Harmony: the beautiful sound of multiple notes being sung (or played) together. There are very few people who don’t enjoy the sound of voices magically intertwined while making beautiful music through the use of vocal harmony. And yet, the idea of joining in still seems elusive to many. Lots of singers feel left out– even left behind, because they don’t know how to join in the ranks of their harmonizing friends and co-singers. Is the ability to harmonize merely a talent that some possess while others do not? Or is it something that can be learned by (most) everyone? Throughout this 3-part series I intend to help you discover what it means to harmonize, create harmony, and help show you what you can do to get on the harmony trail. I hope you’ll find this series helpful.
For those who want to learn what harmony sounds like, they may need to sing less and listen more.
One of the first things I tell people who are interested in learning how to sing harmony is to stop singing along with the melody. When we hear our favorite songs, often the first thing we want to do, since we are singers, is sing! But, for those who want to learn what harmony sounds like, they may need to sing less and listen more. It’s tough to do so at first because we get a lot of enjoyment from singing. However, simply think of it as delayed gratification. Eventually you’ll be able to sing along and sing any part you want!
As you are listening (instead of singing), actively listen for the parts that are not the melody. If you have a few favorite songs, listen to them repeatedly until you are familiar enough with the “other” parts (the harmony) to start singing along with them. The more you do this, the easier it will become. Eventually you will start to get the feel for how most harmony parts tend to go.
I often get the question: “Aren’t some people just gifted with the ability to sing harmony?” The answer is unequivocally “no”. I use my own family as an example. When my children were growing up, they were exposed to a lot of singing. When my firstborn was able to carry a tune sufficiently, I began to teach him to sing harmony. By the time he was 6, he was able to sing harmony relatively well. My youngest daughter came along and was born into a household rife with singing. She wasn’t particularly drawn to one part or another since there were always multiple parts being sung in the family. She naturally picked up harmony parts because she was exposed to them, not because she was a particularly talented singer (although she is!). Exposure and teaching are the keys to being able to sing harmony. This can be accomplished at any age, but of course the earlier the better!
How exactly did I teach my firstborn to sing harmony by age 6? First I had to teach him to match pitch correctly with me. Once I was confident in his ability to match and carry a tune on his own, I gently began to introduce a harmony line to a familiar tune. “Jesus Loves Me” was one of the first songs he learned. As he was singing along with me one day, I added a little harmony to the second line. We were singing together “Jesus loves me, this I know…” then as we moved to “For the Bible tells me so” I dropped to a harmony part just below, keeping my volume quiet. Did it work? Did he stay on his part? NO. He did not. Haha. Why? Because, he had not developed any vocal independence yet. We were on the road, however, and through gentle prodding and repetition, he eventually learned to stay on his part even though I was singing something differently. I started out with my volume low but gradually increased to where I was singing my harmony part loudly against his melody. The day he was able to hold his own is the day we knew he had achieved true vocal independence.
(It’s important to note that he did not learn to do this by covering his ears. Shutting out others so that you only hear yourself sing is not vocal independence.)
Are you a parent? Do you work with children? Give them a head start on singing by teaching them to sing in tune. Many folks love to applaud the efforts of their children’s singing regardless of the quality. I am all for encouraging kids to sing, but you do them no favor if you encourage them to sing in a way that is out of tune or otherwise harmful. Also, it’s important to note that children respond best to other children’s voices. We may love to listen to our favorite songs while doing our errands or hanging out at home, but if you have children, frequently swap that music out for music that is performed by kids. That will encourage your children to sing along and match pitch in their own range.
Next time, we’ll look at some other things to consider while learning how to sing harmony. In the meantime, happy listening!