The success of movies like Pitch Perfect put harmony singing back into the spotlight and lit a fire under a whole new a capella movement. That full, rich sound you hear when several singers are singing the same song but using different notes is called harmony — a long-time staple of the classics, including opera and musical theatre.
I’ve put together a short guide for singing harmony, including an overview of what harmony is and why you should consider adding it to your repertoire. In addition, I have added a section with tips about how to sing harmony. If you always dreamed of singing in an a capella group, musical theatre, or you are just a fan of execution in music, read on for details.
What is Harmony? Why Do You Want to Sing in It?
Vocal harmony is a style of music whereby a group of singers sing a set of consonant notes composing the main melody. The overall sound of the melody is fuller and more complex, giving it an almost ethereal vibe.
Vocal harmony has long been a staple of opera, barbershop quartets, and a capella groups, but has made it way into popular music, as well. It has been particularly popular in rock and power ballad genres, where members of bands sing in harmony during portions of songs.
What’s more, singing in harmony can improve your overall vocal skills. It will let you experiment with different styles and tones and is bound to make you a more versatile singer, which is always welcome for those who are looking to pursue a career in music.
Singing harmony also will improve your ears and your music hearing. Not all singers are born to be leads, but singing harmony can significantly improve your chances of landing gigs.
Whatever your motivation, never be afraid to experiment with your music and try new things – including the incorporation of harmony.
Tips for Easily Singing in Harmony
So, you want to learn to sing harmony. But how do you get started?
There is no single universal method for learning this singing skill. Some people naturally have a high aptitude for recognizing pitch and don’t require much practice. Others might need hours and hours of ear training to understand the concept well.
Read on for some universal tips that apply to most singers and should help you get a grasp of harmony singing quickly.
Learn Basic Music Theory
You don’t need to know every aspect of music theory to be a fantastic singer, but it helps – a lot! By learning basic music theory, you will better understand the concepts that bring music to life, learn how to identify intervals, and learn how to work on training your ear, a crucial step for any developing singer.
Harmony singing is no different, as it requires a clear understanding of musical intervals. While some might be able to grasp this purely by ear, the reality is that most of the singers have to train their ears to understand why they are doing things as they do. Regardless of which group you belong to, investing time into learning basic music theory will make you a more versatile musician and enable you to master new concepts more quickly.
Read Next: My Tips for Singing Louder without Straining
Intervals: The Heart of Harmony Singing
Intervals represent the distance between the two notes on a musical scale, including major and minor versions.
This handy list of intervals gives you a quick overview of the types of intervals that exist. A distance between two first and the last tone on a major scale is called an octave (or a perfect eighth). The names of intervals of the major scale thus carry names accordingly.
There are numerous examples of songs wherein each of these intervals appears in the melody. By understanding and memorizing these intervals, you will be able to recognize them in songs and easily apply them when singing in a group.
Chords: Shortcuts to Harmony
Chords are groups of notes played simultaneously, producing a uniform sound. The key to understanding chords is to learn how to build them. For example, major chords always consist of a lead note, a major third and a perfect fifth.
Let's take C major as an example. The chord consists of C note, E note (major third), and G note (perfect fifth). Played together, these notes form a G chord.
There are several types of chords, including chord triads:
- Major chords
- Minor chords
- Augmented chords
- Diminished chords
And seventh chords:
- Dominant 7th
- Minor 7th
- Diminished 7th
If you understand the chords, it is easy to identify the notes that will fit in perfect harmony with the major note of the song in the melody. It all goes back to understanding music theory and applying it to your singing.
Timing is Essential
I cannot overemphasize the importance of timing in singing harmony. Even if all of the singers in a group are on-pitch and know their intervals, the sense of harmony will be lost if they don't sing at the same tempo and same time. Instead, the singing will sound messy and uncoordinated.
It is vital to be able to identify the clues in any song and time your entrance accordingly. It takes a bit of practice, but once you are used to finding those clues in the melody, your timing will be on its way to impeccable.
Some of the most common approaches to finding the jump-in spots include listening to the rhythm section of a song, especially the drums or percussions. They give structure and frame to a song, and their queues are easy to follow. Identifying a snare or something similar might be a great clue that it’s time to jump in.
Practice in Groups
This one is a no-brainer.
If you are preparing to sing in harmony with others, you must spend time practicing with them. You can learn how to sing harmony alone at home, using recordings, but it’s not always the same in real life. Singers have different styles, preferences, and plenty of quirks that can easily throw off your timing.
Practicing with other singers will help build chemistry and a better understanding of your role in the group’s performance. It will also provide you with a motivation boost and a sense of accomplishment as you hone your craft and sound with colleagues. What’s more, it is a perfect opportunity to get some advice and mentoring from other singers. While I do think you should know how to practice singing by yourself, learning in a group is crucial to harmony.
By simulating performance in practice, you will be able to iron out all of the quirks that come with a live performance and singing in harmony with others.
Listen, Listen, Listen
Always strive to imitate the greats. Spending countless hours listening to songs by legendary artists that employ harmony will help you better understand its value and importance, in addition to gaining a more thorough understanding of the way songs are composed. Learning is a continuous process, and there are always better and more advanced singers who can help you grow.
One of the most productive ways to spend your time listening to music is by picking a few songs with excellent harmonies that you genuinely enjoy. Play a song over and over as you try to identify the dominant melody, harmony, intervals, and chords in the song.
The more time you spend with the music, the easier it will be for you to grasp new concepts and pick up new techniques as you develop your voice and music acumen.
Practice Makes Perfect
Very few people are born with an intrinsic aptitude to mimic pitch and tones or pick up complex music concepts by ear. Most of us have to work hard to improve as singers, but we also have to work smart. The learning process has several components, including self-assessment, reflection, and motivation.
Learning how to sing harmony is no different. You have to start at the beginning and adopt a systematic approach to learning it. Be sure to start with simple songs that will help you understand the process quickly and teach you how to identify melody, harmony, intervals, and chords. Once you can follow these basic concepts, you can begin to apply them to more complex songs.
And keep in mind that learning to sing harmony is a process. Don’t get discouraged. Nobody learns how to sing overnight. It requires passion and dedication, as well as the will to push yourself mentally. Progress is a journey, and those who are taking the journey to harmony often have trouble seeing the results immediately. Step back on occasion and take a look at what you have accomplished. Record your singing practice, and you'll improve steadily.
I hope you find this guide useful and informative as you take the next step in learning how to sing in harmony. It will be worth every ounce of energy you invest!
James is an ex-writer for Music Grotto who focused the majority of his writing on the musical skill development content on the publication. His 20+ year career as a singing and vocal coach provided insightful content for the website, and his continued thirst for development in guitar and piano playing helped create some excellent skill development content for the publication.