How to Sing Harmonies Part 2 – Singing Planned Harmonies

Last week I wrote about singing harmonies on the fly.  This week’s article is about singing harmonies when you actually have time to plan them out.
If you haven’t read last week’s article, and you find terminology in this week’s article confusing, you might want to revisit last week’s article before reading this one.
Planning out harmonies allows you to get into the kinds of harmonies I really love – the ones that are a bit unexpected because they aren’t just chord triads. 
Some years ago – I won’t say how many – I was a singer in Stanford’s 16-woman a cappella group, Counterpoint.  We typically had at least four, and sometimes up to eight, separate parts in each song.  Our “theme” song – the one the group had kept alive since the group’s founding 30 years ago – was the Java Jive.  Here’s an arrangement similar to ours: (however, we did it at least twice as fast as this recording!).  This song has a lot of non-triad harmonies such as 2nds, 4ths, and 6ths, which makes it far more interesting and colorful than if the harmonies were just triads piled around the melody line.
Sometimes it seems to me like people believe there’s a secret to harmonies.  But there really isn’t a secret.  Learning one out of eight different vocal lines simply required planning and practice when I was in Counterpoint.  It required planning and practice when I was one of three singers with Girls on Top!.  It requires planning and practice when I record harmonies over my own melodies in the studio.  You simply write a part, learn it, and sing it.
Still, here are some pointers for writing and singing planned harmonies:
1) When writing, find interesting harmony notes
2) When singing, learn reference notes
3) Repetition, repetition, repetition.  (Repetition.)
1) Find Interesting Harmony Notes
So you have a song that could use some harmonies over the chorus.  You could start by just putting the next chord voicing above the melody, with parallel motion (when the melody goes up, the harmony goes up, and vice versa).  OK, nice enough.  But perhaps not all that interesting.  Perhaps not enough tension.  Perhaps too Andrews-Sisters-ish?
Well, look at the chord underneath and look at how the melody fits in.  Then figure out what other notes may fit over that chord, with more or less tension or dissonance according to your emotional goal.
Quick example:
Say the chord is C and the melody goes E-F-G (which is 3-4-5 on the scale).  The obvious harmony which would be totally within the C chord and would move in parallel would be G-A-C (5-6-1 on the scale).  But how about sticking a harmony on D (2 or 9)?  Or B (the major 7)?  Or start on A (6) and see where you want to go from there?  
And those are only the diatonic notes in the key of C; you could also try sharp 11 or flat 9 or any of the other 12 notes in the Western scale!
Even if you didn’t follow all that, the takeaway point is that you just need to try different harmony notes, and write down when you find what you want.  My process is:
– Learn the chords and melody on the piano.
– Play the chords and melody while also trying out other notes for the harmony (either vocally or on piano).
– Find something good?  Write it down.
It’s that simple.
2) Learn reference notes
The hardest part about singing harmonies is when you need to come in with an unusual harmony right on a chord change, and the note that you need to sing does not fit over the preceding chord.  It takes a moment for your ear to hear the new chord and then remember the harmony you are supposed to sing over it.
A solution to this is to find a reference note to grab onto.  A reference note (my terminology) is a note preceding your difficult harmony note, which is the same as – or very close to – the challenging harmony note.  You can “grab onto” this reference note as a marker for yourself.
Here’s how it works.  Again, I’ll use personal example.  I sing the high harmony in “Let’s Stay Together” in one band.  I am supposed to come in on a high D in one of the verse lines, but I could never seem to find it naturally.  So I found a high D that the lead singer sings in the previous line.  I learned which word it falls on. So I listen for it, and when she sings that word, I have my note.  I keep that note in my head until it’s time for me to sing.
(You may want to actually hum the note very quietly to yourself rather than just keep it in your head.  That way, your vocal cords will be stretched to the right length to create that pitch.)
If there is no exactly correct reference note for you to grab onto, find one that’s a whole or half step away and then make the adjustment yourself.  That’s another reason to practice diatonic and chromatic scales – so you know how far a whole and a half step are, vocally.
3) Repetition, repetition, repetition.  (Repetition.)
Just like you have to practice anything else, you have to practice harmonies for them to become ingrained and automatic.  Maybe I’m a little slower than some other singers, but when I’m learning new harmonies I play sections of the song over and over, especially practicing coming in accurately on the first note.  A live setting is always ten times harder, so you have to be as rock-solid as possible in practice.  But after a while, the pitches will settle in to your mind and you’ll “hear” them in advance without thinking.  But it just takes repetition.  Repetition.  Repetition.


(c) 2010 Adrienne Osborn

Adrienne Osborn is a vocalist and performance coach based in Colorado.   For more free articles and tips, visit