Monday, June 04, 2018

What is harmony singing?

I had several new members join a singing project recently. I quickly realised that they didn’t really know what they’d let themselves in for!

It’s so easy to bandy words around without realising that they have a particular meaning and are ‘jargon’ to anybody outside the singing world. In this post I’ll consider our use of the word ‘harmony’.

when is jargon not jargon?

Jargon is extremely useful shorthand where some words have a special meaning known only to the group that uses them. If you’re not in that group, the words will either mean nothing to you, or mean something very different from their usual, everyday meaning.

When you’ve been inside a group for long enough, you can stop realising that some of the words you use can be seen as jargon to outsiders.

In the singing world we often use words like octave, interval, pitch, and so on without realising that most people won’t know what we’re talking about.

Every time I use such a word in this post I’m going to put it in italics to point out how easy it is to slip into jargon that newcomers to singing might not understand.

For this reason, to distinguish between musical jargon and everyday speech, we sometimes add the word ‘musical’, e.g. ‘musical interval’, ‘musical pitch’.

when harmony is really unison

For those of your who sing in choirs, the idea of harmony singing (or vocal harmony) is familiar and obvious.

However, I met someone a few years back who – although she’d been singing in a choir for some time – thought that harmony singing is when everybody is singing exactly the same thing at the same time.

When we use the word harmony in everyday speech we say things like “the group are really in harmony with each other” meaning something like “they’re all on the same page, working as one, doing the same thing at the same time.”

Hence the confusion.

What that person was thinking of is referred to as unison in music. It’s when everybody in the group is singing (or playing) exactly the same notes at the same time as each other.

In the world of music, choirs and singing the word harmony has a very specific meaning which is different from its everyday usage.

harmony in music

Harmony in music is when two or more notes are sounded at the same time. It can be any two notes, just as long as they are different notes. Some pairs of notes might sound more pleasing to our ears than others. Some pairs of notes might sound like a clash or a dissonance, but we still refer to them as being a harmony.

When three or more notes are sounded together they make up a chord.

choirs and harmony

Most choirs will sing in harmony (although some choirs sing in unison usually with instrumental accompaniment or a backing track).

The choir will be divided up into different parts or sections or vocal ranges. One section will sing the melody or tune, whilst the other parts will sing a harmony (i.e. mostly different notes to the melody, but sung at the same time).

A traditional choir will have four parts or sections. Those women with the highest voices are called sopranos, below that will be women with low voices called altos. Next lowest comes men with high voices called tenors, and finally the low men’s voices called basses.

Some choirs might have just two different vocal parts, others three. Particular songs might require five or six or more different voices singing at the same time.

Many community choirs will have sections which never sing as high as conventional sopranos, and never as low as conventional basses. They might also have mixed tenor parts with women singing very low teamed with men who are singing high in their range.

When a choir sings unaccompanied it’s called a cappella singing.

Somebody came to one of my workshops once and thought that unaccompanied meant that she had to sing solo!

think twice before using jargon!

I am a member of the Natural Voice Network and part of our ethos is to never use musical jargon which can exclude people from singing. That means that we can never assume any prior musical knowledge from our singers and try (as much as possible!) to use clear, simple language when explaining things.

But it is so easy to forget what our jargon is.

I hope in this post I’ve helped those new to harmony singing by explaining a few simple concepts, but also for the rest of you, tried to make you aware of how easy it is to use words that have a special meaning only known in the world of music.

I’d love to hear your experiences of musical jargon. Have you been put off by it? Do you use it more than you thought?

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Chris Rowbury



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