For the last two weeks I’ve been focusing on learning how to match pitch with another singer or instrument. That will help you become better at singing in unison with others. But what about singing in harmony?
Singing Trio by Walter Watzpatzkowski
I’ve covered many of the issues involved in harmony singing in a previous post (Singing in harmony – how do they do that?), but in this post I’m going to look in detail at how you stay in tune whilst singing harmony with others.
mind the gap
Basically harmony singing is when two (or more) different notes are sung at the same time. The gap between these two notes is technically called an interval.
Intervals can be of many different sizes. Two notes can be very close together (found often in Eastern European harmonies), very far apart (for instance, when men and women are singing together), easily found (because they are familiar from pop songs and Western classical music), tricky (because they sound a bit unusual like blues or jazz).
back to basics
I know for many of you out there this is very elementary and you all have music theory backgrounds and know your 7ths from your 2nds, but I want to go back to basics and really consider what we’re trying to achieve, so please bear with me!
Even if you don’t know what a scale is, you can practice singing in harmony. The easiest way is to find a piano or keyboard and find middle C (that is the white note nearest to the middle of the keyboard). This is note number one in the scale (of C). Play this note first, then the white note to the right and so on until you get to note number eight. These are the eight notes in the scale.
experimenting on your own
To begin to find out what singing intervals feels like, you can work on your own with an instrument such as a keyboard. Play the first note in the scale and sing a matching pitch (you’ve learnt how to do this from Learn how to sing in tune – matching pitch).
Keep singing this pitch (breath when you have to!) and play the second note in the scale. This may feel a bit weird as the two notes are very close together. Move onto the third note in the scale (whilst still singing note one) and it may feel a bit more familiar (this interval is called a third and is extremely common in Western harmony).
Carry on up the scale and just feel what the different intervals are like. You may prefer some intervals to others. It can seem like each interval creates its own mood.
You may need to keep going back to note one to check that you are still singing in tune.
experimenting with another voice
It’s more likely that you will be singing harmony with another voice rather than an instrument. If you’re starting out, it’s best to work with a singer who has some experience of being able to sing scales accurately and to stay in tune.
You can carry out the same experiment as you did with the instrument, but this time with a human voice. You sing (and hold) the first note in the scale and your friend sings each of the other notes in the scale in turn.
This experience will be different from singing against an instrument because the quality of the sound you are both making is much more similar. You will feel much more of a connection between the two voices and it may have a strong emotional effect on you. Again, depending on your personality and life experience, you will prefer some intervals to others. Each one will create its own mood.
it’s the same note, but it FEELS different!
You may discover an interesting effect at this stage: even though you are always singing the same note, it might feel different as the other note changes against yours!
That is a danger point since it can mean that you drift off towards the other note without noticing and are soon out of tune, especially if the particular interval is one that doesn’t feel ‘pleasing’ to you.
Often it’s the bass section in a choir who get the drone note and, even though on the face of it, it seems simple, it’s very easy for a drone (see below) to drift out of tune as all the other voices change around it.
moving on up
Basically what you’ve been doing up to now by sticking to the first note in the scale is singing a drone note. This is a very common harmonising technique in certain cultures (e.g. Scottish and Georgian). Now it’s time for you to move onto other notes.
Practising either with an instrument (preferably one that can sustain a note like an organ) or another singer, it’s your turn to move up the scale whilst the first note is being played or sung.
You’ve already learnt how to stay on pitch, so begin by singing up the scale with the instrument or your friend to check that you’re singing accurately.
Now, as the first note in the scale is being played, sing the second note in the scale, then move onto the third and so on. This is basically the same listening experience as when you were holding the drone note, but now you are changing pitch all the time.
choose your interval
So far we’ve methodically gone through all the possible intervals in a scale one at a time, in order. Now it’s time to pick specific intervals and see if we can sing them accurately.
Again, it’s easiest if you have something like a keyboard handy. Play the first note in the scale and then pick another note to create an interval. When you start out, the easiest, most familiar notes are the third and the fifth note in the scale.
Play the two notes in the interval. Choose one to sing and get your friend to sing the other one. Double check with the keyboard that you are matching the pitch correctly. Then get close to your friend to see what this interval feels like. If you think you’ve nailed it (the air will seem to shimmer and your voices appear to ‘lock in’ to each other), then try for each of you in turn to slide your note slightly up or down, then come back precisely to where you started.
Take turns at singing the first (root) note of the scale and the interval note. It’s amazing how different it can feel! Also, see what difference it makes sliding up as opposed to down, and then back to the original note.
working without instruments
Now that you’ve had some experience of singing against a keyboard or other instrument, we’ll now move onto just using voices without any external reference points.
Pick a comfortable note in the middle of your range and sing it. Let’s call this the first note of the scale. Now sing a scale, giving each note a number, i.e. 1, 2, 3, ... , 8.
This is the same as you did when singing against the white notes on the keyboard, it’s just that now note number one might not be a C. Make sure that the high note is comfortable for you. If not, choose a different starting note and try again.
Sing this scale a few times to make sure you’ve got it right. Get your friend to give some feedback on your accuracy.
Now we move on to building the scale up one note at a time. This is good practice for singing intervals accurately and is vital for harmony singing.
Sing note number 1, then 1, 2, then 1, 2, 3, then 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on. Basically you are building the whole scale by returning to the root/ first note each time, then adding one more note of the scale at the top until you reach note eight (by the way, note 8 is an octave above note 1 if that’s of any use to you!).
finding the right gap
Once you’ve nailed the building a scale exercise, you can move onto singing just intervals without any help from an instrument.
Start by singing note 1 in the scale. Then sing note 1 followed by note 2 (easy and familiar so far). Then sing note 1 followed by note 3 (we’ve missed out note 2!). Then try note 1 followed by note 4. And so on.
This is an incredibly useful exercise, but can be quite hard at first. Even though you’re now very familiar with the scale, can sing up it with ease, and can even build it one note at a time, you will find that sometimes you will over- or under-estimate the gap between note 1 and the note you’re aiming at. This is when a friend (or a keyboard) comes in as useful feedback. Try it for a while on your own, then get some feedback to see if you’ve been getting it right.
You might find that some particular intervals give you more problems than others. You will almost certainly find note 7 hard to get (this is blues and jazz), and some people find 4 rather tricky. You may also find that you are consistent in the way that you get it wrong. For instance, you may always misjudge note 3 by going a bit too high. If you find this out through feedback, then you note this tendency and try to correct it each time.
Once you can do this interval exercise quite well, move onto a different key by choosing a new note number one, and repeat the exercise.
up or down?
There are two ways of singing an interval when it occurs in a melody (as opposed to a harmony where both notes are sung at the same time): up or down. For example, you can start on note 1 and go up to note 3, or you can start on note 3 and go down to note 1. It's a good musical training exercise to go back over some of the exercises in this post and do them in reverse, i.e. start from the top and work downwards.
If you have no instruments or friends nearby and you need to sing a particular interval, there is a neat trick that can help you. Various people have compiled lists of well-known songs that feature specific intervals. All you have to do is to sing that bit of the song, and you’ve found your interval!
For example, a fourth (the interval between note 1 and note 4) is the beginning of Auld Lang Syne: “Should old ...”. As mentioned above, you might come across intervals in melodies going from up to down, rather than the other way round. These lists of intervals give you examples of both directions.
You can find examples of interval lists here:
singing with a friend
You’ve practised intervals on your own by singing the first note of the scale, followed by another note in the scale. Now it’s time to enlist the services of a friend to play the same game.
Choose an interval (e.g. that between 1 and 5). Take turns at singing a note, any note. This is note 1. The other singer then sings note 5. Check that the interval is correct.
To move onto harmony singing, you then sing your notes at the same time. This should then begin to feel like the exercises you did when one of you sang a drone note. The main difference is that you have chosen a particular interval, and you have sung it without reference to an instrument. Again, try sliding in and out.
beyond two-part harmony
So far, you have just been singing two part harmony. That is, one part has one note and the second part has a different note, which then creates an interval.
Most harmony singing is in more than two parts. Three part harmony is very common. This is when three different notes are sung at the same time. These three notes then create what is known as a chord. A very common chord in pop songs is a major chord which consists of notes 1, 3 and 5 in the scale.
Of course, you’ll need another friend to sing three part harmony! One of you picks and sings a note (that will be note 1 in the scale). Another sings note 3, and the the remaining singer sings note 5. Take turns to sing the different notes to see if it feels different at all.
getting it right feels like getting it wrong!
Sometimes you are singing in harmony with one or more other voices when it feels so absolutely perfectly right. You’ve totally nailed the intervals and are spot on pitch and it sounds wonderful! But because it’s so perfect, it’s as if the notes are singing themselves. In fact, you’re no longer sure which part you’re singing. You listen hard, but each note fits in so perfectly with the others that you can’t remember which is yours. Maybe you’re singing the same note as one of the others and have forgotten your own part?
This is very common. Often when singing harmony in a small group I suddenly panic and think that I’m singing in unison with another voice instead of my own part. But usually I’ve got it right and it’s just working really well.
If you have a doubt (and it’s in rehearsal), then stop and double check. Most of the time you will have been singing the right note and just need confirmation.
carry on singing!
Now that you can match pitch accurately, find intervals with ease, and sing perfectly in harmony, then check out the other skills needed to sing in a choir or with a small group (Singing in harmony – how do they do that?), and keep on singing!
Chris Rowbury's website: chrisrowbury.com