This article was originally published in 2004
It’s happened to you before; you’re working on a song, laying down some great vocal lines, and suddenly it strikes someone that this track would be great with some harmonies. Unless you happen to be (or have) one of those amazing vocalists who seem to be able to pull harmony out of thin air by instinct, this may have been the point at which things got ugly.
Harmonizing a vocal doesn’t have to be painful, my friend. With a bit of theory and the help of a nearby keyboard (or whatever instrument you want to reference pitch with), you can work out some great harmonies; and while many vocalists can come up with a working harmony off the cuff, with a little time and planning you can come up with something a cut above the norm.
This article assumes you know a bit about basic theory, such names for intervals, scales, and some things about triads and seventh chords.
II. Getting started
When you take a theoretical approach to vocal harmonizing, the two most important pieces of information you can have are 1. the notes in the melody line and 2. the chord changes (this is where having a keyboard around can be a huge help). It’s important to look at the melody in the context of the chord changes, because where the melody is in relation to the current chord, and where it is in relation to the current key will both have an impact on which notes you choose for a harmony. Try playing the melody on a keyboard while playing or thinking about the chord that goes with it. This will help you to get familiar with the peculiarities of the melody you are about to harmonize.
Now that you’ve got a sense of what’s going on with the music, let’s look at three basic approaches to harmonizing a melody line: tight harmony, chordal harmony, and contrapuntal harmony (a.k.a. counterpoint).
III. Three basic approaches
1. Tight harmony
Tight harmony is one of the most common forms of vocal harmony in use in popular music today. Most singers who can instinctively harmonize tend to do tight harmony by default.
If you know much about music theory, you might know that Western harmony is built on the “stack of thirds”; in other words, any chord is simply a succession of major or minor thirds stacked one on the other. Similarly, tight harmony is typically done by following the melody line a third above or below. The third is major or minor depending on what is dictated by the key (or the current chord, if there are chords from outside the key).
Another variation of tight harmony uses sixths, since the sixth is the inverse interval of the third (in other words, if you went up a third, then dropped an octave, you’d be a sixth down from the original note. If you went down a third, then up an octave, you’d be a sixth up from the original note). Once again, you would follow using either major or minor sixths as dictated by the key or the current chord.
If you stopped here and didn’t read another word, you could probably do an adequate job of harmonizing most melodies with just tight harmony. But there are situations where sticking to thirds and sixths just doesn’t work out. We’ll look at some of those situations and talk about what to do with them later.
2. Chordal harmony
In sharp contrast to the tight harmony approach, the chordal approach virtually ignores the melody and simply picks chord tones from the current chord to harmonize with the vocals. The note of the harmony line stays the same until the chord changes, and it’s always on a chord tone.
This approach can be troublesome; it works great for building vocal pads, or when you want to add a third part when you’ve already got tight harmony going, but it can get bad when you are trying to harmonize one or two parts with the melody. Melodies move, and often they hit passing notes that don’t blend too well with the actual chord tones. This usually isn’t a problem when it’s an instrument playing the chord tones, or a choir of voices, but if you’ve got just two or three parts (especially of the same vocalist) you can wind up with some nasty dissonances if you aren’t careful.
3. Contrapuntal harmony
This is by far the most sophisticated approach to harmony, and takes the most work to get right. In counterpoint, you are creating a counter-melody whose rhythm and movement is not necessarily the same as the main melody. This can be trickier than it sounds, because to make a really good counterpoint line, you’ve got to keep in mind not only where you’re at with regard to the melody and chord changes, but you’ve also got to keep in mind the rules of good voice leading and melody construction to create something that is both complimentary to the original melody and pleasing in its own right.
Of course, you probably won’t find yourself writing full-blown counterpoint harmony to beef up a rock or pop vocal; the important this to grasp is the concept that we can move the harmony voices in different directions, different intervals, and at different times than the melody line. All of these approaches are extremes; in practice, we can borrow a bit from each to construct simple but effective harmony lines without agonizing for hours over them. Many arrangers start out with one approach in mind, and modify it with the other approaches to get out of trouble spots. We’ll look at some common trouble spots and how to deal with them, but first, we’ll talk about good voice leading.
IV. Voice leading
Voice leading is an art that dates back to the Baroque era, and many a freshman music theory student has agonized over its complex rules re-harmonizing Bach chorales. Because these rules are often taught in the context of 17th and 18th century music, and because rock musicians generally have a problem with any kind of rules, many musicians mistakenly assume that voice leading is irrelevant to modern popular music. But if you take the time to learn and follow these rules, you’ll find that they are still very relevant and will help you construct rock-solid harmony every time. I won’t go into a full-blown description of all the traditional rules, but I will touch on some ideas that I feel are most important and most likely to come up in popular music.
1. Avoid parallel fifths, fourths, and octaves
Parallel fifths are one of the biggest killers of a good harmony line. A parallel fifth is a situation where the melody and harmony create and interval of a fifth, and both move in parallel so that they again are a fifth apart. This gives a kind of Gregorian Chant effect and has a weak sound to it (although some styles of music have used parallel fifths specifically for the ominous effect of it, notably “Grunge” or “Nu-metal”). As the fourth is simply the inverse of the fifth, parallel fourths are also to be avoided.
The parallel octave is considered a weak movement, though I should explain that we’re not talking about a situation where the melody is doubled at an octave above or below, which is a common arrangement technique in pop and rock music. There’s nothing wrong with that. But in the context of creating a harmony part, you want to avoid hitting a parallel octave. In other words, if we’re moving along using fifths, sixths, and so forth, and suddenly use two octaves in a row, you will find it a weak and unsatisfying harmony.
In fact, pretty much the only intervals that can safely move in parallel are the third and the sixth. The only intervals we haven’t mentioned yet are the second and the seventh, and I have a hard time imagining a situation where you’d even want to attempt to move them in parallel.
2. Resolve tritone intervals and leading tones properly
The tritone (a.k.a. diminished fifth or augmented fourth) is the dissonant interval that drives Western harmony. If you know much about the resolution of V7 to I, you know that there is a note called the leading tone, which is a half-step below the root of the key, and that a tritone away from the leading tone is the 4th of the key, which is the 7 in the V7 or dominant chord.
If this is Greek to you, simply understand that if you have a dominant 7 chord, the third of the chord needs to resolve up a half step, and the 7 of the chord needs to resolve down either a half step (if it’s resolving to a major chord) or whole step (if it’s resolving to a minor chord). This means that whenever you encounter a tritone interval between your melody and harmony (or between two harmony parts), it’s going to either resolve inward to a third, or outward to a sixth, depending on what chord it’s resolving too. If you get into jazz harmony, you may find exceptions to this rule, but that’s beyond the scope of what we’re dealing with here.
3. Use contrary motion when possible
Contrary motion is when two of your voices move either towards or away from each other rather than moving parallel. This is a very desirable effect when harmonizing, though it has to be planned carefully. You can quickly wind up at a very ugly interval if you don’t turn it around at the right point.
One of the most common uses of contrary motion in writing vocal harmonies is as a transition between tight harmony in thirds and tight harmony in sixths, or vice versa. This can be a powerful technique to overcome the limitations of simple tight harmony.
4. Don’t get too far apart
With all this contrary motion going on, you have to be careful not to let your voices get too far apart. You should avoid letting two adjacent parts get more than an octave between them, and there really isn’t much call to even get beyond a sixth apart. If you have three part harmony or more, of course, it’s not a problem for the outer voices to get further apart than this, but no two adjacent voices should.
5. Avoid crossing voices
Crossing voices means letting a harmony below the melody cross over the melody and go above it, or vice versa. Sometimes it’s unavoidable (if you have a particularly soaring melody, for instance, with several intervalic leaps in succession), and on rare occasions it can actually be quite nice. For the most part, it’s best avoided, especially in pop productions where the same singer is likely to sing all the harmony and melody parts.
6. Be careful with seconds and sevenths
By themselves, seconds and sevenths tend to be blunt, ugly intervals. In the context of a chord, they can be powerful and haunting. For example, a major second, with a fourth on the top, becomes a nice suspended 2 chord (or suspended 4 chord in inversion). Just use your ears and be mindful of the context of these intervals in the chord.
V. Examples of common trouble spots in tight or chordal harmony, and how to work them out.
Here are just a few odd examples of “tight spots” I’ve run into when writing simple vocal harmonies. While you may not run into these exact situations, hopefully reading this will give you an idea of the kind of thought process you go through when writing a solid harmony, and maybe some ideas of different things to try that might prove more musically pleasing than the quickest and simplest solution.
1. Melody on the fifth of the chord using tight harmony above
Supposing you’ve got a song in G Major, the first chord is G, and the first note of the melody is D. You want a tight harmony above the melody. Your first harmony note, then, would be F#. Except, that would make your first chord Gmaj7. Nothing wrong with Major 7th chords, but they have a distinctive sound that isn’t always appropriate, especially on the I chord.
The simplest thing to do is start your harmony on G instead, harmonizing at a fourth. The trouble is that most harmony singers instinctively want to sing with the melody, so you just have to stay on G or make a leap off of it to make sure you don’t end up with parallel fourths.
Another option might be taking the harmony up to B and using parallel sixths (if the vocalist’s range can handle it), or even hitting the A (making the chord an add9; for whatever reason, I find that the ninth has less effect on the character of a chord than the 7th). This might be a good option if the melody moves up from the first note, because you can use parallel motion and get back to thirds in a pretty nice way. If the melody moves down, you’ll have to jump to avoid parallel 5ths or moving too far apart.
2. Melody resolves to the root with a lower tight harmony
This is a problem I hear all the time, particularly with improvised harmony. You’re doing tight harmony in thirds below the melody. The melody resolves to the root of the key. Let’s say you’re in C. When the melody hits the C, your harmony is going to be on A. Oops; that’s not resolving. What do you do?
The first and most obvious solution is to sing a G there instead of an A. If the melody is walking up to the C, then the second to last note of the harmony is a G already. Not the most exciting resolution, but it will work. If the melody walks down to the C, the second to last harmony note was a B. Here’s a problem. That B wants to resolve to a C. Resolving it down a third to the G will work OK, and if you’ve got a band going behind you, it’ll probably pass. But it’s a weak resolution, and a bit awkward.
I would think the best solution in this situation, provided it keeps the harmony in a good range for the vocalist, is to back up a bit and look for an opportunity to use some contrary motion to get the harmony to a sixth below instead of a third. Or, if the melody walks up to the C, get that second-to-last harmony note on an F, and resolve it down to E. Much more powerful and effective resolution than ending up on the G.
3. Tight harmony where the melody is on a non chord-tone
Melodies don’t always start or stay on chord tones, and songs don’t always stick to one scale or mode, even over the course of a phrase. I was working out a harmony once on a song where the first line of the melody was all on a D being sung over an Am chord. It got a bit tricky to harmonize, since we wanted an upper harmony on it. Complicating the matter more was the fact that the song changed freely from natural minor to Dorian mode (i.e. — it had both a D major chord and an F major chord in the progression), so it was unclear whether F or F# was appropriate to use on the rest of the progression. Clearly, an F natural wouldn’t work over the Am regardless, and the F# would give it the very distinctive minor 6 sound that isn’t always appropriate, even for a song in Dorian mode.
The best thing to do here is to decide how high you want to go with this harmony, and how far you want to extend the chord beyond the triad. Raising the harmony to a G creates an Am7 chord (of course the melody is adding the 11). Raising it up to an A leaves your harmony in the triad. In either of those cases, you’ll need to exercise caution to avoid parallel 4ths or 5ths.
Another solution is to go a sixth above the melody to the B, adding a nice 9 to the chord. Of course, if your melody goes up from the D, you’ll either need a vocalist with a great upper range, or a little contrary motion (i.e. descending, in this case) to get you back to thirds.
4. Chordal harmony where the melody hits clashing notes
As I mentioned before, the problem with chordal harmony is that very often the melody moves into a place where it clashes with the chord tones a bit. This doesn’t seem to be an issue when the voice is against instruments, but against other voices, the dissonance seems more noticeable.
A simple example: we’re singing a melody over D major. You’re harmonizing it with F# and A. The melody walks up from D to A, with the A hitting on the next chord change. When we hit the E, there’ll be a little dissonance with the F#, but nothing terrible. When we hit the G the dissonance will be a bit harsher. So we want to do something about the F#. You could move it to G when the melody does, but we’d rather not have our melody and harmony in unison. A better solution is to move the harmony down to an E when the melody goes to G. Of course, in this case the F# will still be unison, and the voices will be crossing. With chordal harmony, you’re almost guaranteed to have voices crossing, so we can let that slide for now.
Another solution is to have the harmony hop down to D when the melody hits F#. Again we’re crossing voices, but that’s almost unavoidable in this case. We’ll also have a little dissonance when the melody hits E, but that’s doable. But when the melody goes from G to A, we’re going to run into a problem with the upper voice. It’s going to have to get off the A before the melody gets there, but where to? Suppose, to make it interesting, that the next chord is G, making the melody note (A) a 9th. What to do with the harmony now? If we stick to the chordal approach, we’ll go to B. Not only will this leave us with a major second between the melody and harmony, but we’ll have come from a major second, giving us (yuck!) parallel major seconds. Not good. Our only real option, if we want chordal harmony, is to launch it up to D; rather a clumsy harmony line…
Because you can easily end up in situations like this, I don’t generally recommend using the chordal approach unless you can keep the harmony out of the way of the melody, either by putting it in a different octave, or by mixing it in such a way that it’s perceived quite separate from the melody line. It’s better to take a chordal approach for short spaces here and there where tight harmony might fail you, or by combining it with tight harmony in multiple voices (for example, if you look at the four part harmony used in many traditional hymns, the soprano and alto voices are in tight harmony, while the bass and tenor take a chordal approach), or by using it with a vocal “pad” (where the voices are singing vowel tones instead of lyrics, thus separating them from the melody). We’ll discuss pads below.
5. Resolving a diminished block triad.
As we discussed under voice leading, tritones always resolve a certain way — either inward or outward in contrary motion. If you’ve got a 3 part harmony, you can run into trouble because of this fact if you’re harmonizing either a diminished triad, or the top three notes of a dominant 7 chord (which is simply a diminished triad). Say you’re in G, and you’ve got the vii° triad F#-A-C as your harmony. The F# wants to resolve to G, and the C wants to resolve to B. So where does the voice with the A go to? Either way you go, you’ll be in unison with one of your other parts. While this is one option, it’s unfortunate that you can’t make good use of all those harmony voices. You could cross voices, but we try to avoid this. Perhaps the best thing to do is re-voice the harmony.
Classical harmony often used the diminished chord in inversion, with the third in the bass, which in this case would make our chord A-F#-C. We can see why now. The triad would resolve to G-G-B (with the two G’s an octave apart), a much stronger resolution than the others we’ve proposed. The only problems you face doing this would be that the A might be your melody line, so moving it might be out of the question; or there’s the fact that pop music generally doesn’t use the bass voice, so your lower line might get too low to be acceptable for pop or rock. (of course, you could move the F# up an octave too, though this would mean having two upper harmonies for the whole phrase, so you don’t cross voices. If you have an upper and lower harmony on a song, you’ll want to keep it that way. Chances are you’ll run into this sort of problem a lot, though).
VI. Some easy-to-apply contrapuntal techniques
While a complete study of the art of Baroque counterpoint would probably be a waste for most pop and rock musicians, we can certainly draw on the basic idea of counterpoint to take our background vocals to the next level. We’ve already discussed the use of techniques like contrary motion and changing the intervals in tight harmony; here are a few more simple ideas to get a more contrapuntal feel.
1. Simplifying the rhythm
When you’ve got a melody that’s syncopated or that moves fast, you can create a nice background part by simplifying or slowing down the rhythm and singing it against the melody in chordal harmony. You may have to drop words or phrases in the lyrics to make it all work out together, and sometimes this can work out nicely from a poetic standpoint (kind of like the background vocals are giving you the summarized version while the lead vocal explains the details).
2. Complicating the rhythm
Alternately, if you have a slower, smoother melody, you can create a faster rhythm for your harmony part to sing. You may have to add some lyrics here. Chordal harmony works great here as well. Notice how much better chordal harmony works when you aren’t singing tight with the melody rhythmically.
3. Echo and hold
This is a very old technique used in everything from barbershop quartet to doo-wop to Queen to modern vocal pop. It works well when you have a melody with a significant break at the end of a phrase (like 3 or 4 beats) and with at least 2 harmony parts. Basically, just like vocal pad, you hold out “oohs”, “aahs”, or even the first word of the phrase in a chordal harmony until the break; but then you echo the last line or last few words of the phrase in tight harmony (letting one of the harmony parts repeat the melody; alternately, you can echo just with harmony lines, omitting the melody line in the echo). When the melody comes back in, you let the harmonies “hold” again until the next break.
VII. Advanced Vocal “pads”
The basic vocal pad is just 2 or 3 vocal parts holding out “aahs” or “oohs” in chordal harmony. Of course, you can do this with just about any synthesizer, but the results when doing it with a real vocalist can be much more satisfying, especially for more organic styles of music. And there’s nothing that says all the voices have to change at the same time or stick to block chords. If you’ve got a songs that has that “chord-chord-chord” feeling, this can be a great way to smooth it out. Take advantage of passing tones, suspensions, common tones, contrary motion, and other voice-leading techniques to diminish the “blocky” sound that straight chord changes can often give. Here are some examples:
Passing tones: Say you’ve got a progression going from C to G with two-voice harmony. You are harmonizing the C with C and E. You could walk the upper voice to a G (to harmonize the G chord) by going E-F-G. The F is called a “passing tone”. The C could move down to B in this case, giving you G and B over the G chord. (Note– this is also an example of contrary motion).
Suspensions: This time you’re going from C to F. You’ve got 3 voice harmony, singing C-E-G over the C chord. You could move the upper voices up to F and A to harmonize the A chord (taking advantage of the common tone in the bass), but instead let’s just move the E to F and leave the G until halfway through the next measure, when we’ll move it to A. This creates a suspended 2nd, and breaks up the movement of the chord a bit.
Common tones: We saw in the preceding example the use of a common tone in the bass. If you wanted to smooth out that chord change even more, move the C to the upper voice (so the harmony would start E-G-C, the C being up an octave from the last example). Thus, between the two chords, the upper voice stays on C, drawing attention away from the change and smoothing it out. Common tones are even easier to use when you employ chord extensions– 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths — in addition to the triad notes, because very likely at least one tone in a chord will be an extension tone in the next chord. In the C-F example, you could just hold out the C triad over the F (provided you had other instruments establishing the change to F, and the vocal harmonies were high enough to be extension tones and not clash with the triad tones), making it an Fmaj9 chord.
Contrary motion: As I’ve mentioned before, contrary motion is when two parts move away from or toward each other rather than parallel to one another. It’s a very strong movement and usually very pleasing to hear. A common place to encounter contrary motion is resolving a tritone, as we discussed under voice leading. Tritones resolve in contrary motion (when they’re resolved properly, anyway), either in or out depending on how the chord is voiced. For example, in a D7 chord harmonized D-F#-C, the tritone would resolve inward to make a G chord. If it were voiced, D-C-F#, the tritone would resolve outward.
Using these voice leading techniques and others, you can get a better control of how the harmony moves in your music, whether you want to smooth out a blocky progression or liven up a static phrase. These techniques work not only for vocal pads, but also for arranging string or brass lines, synthesizer parts, guitar harmony, etc.
VIII. Parting words
Great vocals and harmonies are a wonderful way to spice up an arrangement. If you want to learn more, check out a good music theory book and read up on chorale writing. Remember to always keep in mind the range of your vocalists, and what’s appropriate for the style of music. Happy harmonizing!