Monday, June 27, 2022

How I teach harmony songs

An interesting question popped up on a Facebook group: How do you teach harmony parts to your singers?

There were several different approaches, some of them using recordings or keyboards. Here is how I do it.

First a bit of background. I work with non-auditioned singers, never use sheet music and always teach a cappella songs in 3- or 4-part harmony.


I make sure to break down songs into manageable ‘chunks’. I then teach all the harmony parts of a chunk before moving onto the next part of the song. I don’t always start with the same part, but I often leave the melody line until the end. In this way, all the singers feel like they have a ‘tune’ (choosing your arrangement carefully helps with this too).

It’s important to keep the chunks relatively short whilst not interrupting the overall flow of the song too much. In this way, no one section is standing around for too long.

See also How to teach (and learn) a song by ear and Learning songs by ear: what should you do while other parts are being taught?


As the parts build up, I usually ‘duet’ them as I go along. That is, I get different harmony parts to sing against each other.

I think duetting helps singers understand (if only intuitively) how the harmonies work. It also helps them hold their own line against each of the other parts in turn, hence bedding the song in more. And of course they have to listen actively in order to be able to do it!

It gives singers a much better overall understanding of the whole song rather then just their part. I've often had tenors complaining that their part is boring, but as soon as they sing it with one of the other parts, it comes to life.

You can, of course, extend this idea and play with all combinations of three harmony parts together within a four-part song.


Occasionally I will teach a song with singers from each part equally distributed in the room. That is, they stand in trios (for 3-part songs) or quartets (for 4-part songs), but close together as a choir. That means that there is always someone else singing the same part just one or two metres away. I get each part to put their hands up in turn so individual singers can see who else is in their ‘team’.

Learning a song in this way means singers have to pay more attention and take more responsibility for learning their own part. They get a more direct sense of how the harmonies work, whilst having the reinforcement of other singers in the room singing their part at the same time.

Once a song is learnt in this way, singers won’t get put off by the choir standing in different configurations.

See also Why do choirs stand in sections to learn songs? Here’s an alternative that might work better!


I never use recordings of parts when teaching new songs. I think it’s important for everyone to be in the room at the same time when learning a new song. The processes of ‘chunking’ and ‘duetting’ mean that singers get an immediate sense of the whole song rather than focusing on just their part.

Studying a part alone at home feels a bit too much like school to me!

I do provide teaching tracks once a song has been learnt and performed a few times. This is useful when revising a song after a long time, or when new members join the choir and need to catch up with old repertoire.

See also Why my singers don’t use recorded parts to learn songs and Helping new choir members learn the old songs.


I come back to a song at several points during a session – whether that’s a single rehearsal, one day workshop or an entire weekend. Sometimes I ‘chunk’ it again, but usually from the end of the song backwards. Otherwise the early parts of the song get rehearsed far more than the ending.

Once a whole song has been learnt, I will ‘duet’ different harmony parts using the entire song. I might also get singers to use different dynamics, inappropriate genres or speeds just to make sure the harmonies become embedded. I’ll also get sections to stand in different parts of the room. If you learn a song whilst standing in a particular spot, it can be surprisingly difficult to recall your part when standing somewhere different!


This is my way of teaching a harmony song. It’s stood me in good stead for over 25 years, but I know there are other ways of doing it. Do let us know how you teach (or learn) a harmony song.

Chris Rowbury


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