There’s two angles of the art of vocal harmony that we’d like to discuss. Let's touch on vocal harmony from the perspective of a songwriter, composer or orchestrator. Soon we’ll discuss how to sing vocal harmonies and how to approach them with the special nuances that a singer would give them.
We all think we know what it is, but what’s the definition of a vocal harmony anyways? “Vocal harmony is a style of vocal music in which a consonant note or notes are simultaneously sung as a main melody in a predominantly homophonic texture.” Let’s analyze this further.
As a writer of any art form, your first job is to fully embrace and digest every element of the overall piece. This is a gift that takes time to sharpen, as your senses will recognize the nuances the more that you listen to different styles and subtleties.
While time passes within your craft, you will begin to hear things differently. You’ll recognize the tones of varying instrumentation. From there, you can begin your journeying in creation. Now comes the nitty gritty of writing, this is where we will get into the mathematical structure of the song.
Secrets of Songwriting says “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.”
It can be mind-boggling to try to focus on too much music theory when it comes to harmony. One composer hack that is a bit more natural to the untrained eye is the act of following the shapes of the music.
30 Day Singer lets us know that “In general, harmony parts follow the shape of the melody. For example, if the melody goes up, the harmony part usually goes up. This isn’t always the case. A harmony part could stay on the same note for an extended time. Or it could do something completely different from the melody, in which case we might classify it as another kind of vocal part, like a descant. But for the most part, harmonies tend to mirror the movement within the melody (pitch going up, down, or staying the same). “
If you really want to dig into the art of vocal harmonies and if this is a lifetime career for you - we strongly suggest getting together with 4 of your very best choir friends and ask for them to have a little session with you. Attempt to find one friend for each vocal part, including bass, tenor, alto and soprano. In exchange, maybe you could cook them a lovely dinner and they can help you get to know how vocals mix while in action.
One extremely important element that you must abide by is range. Get to know the vocal boundaries and spotlights of each part. This will pay off during live performances, as you’ll be getting the very best from your creative partners.
Writing for harmonies for vocals is something that will take time. This is truly an element of music where practice makes perfect.