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3 Steps To Begin Vocal Harmonizing

3 Steps To Begin Vocal Harmonizing
Sweeten your sound with an intuitive method when you’re singing by ear –says Lisa Popeil.

Though harmonizing comes naturally to many, for others creating harmony parts can seem like a mystery.

Let’s say you’re working on your latest song and you’ve got a good melody, chords & lyrics – but now it’s time to sweeten the sound with background vocals.

How do you choose which notes to pick out of the air?


Understand The Concept

Let’s start by clarifying what musical element we’re harmonizing with…and that would be the “melody”.

We all know what a melody is, right?

Harmony is a melody that sounds pleasing when sung or played as a counter-melody to the tune

Turns out that the definition of melody is not as obvious as you might think. I like to define melody as a tune with rhythm.

A tune is a series of notes which relate to each other by varying distances called ‘intervals’. So, a tune is a sequence of intervals with a rhythmic pattern.

What’s a harmony line then? Isn’t a harmony line a kind of melody?

Yes, it is, but a harmony line is NOT the tune. Harmony is a melody that sounds pleasing when sung or played as a counter-melody to the tune.


Know Some Basic Rules

Though it’s best to have some basic music theory under your belt, you can still begin to harmonize intuitively by picking a higher or lower note to the melody that sounds good with the chord underneath.

Another rule for learning to harmonize is to go up or down in the same direction as the melody, UNLESS it sounds better to repeat your last note.

You don’t have to move your note. Move only when it sounds good and then in the same direction as the melody.


Visualize Your Harmony

Imagine a ‘musical sandwich’ with the meat of the sandwich being the melody and the harmony parts as the bread.

Both 2-part harmonies (melody + 1 harmony) and 3-part harmonies (melody + 2 harmony parts) are widely used.

Here are several configurations of 2- and 3-part harmony “sandwiches” with listening samples:

    Justin Timberlake - That Girl

  • 2-Part Harmony With Melody On The Top:
    M (melody)
    LH (lower harmony)
    Samples: Keith Urban ‘Stupid Boy’, Cream ‘Sunshine of Your Love’, Justin Timberlake ‘That Girl’, Simon & Garfunkel ‘Sounds of Silence’, Colbie Callat ‘I Never Told You’
  • 2-Part Harmony With Melody On The Bottom:
    UH (upper harmony)
    M (melody)
    Sample: Buffalo Springfield ‘For What It’s Worth’, Grass Roots ‘Midnight Confessions’
  • Dixie Chicks - Landslide

  • 3-Part Harmony With Melody In The Middle:
    UH (upper harmony)
    M (melody)
    LH (lower harmony)
    Samples: Dixie Chicks ‘Landslide’, Ronettes ‘Chapel of Love’, Mamas & Papas ‘California Dreaming’
  • 3-Part Harmony With Melody On Top:
    M (melody)
    1LH (top lower harmony)
    2LH (bottom lower harmony)
    Sample: Linda Ronstadt ‘Blue Bayou’
  • Beatles - Here Comes The Sun

  • 3-Part Harmony With Melody On The Bottom:
    1UH (highest upper harmony)
    2UH (lower upper harmony)
    M (melody)
    Sample: Crosby, Stills, Nash ‘Helplessly Hoping’, Beatles ‘Here Comes The Sun’

The late 1960‘s and early 1970’s were the heyday of great harmonies, so find old-school recordings, sing along with the melody first, then find the complementary notes, whether above or below the melody, to practice the great art of harmonization.


Lisa Popeil is one of LA’s top voice coaches. She is the creator of the ‘Daily Vocal Workout for Pop Singers’ CD download (for Male and Female) as well as the Voiceworks® Method and the Total Singer DVD, conducts cutting-edge voice research, lectures internationally and is a vocal health consultant. Lisa is a voting member of NARAS, the Grammy® organization, ASCAP, AFTRA and the National Association of Teachers of Singing. www.popeil.com

  • databass

    Some great harmonizing can be found in the recordings of the Eagles and Diamond Rio just to name a couple.

  • Poppa Madison

    Lisa, the theory is fine. An indication of the named note intervals would I feel be more helpful so that would-be harmonizers can actually “Hear what you mean” by playing it on piano for example.

    © ♯♪♫ ♂PM


    Follow Poppa on
    Twitter: @Poppa_Madison

  • Poppa Madison

    The picture just gets me singing “I wanna hold your hand!” how about the rest of you guys?

    Poppa ( Beatles junkie – circa 1963)


  • mfguitar11

    As much as I enjoy singing lead, if I get the chance, I LOVE singing harmony! It’s almost electric when it works. It’s sad that most local gigging singers in my area typically can’t harmonize.
    Beyond finding the right notes, there are a few things I have learned over the years.
    The first is to edit yourself. Unless you are singing early Beatles tunes or something like that, a harmony probably shouldn’t be sung on every note or every phrase. It has to fit musically. It’s another layer that supports the song.
    Another thing I am learning now is how to start and stop phrases in sync with a singer (in a live situation). Keeping an eye on the lead singers mouth can help you sync up and anticipate the phrasing.

    Any other technique tips for harmonizing in a live performance?

  • mfguitar11

    I grew up singing 4-part harmony in a church that has a tradition of singing a’capella. Learning a little bit about the Alto and Tenor parts from an old hymnal can be very useful in understanding harmony. It makes it easy to see, on paper, the intervals used over various chord changes and melodies.

  • keith

    ya, that’s my experience too. Use harmony to accent rather than blanket the song (of course there are exceptions!). I keep thinking of the 3rd and 5th chord structure (and its chordal inversions) in my head. Singing co-melody is real tricky if not done precisely and in sync with the other guy, but is very effective when combined with singing harmonies in other parts of the song. Kids, don’t try it at home though, unison singing generally sucks when not done well.

  • FL-Wolf

    Although I’m a lead singer, I’ve always loved to sing harmony. There’s is something fulfilling about it. I’ve done harmonizing many times in recording studios for other singers and for my own recordings. I do have a natural talent and it comes easy to me, which I appreciate very much and see it as a great gift I was given.

  • MC

    “Another rule for learning to harmonize is to go up or down in the same direction as the melody, UNLESS it sounds better to repeat your last note.”

    Really? Tell that to Bach. Contrary motion creates some of the most interesting harmonies. Definitely not a rule for anyone who knows any music theory at all. In fact it’s a good way to end up with parallel fifths and octaves which there are ACTUAL music theory rules against.

  • The Big Cheeze

    …..looks like you were given another “gift” of modesty….NOT!!

  • Trina Carter

    She did say “learning to harmonize”. It’s a springboard, I’m sure. It will allow a person who feels completely lost to gain confidence and encourage closer listening.

  • Music Row Voice

    Great layout of advice!