How To Sing Harmony, part 1

 Frere Jacques

It’s either one of the simplest ways to sing along with a song, or it is absolutely the hardest. When it comes to singing harmony, it seems you either “have the ear” or you don’t.

The musicians I work with every week are dedicated and talented, working hard at their music. But one of the issues that comes up repeatedly is whether or not a person can sing harmony.

If you’ve grown up in a musical household, hearing music in many forms all of your life, singing harmony can be as easy as breathing. You just know it, and when you sing it, it fits. Harmony is just another way to compliment the melody, giving it more texture and dimension.

But if music was not heard much in your house growing up, if it was an artistic endeavor that began with you as a child or as an adult, you probably have had a tougher time figuring out how harmonies are built. Why do some sound great and others just mediocre? Why do some harmonies sound edgy and intriguing while others sound mundane? (These are some of the questions that keep me up at night…)

Let’s take a stab at some guidelines for how to sing harmony. Though we can start today, there is a lot to cover if we really want to understand the mechanics and successfully sing harmony.

Defining Melody and Harmony

The melody of a song is the tune, the part of a song that gives it its identity. Harmony is pretty much everywhere else on the tonal spectrum. The instruments are all producing some sort of harmony to the vocal, all with different textures and in various ranges of high to low. The rhythms might be the same as the melody or different, but it is pitch relationships that we’re concerned with here.

How easy is it for you to sing something like Row, Row, Row Your Boat, or Frere Jacques (Are You Sleeping)? Those are simple melodies that we learn as children. But when they really get musical is when they are sung as a round. To sing a round, one person starts with the melody and sings the first phrase. As they begin singing the second phrase, another person begins the first phrase. When the first person reaches the third phrase, the second person is on the second phrase, and so on, until the second person has reached the end of the song, singing the final phrase alone.

Listen to the melody alone for Frere Jacques, played on a clarinet. (Okay, not a real clarinet, its a keyboard thing. But it will have to do.)

Now here is the same song in a two-part round. Try singing along with either part. The second will sound like a flute.

And just for a little more challenge, here is the same song once again, but this time in three parts. The third part will sound like a bassoon (I tried a French Horn as it might sound fitting, but it was pretty bad).

How did you do? Was it hard to follow? Because you know the tune so well, you were able to focus on your part, even while the other part(s) were happening. You were able to filter what you heard and get it to make sense. And that is the key to singing harmony. Knowing what to expect, filtering what you hear and focusing on making your own contribution fit with the rest.

This is just the first step on a long climb, and we have a bit of a hike in front of us. But the view from the top is worth it!  We’ll continue on next time.  Until then, let me ask you:

Are you a person who can pick out a harmony easily, or is it still a mystery to you?

Please share your experience below, or email me at [email protected].

© 2013 Steve Case