Monday, September 25, 2017

How to help singing groups harmonise even if it seems they can’t

Katharine leads a small informal choir where music is not part of the singers education and the level of musicality is low.

The Excel Quartet of the Vienna-Falls Chorus of Fairfax, Va., sings vocal warm-ups in the restroom, utilizing the great acoustics, April 2, 2013. The Excel quartet is the rookie quartet of the VF Chorus and is well on their way to success and great harmonies. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Carlin Leslie)

She’s tried some simple harmony songs and rounds with them, but they seem to have a total inability to harmonise. What can she do?

For those of us in the West who spent our youths listening to pop songs on the radio by the likes of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Everly Brothers, Queen, etc. it seems weird to think that some people just don’t ‘get’ harmonies.

Even without a musical education (and many kids don’t get much these days), we have plenty of opportunities to soak up groups harmonising together. It goes deep inside and helps us to understand harmonisation even if we’re not formally taught it.

But what if you have a group of singers who don’t have this background, haven’t been in a church choir, and don’t really understand what harmony is all about?

Here is what Katharine said.

“I originally thought rounds would be a good idea as it was harmonising, but a bit easier as everyone only has to learn one tune. After a miserable failure last semester (I over-estimated their ability!), I don’t want to try this kind of harmony at all.!

“We had another harmony song planned which we dropped before the performance as it was clearly not working. Pure unison all the way through seems terribly boring and hardly worth having a choir for. The only way I can think of adding ‘colour’ is to have different verses where I alternate boys and girls and solos + unison.”

“Most of the students have a basic sense of musicality, but it is completely under-developed. I would appreciate any thoughts you might have.”

And this was my response.


Pure unison is really, really hard and the sign of a great choir. Don’t be too quick to dismiss it. Focus on blend and intonation. Get the singers to see if they can sound like a single voice. You can also do this on just one note.

It’s a great learning and listening exercise. Then if you just add one simple extra ingredient like a drone for example (see below), it will be a big surprise for your audience. See Sing something simple (and see if your singing is as good as you think it is).

rounds and polyphony

Rounds are one way in, but you need to start with simple ones. However, they can be really hard to sing because it’s so easy to lose track of which section you’re on especially when the words are very repetitive (e.g. Dona nobis pacem, Alleluya).

See Easy songs for your choir: rounds, chants and call & response.

Another approach is polyphony, I.e. each sub-group has their own separate tune with its own lyrics which bears little relation to the others. That’s also how quodlibets work (I.e. several songs which work when sung together, e.g. It’s a long way to Tipperary/Pack up your troubles or When the saints/Swing low sweet chariot/This train is bound for glory).

I’ve made arrangements of well-known pop songs (choose songs that your particular group will be familiar with) where each of three or four parts has a completely different tune. The advantage is that (unlike rounds) each part has its own set of lyrics  and many people will be familiar with the song before you start.

However, even if a group can manage a round or polyphony, I don’t believe it introduces the idea of harmony that well as the singers will be focusing on getting the tune right and won’t be able to hear how the other parts work against theirs.


Many songs with simple melodies such as folk songs work well with a drone added. You can have lots of fun in warm ups be setting drones against each other. That would introduce harmony in a fun way. Then choose a simple songs (pentatonic folk songs from across the world work perfectly) and add a drone or two.


It may seem boring to be drilling scales all the time, but it’s a wonderful way to get singers’ ears used to harmonies in the warm up. One of my favourite exercises is to start by singing a major scale from the root upwards. ‘La’ is a good word to use. Do it slowly and get it accurate. If your singers aren’t familiar with the idea of a ‘scale’, then just remind them of church bells.

Once everyone can do a basic scale together, get them to sing each interval by repeating each note. I.e. 1-2, 2-3, 3-4, … Divide into two groups. One group starts singing the scale like this and the second group starts from the root note when the first group are about to sing 3-4.

You can develop this by adding a third group on the root drone, or even have three groups singing scales at different times. Simple, but very effective and a good ear trainer.

further reading

You might also find these posts useful:

How to introduce harmony to a group of novice singers

Singing in a group is a learnt skill – if you find it hard, it doesn’t mean you can’t sing

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Chris Rowbury



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