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How Does One Harmonize?

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How Does One Harmonize?

Postby john_titor » Fri Mar 29, 2013 3:31 pm

Before I ask my layabout brother-in-law, I thought I would ask you.

I am a novice and am not familiar with the terminology, but how does one know what "counter" note to sing? I assume there is some theory that explains it all.

tia and cheers!

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Re: How Does One Harmonize?

Postby Kenneth Burns » Fri Mar 29, 2013 4:16 pm

I just hear harmonies in my head and sing them. I don't know of a foolproof way to explain in terms of theory.

That said: If the melody line is somewhere in the middle of my range and a high harmony seems suitable, I sing that; thirds work well up there. Harmony notes below the melody tend to be fourths and fifths. Bass harmony means root notes. At least it does in the church singing I grew up with.

How you harmonize depends on what kind of music you're singing. High lonesome bluegrass? Lambert, Hendricks & Ross-style jazz? Crosby, Stills and Nash?

I love vocal harmony and love singing with people who can just find the notes without sheet music.
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Re: How Does One Harmonize?

Postby Galoot » Fri Mar 29, 2013 4:38 pm

I do what Kenneth does, but I wasn't always able to do so. I was a terrible singer as a teenager. I do distinctly remember learning some harmony singing by singing along with the "American Beauty" album by the Dead, over and over again on long drives. If you don't know which note to pick that is above the melody, having someone else doing it makes it far easier.

Yes, there are theories for doing it, but I've not paid much attention to them other than that in close harmony, you sing a fifth above the melody (the easy one) or a third above (much harder to do, but it adds a lot). Of course, that doesn't include jazz harmonies, which I guess are more complicated, I don't really know.

I went from "horrible singer" as a teenager to someone who bluegrass players don't mind having around to sing some harmony. I wish I could teach my brother how to sing harmony, he as a far better voice than I do, with a nearly 3 octave range. I'm lucky if I can do an octave and a half on a good day.
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Re: How Does One Harmonize?

Postby snoqueen » Fri Mar 29, 2013 6:49 pm

One way to do it is to look at the chords the guitar is supposed to be playing. It helps to be able to read tablature but if you have enough musical knowledge to understand the naming of the chords (C, A-minor, etc) that'll work too. Often (but not always), the note the lead singer sings along with that chord is also one of the notes IN the chord.

The person who is singing the harmony just sings a different note from that same chord. With a little practice you can string them together so they make a nice vocal line that fits right beside the lead.

This is wildly oversimplified but not off-base.

Here's another way to explain it: If you ever sang in a church that had hymnals with soprano-alto-tenor-bass lines (or if you can think in those terms), assume one of the voices (often either the soprano or the tenor) is singing the lead.

To sing two-part harmony, you sing one of the other (non-lead) voices. If you can't sing it in the range where it's written, you can sing it an octave higher or lower (useful for people with a small vocal range). Singing the tenor part an octave higher often makes a nice close harmony when the lead is the soprano, for instance. That works great in country or gospel.

The harmony notes can be higher or lower than the lead -- either can sound right in certain songs.

I now lost 90% of all the non-musicians out here, but hopefully someone can make sense of this. What I just explains works in country music and traditional songs (even bluegrass) not so much for other genres. But when you want to sing harmony (as opposed to backup), those are usually the kinds of music you're talking about.

Of course the whole thing relies on listening, not on looking at written music, but sometimes written music helps with an explanation.
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Re: How Does One Harmonize?

Postby bdog » Fri Mar 29, 2013 7:39 pm

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Re: How Does One Harmonize?

Postby john_titor » Sat Mar 30, 2013 9:49 am

Thanks all! A lot of good stuff to work off of. Sounds like just practicing is the real answer. Unfortunately, I have been "just practicing" trying to do that loud whistle thing with my fingers. 62 years later, I still can't do that dang whistle.

I appreciate the time you took to reply. Thank you again!
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Re: How Does One Harmonize?

Postby Igor » Sat Mar 30, 2013 7:53 pm

Smart ass response - listen to these guys, then give up

Realistically - I know that when our church choir has done Messiah, they have CDs that accentuate one voice or the other to assist in practice. There are also youtube recordings that isolate bass or guitar tracks for various bands. Maybe there are similar ones for harmony vocals? I will say that most people that can ad lib harmonies first become adept at singing pre-written ones.

The year or two of piano lessons that I was forced to take helped me a lot in reading vocal music and singing harmony, even though I stunk at piano itself.
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