A beginner's guide to Vocal Harmony

As amateur or semi-professional singers, we all are curious about the vocal harmonies gracefully distilled in Simon & Garfunkel or The Beach Boys pieces for instance.

Such associations are the result of vocal harmony, a science that's as efficient as tricky to perform. Indeed, this technique requires a little bit of knowledge of the music theory (chords, key)... or at least a very good ear.

Vocal harmony consists in doubling the lead vocals, with the same rhythm and most of the time the same lyrics, but on a different note. A vocal harmony usually has a lower volume to make sure it does not disturb the lead vocals.

In order to create a vocal harmony, you need to know the chords of the melody. You can find them by playing the chords on your favorite instrument (or find them online). These chords are made of several notes together.

Most of the time, the chord is made of 3 notes together : the fundamental, the third (4 semi-tones above, 3 if the chord is minor) and the fifth (7 semi-tones above). For instance, an F would have F as a fundamental, an A as a third and C as a fifth. Doing a vocal harmony for an F will then be about singing an A to get the third or a C for the fifth.

By extension, a G chord is composed of a G, a B (third) and a D (fifth). To harmonize the lead vocals in G, you can either sing the B or the D.

This is just a basic harmony, and many of them can be found to create a richer harmony. However, this technique is a first step towards more complicated patterns (and you probably won't need to get there to find a great harmony).

In addition, training your ear to recognize and build harmonies is necessary to master this technique. Indeed, karaoke is an ideal way to do so, allowing you to add your voice on top of the lead vocals and try different patterns according to your taste and mood.

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33 comments
  • 1 year ago
    Great posts thank you Hello hello hello is a par that is already in grained in my mind and I can use readily to find the harmony great tip thank you. Carlos Australia.
  • 1 year ago
    Thank you for this article! I've always said "I can't do harmony" but this will get me started practicing!
  • 3 years ago
    A small trick I learned is to think of the three chords from the Three Stooges and there famous Hello, Hello, Hello, these three chords are a root, a third and a fifth apart. It can help you get the separation in your head if your having trouble getting it.
  • 3 years ago
    Great comments! Their main thread is that harmonizing is something you LEARN. Just like you learned to sing, you can learn harmony, and it's easier than you think. BTW -not to become a thread discussing Barbershop, but we're "modernizing". The influence from many college age members is huge. They're singing charts from the Beach Boys, Billy Joel, and Garth Brooks to great songs like "I'm Yours" by Jason Mraz. This is not your fathers Barbershop......
  • 3 years ago
    Barber Shop, Southern Gospel, and sacred Shape note music are great for learning the art of harmony. Learn Solfege. Do, re, mi, etc.....Sing your arpeggios and listen closely to the background of all music that has more than one voice. Anyone who plays an instrument or sings can learn to harmonize.
  • 3 years ago
    Dank je voor de nuttige informatie Hans Leijten
  • 3 years ago
    Thank you very much for informations. This page is very interesting and useful, really. Gianfranco Tronu
  • 3 years ago
    ...or course, you just can't beat barbershop for truly having to learn and carry your particular part of the harmony. Some of the songs are really dated, but you will come away with a better feel for blending your voice harmoniously with others.
  • 3 years ago
    Excellent information, thanks. Will do a lot of practice !! Cedric Fernandez
  • 3 years ago
    AWESOME!
  • 3 years ago
    This is most interesting. I have been battling with singing harmony for a long time and had all but given up until I read your article and am keen to try again.
  • 3 years ago
    Thank you for your great information. I'll be able to make more complicated harmony by this useful article!!
  • 3 years ago
    (Post 1 of 4) As a “harmonizer” for 30+ years (in the Barbershop Harmony Society) this is a good basic article on harmonizing. Here’s a few follow up Tips: As tsturgill said in an earlier post “the willingness to drop one's ego” is important. Blending the volume of the harmony parts is essential. One must bow to the melody and support it, not overshadow it.
  • 3 years ago
    (Post 2 of 4) The real "secret" to learning how to harmonize is … ready?..... practice. Not a big surprise. Listen to that Simon and Garfunkel, Buddy Holly, or Doo-Wop tune. Any Country song old or new will work. Start with easy. Don’t go for complicated at first. Sing along and practice. (I love Everly Bros tunes). Try to sing the harmony part that is already there. The Karaoke Version “Custom Backing Tracks” are great for that. Cut out the melody so just the harmony is heard, and practice.
  • 3 years ago
    (Post 3 of 4) Also. Harmonizing is not necessarily just singing the melody line a 3rd or 5th above or below. Sometimes you should stay on the same harmony note while the melody changes. Look at the chord charts in guitar music. The chord often doesn't change for a number of measures. You could stay on one of those chord notes, while singing the same words as the melody, and be "making harmony" just fine. Practice this with a slow song and try to put in your own harmony (old songs work great).
  • 3 years ago
    (Post 4 of 4) Find a note that works (you'll feel it) and then don't move off that note until you "have to", again you'll feel it. Try this at church on those old hymns you know. It’s easier to harmonize to songs you know already. That’s another essential tip. You need to know the melody to be able to harmonize to it (generally). So make sure you learn the melody first. Then practice harmonizing to it. I can tell you this. Melody on its own generally sucks. Harmonizers are in demand. Practice.
  • 3 years ago
    Spots on you , folks !! And thanks for sharing this - Jösy AudiotRio (Facebook)- Brazil .
  • 3 years ago
    thanks. very helpful.
  • 3 years ago
    Great stuff. How about adding instrumental solo harmony to some instrumental trax for us who use trax for instrumental soloing (ie Sax)? Thanx again.
  • 3 years ago
    Spot on!!
  • 3 years ago
    Thank You
  • 3 years ago
    Thank you for sharing this article...very helpful and clear :3 Greetings from Ecuador
  • 3 years ago
    Thanks for the information , Very helpful and very simply put. We need more of that. Again thank you.
  • 3 years ago
    Thank you'
  • 3 years ago
    Thanks, would also be great to have some audio examples of explanation above and maybe some audio that we could use to practice harmonizing.
  • 3 years ago
    Thanks - very useful and simple explanation and nice to get this with the link to some Simon & Garfunkel.
  • 3 years ago
    Fantastic, great info. Thanx!
  • 3 years ago
    great stuff ...give us more
  • 3 years ago
    What a great blog. This is really useful information about vocal harmonies. Thanks, Clover Jean
  • 3 years ago
    I've always found vocal harmonies difficult, but understanding they are a 3rd of 5th above or below makes it very simple... All you need do is hum the tune being sung then drop your hum higher or lower till you hit the harmony (you'll know when you get it) and then start singing in that key and most of the time you can get away with it (this is a very simplified way and I'm not suggesting it's easy or non-technical but if you want to start the simply way, that's how you can do it).
  • More comments
  • 3 years ago
    I have met hundreds of talented musicians who cannot create harmony without being taught or given a written musical notation. Even so, there is a bit more to "good harmony." In addition to notes, you have to be able to HEAR blend of these notes in the backups. Then beyond the blend are dynamics which keep the song from being bland and repetitive. Harmony thrills me more than the sound of my own voice and the willingness to drop ones ego may be a part of the secret to good harmony.
  • 3 years ago
    Excellent! The best simple explanation I've ever read. Many thanks from a loyal client! Stewart Hull
  • 3 years ago
    Awesome piece...thanks for sharing!