“I want to work on getting better at harmony…” is a bit of a red flag question for us singing teachers as harmony can be a tricky thing to teach.
I love harmony, in fact, I’m probably better at harmony than I am at melody if I’m being honest, and singing in harmony is something I’ve done for as long as I can remember. So when somebody comes to me and says that they are “no good at harmonies”, my brain has to really think hard about the best way to get the concept across – and I reckon I’ve got it down to two principles.
Firstly, a disclaimer. I’m not going to talk about counter-point, I’m going to talk about block harmony because I think that’s what most of us will be dealing with in commercial singing.
So here are my thoughts.
The key to block harmony is two-fold; knowing the melody inside out, and knowing the direction of the key centre. The first is something that we can all teach ourselves quite easily and I will go into why this is important later on. The second is more difficult because it requires a degree of musicality to be able to a) hear the chords that support the melody and b) predict which direction the chords are heading, or be able to identify the structure or cadences that make up the song. For example, in a lot of commercial music, some of the most well-used structures are centred around the major chords i, iv and v with the minor chords ii, iii and vi making an appearance as well. Being able to differentiate between major, minor and modal chords is really important in harmonising well.
Let’s come back to knowing the melody inside out.
Block harmony always always always follows the path laid down by the melody. So if the melody goes up, the harmony goes up. If the melody goes down, the harmony goes down. Sometimes, because of the chord inversions, the melody may go up or down but the harmony might need to stay on the same note. If the melody goes up, it is very unlikely that the harmony will go down. If the melody goes down, it is very unlikely that the melody will go up. How do we avoid potential clashes?
We have to zone our harmonies.
Let’s take a typical zoning example.
Harmony 1 will never drift into the Melody zone. The Melody will never drift into Harmony 1 zone or Harmony 2 zone. Harmony 2 will never drift into the Melody zone.
In contemporary vocal block harmony, we are always aiming to keep the zones either a 3rd or a 4th apart (taking into account modal and minor iterations of the scale). Any wider and we start to get the sense that something is missing, or that the chord isn’t complete and we drift into the realm of singing in block 5ths and 6ths which is a bit medieval sounding.
Let’s look at the above zoning demonstration by examining the well-known hymn, “Amazing Grace”.
Here is the melody.
Here is the melody with harmony 1 written above it.
Harmony 1 plus melody
As you can see, the zones remain completely separated from one another and never stray into each other’s territory.
Here is the full score with harmony 2 now added below harmony 1 and the melody.
Harmony 2 plus melody
Harmony 1 and 2 plus melody
Again, you can see that all of the zones stick to their zoning, and never stray above or below where they’re supposed to be or clash into or share that same note from another zone.
Following this method of zoning should keep your harmonies nice and tidy and above all sounding really great. I love using “Amazing Grace” because the melody is well engrained in the population (for the most part) and it’s a fun melody that swings both high and low. Whichever song you use, remember that the key to working out the harmonies is in knowing the melody and the song really well. Work with your singing teacher or in a group and take it in turns to sing the melody whilst you figure out the various harmony options and then swap around taking it in turns to sing the different melody and harmony variations. Next step is to branch out into different and more complicated songs.
Hope that’s helpful!