Last time, I went over some basics for learning how to sing harmony. If you are interested in becoming a harmony singer, or a better harmony singer, I suggest you quickly review my first article before reading this one.
Why Listening Is So Important
In keeping with my theme, I want to stress listening as one of the most important aspects of learning how to sing harmony well, or sing anything well for that matter! I get the sense that so many of our singers today spend less time listening than they do just singing. When this is your approach toward singing, it is easy to be “off.” In my “dream world,” members of worship teams would spend lots of time focusing on proper intonation and blend. This would mean that they would spend much less time singing with instruments and much MORE time singing acapella and truly listening to one another. This would also help to build the vocal independence necessary to be able to sing harmony properly.
Part of the reason that learning to listen is so important today is that we no longer rely on written harmonies. For the most part (unless you’re in a traditional type choir), when people refer to singing harmony, what they REALLY mean is being able to MAKE UP harmony… on the spot. So, the skill set is very different than it was a generation ago. Because of that, we need to listen more than ever to be able to find harmonies that work, make sense, and fit with the group we are in. It’s a tall order, and, moreover, we are expecting this from people who most of the time have little or no training.
When I teach my harmony classes, I often begin by challenging my students to perfect singing half-steps and whole-steps. These are the building blocks of singing. They are the smallest intervals we sing in our Western scale. I start with one note on the keyboard and ask them to try to sing a half-step up, and then try it from various places on the keyboard. Next, I will ask them to sing a half-step down from various places all over the keyboard, until finally I move on to try the same exercise with whole steps. While they are doing this, I have them “check their pitch” by using the Roland VT-12 vocal trainer (you can have a look below for an intro) which gives them visual feedback as to how close to pitch they really are. This exercise in and of itself is helpful for many reasons but, in terms of learning harmony, it’s invaluable. Oftentimes, the difference between us singing a note that works as harmony, versus one that doesn’t, is a simple half-step or whole-step, so knowing how to quickly “fix” our pitch is very helpful.
If you want to go further with intervals you can simply use a major scale with the familiar solfege: do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do. I recommend an exercise where you start with “do-re, do-mi, do-fa, do-sol…etc” and continue up the entire scale. Then you can return back down the scale the same way: “do-ti, do-la, do-sol, do-fa…etc” In this way, each of the intervals of a major scale become familiar
Triads are the basic building blocks of harmony. A triad is group of three notes and, in most worship music, it is likely to be a simple major or minor triad that is the base of most of the chords we use to accompany our songs of worship. Using the solfege above, we would sing “do-mi-sol” to demonstrate a major triad. By lowering “mi” (the third of the triad) a half step, we would create a minor triad. The interesting thing to note here is that many people are often daunted by attempting to find the right harmony by mistakenly thinking that potentially any note within singing range is a candidate for harmony. It simply isn’t true. There are TWO, only two notes that can be used at any given time to create a harmony structure that fits with most modern worship. (When more complicated chords are used, there could be 3 or even 4, but the number in certainly not endless)
Once we can sing a major triad (do-mi-sol) we are in a position to understand harmony structure. The melody will always be ONE of the three notes of the triad (occasionally there are passing tones which are outside of the triad but for the most part this rule works). This leaves only the two remaining notes for harmony. So, if you can begin to listen for what triad or chord is playing underneath the melody, you should be able to start to pick out the various notes of the chords that aren’t being used by the melody. These are notes that are available to be used for harmony. To make this process a little easier, in my classes, I start by playing various major and minor chords in different positions on the keyboard and have my students try to identify what type of chord they are. Once they are able to do this well, then I will play triads with one note missing and have them try to identify the missing note. This will help them to be better able to find the chords and identify the individual notes of the chords when trying to find a good fit for their harmony.
Next time, I will show you how to “cheat” and find a harmony line that will always work! Until then, God bless you and keep on singing to serve Him!