’re composing your song.

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But what should your BVs sound like? How do you make sure that you’ve written something that will actually make your song better? That’s hard to answer in this one blog post because it depends on the genre, and your own vocal abilities.

So rather than tell you what your BVs should sound like, here are some tips and guidelines to ponder as you get to that stage of preparing your song for recording and performing:

  1. Good backing vocals need a good song. This should be obvious to you, and just as having a great guitarist playing on your recording won’t solve any problems if the song is bad to begin with, good BVs need a good song to start with. Sing your song a cappella — no instruments, to get a good sense of its structure, and make sure you like the song at this bare-bones stage before you work on BVs.
  2. Not every song needs backing vocals. Sometimes a simple melody line is all that’s needed.
  3. Write backing vocals that you can sing! Simple BVs will not make your song sound overly simple. It can be hard to sing good harmonies, because it takes time and experience to get them to sound good. It’s far better to start simple, get them in tune, and then branch out once you find your abilities growing.
  4. Listen to songs from your chosen genre to get some ideas. Should you “ooh”, “aaah”, or something else? The answer often lies in what other singers and groups in your genre have been doing.
  5. Use your imagination; don’t be afraid to do something unusual. Back in the ’70s, there were very few if any groups even attempting BVs like Queen was able to do. Complex, layered vocal harmonies require more than just singing ability; they require having an ear for how chords move, and lots of experience as a singer of harmony. Unique BVs is a way of putting your own stamp of individuality on your music.
  6. Consider who is going to perform this song on your recording and in live performance. If you sing in a band, it should be pretty easy to teach basic BVs to your bandmates. If you’re a solo artist, consider the likelihood that you’ll be performing without those harmonies. Does the song still stand up without them?
  7. Practice backing vocals a lot! Out-of-tune vocals, whether we’re talking about the main vocal line or the backing harmonies, have a way of making your music sound amateurish. It’s worth the time to really work on them. Sometimes you need to go note-by-note, fixing, adjusting, honing and polishing everything you do.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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