Monday, July 11, 2022

Vocal exercises to help singers tune into a cappella harmony

I thought I’d share a few vocal exercises that I use to help singers tune in to a cappella harmony. 

I often integrate these into the warm up sessions to get people listening more closely before we move on to learning harmony songs.

These are very simple exercises based on scales, chords and listening. They work well for singers who are new to harmony singing, and can be extended and adapted for more experienced singers.

major scale

I start by establishing a major scale. Even if singers aren’t familiar with the music jargon, they will intuitively know what a major scale is. I often mention “Do, a dear” from Sound of Music as a reference point.

I often start on the A below middle C (with men singing an octave below that) which most singers can managed.

I usually get singers to use numbers to anchor the notes in the scale. We will sing an ascending major scale counting from 1 to 8 as we go. If your choir is familiar with Solfège (do, re, mi, …) then you can use that instead. If you have more experienced singers then you can dispense with note names and numbers entirely and just sing ‘la’ or anything else similar.

We sing the scale up and down a few times. I might check that we’re still in tune when we arrive back on 1. If not, we can do a bit of interval training such as imagining the steps going up as big, and those coming down as smaller.

major scale

nailing those intervals

To develop accuracy a bit more, I might get the singers to build the scale by adding one note at a time. For example, 1 | 1 2 1 | 1 2 3 2 1 | 1 2 3 4 3 2 1 | etc.

building scale one note at a time

Then I might move onto straight intervals, e.g. 1 2 1 | 1 3 1 | 1 4 1 | etc., checking accuracy as I go.

interval training

moving into harmony

A simple way of moving into harmony from scales like these is to do them as rounds.

The easiest is to split the group into two halves. One half starts singing the major scale from the bottom, then bring the second group in from the start as the first reaches 3. Go up and down the scale. You can drop the numbers and sing ‘la’ or ‘oo’ or something similar so singers can hear the harmonies more clearly.

two scales as a round

You can then divide the group into three and add a third scale coming in when the second group hit 3.

three scales as a round

You can introduce rhythm at this stage too. The first group can sing long notes, the second double that time, and the third group double again. To make things really interesting, you could have one group sing in triplets!

Or you can do the first exercise whilst having one group drone on the root note.

two scales as a round with drone

To emphasise the harmonies and listening even more closely, you can repeat the intervals. For example, sing the scale slowly as 1 2 | 2 3 | 3 4 | 4 5 ! etc., but using ‘la’. The second group starts when the first group reaches | 3 4 |.

la la scale with repeated intervals

Again, you can add a drone on the root note.

la la scale with repeated intervals and drone

To develop listening even further, get the group to stand in a circle and then number off 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3 around the circle. Singers numbered 1 sing a drone on the root, those numbered 2 start the scale, those numbered 3 come in when the second group reach | 3 4 |.


You can easily sing three scales as a round and add a drone. You can vary the dynamics and rhythms that you use. You can try a minor scale or even use modes. There are plenty of other things you can do starting from these simple ideas.

Once you’ve done a few of these exercise, you’ll find that singers’ ears are tuned in and ready to learn harmonies. The beauty of these simple exercises is that, even with a novice group, you can have them singing three-part harmony in a matter of minutes. A great sense of achievement!

further reading

You might find these older posts of interest.

Preparing to sing: physical and vocal warm up ideas for choirs

Singing in harmony 1 – how do they do that?

Learn how to sing in tune – harmonising

Helping singers learn to hold a harmony part on their own

10 exercises guaranteed to get your singers listening more carefully

How to introduce harmony to a group of novice singers

How to develop perfect warm up exercises for your choir

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

Does interval training work?

Chris Rowbury


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