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Secrets of Singing Harmonies: Voice Leading

Singing harmonies with other singers is one of the most rewarding and exciting things you can do, but it isn’t easy – says David Combes.

David Combes is a seasoned freelance session singer who has sung backing vocals for Lionel Richie, Beyoncé, Annie Lennox, Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams and many more, and has performed in front of British Royalty numerous times. As part of Capital Voices, David provided backing vocals for 8 consecutive seasons of The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. 

I’ve been working as a backing singer for as long as I can remember and have been lucky enough to work with artists from pretty much every genre of music from Classical to Core Metal.

Over the next few weeks I’d like to throw a few ideas around, ideas that you might find useful when trying to write and arrange backing vocals for your songs.

Voice Leading with Chords

Symphonic ABBA with the BBC Concert Orchestra

In ye olde days there was a methodology for writing choral music that every student had to study.

It was a pretty firmly fixed set of rules called ‘voice leading’ that still has a place in the world of contemporary commercial music – though rules are definitely made to be broken!

All music can be thought of as vertical and horizontal.  If you use a guitar to write then voice leading may be something you haven’t really had to think about.

You may be most comfortable thinking in a succession of chord progressions, vertically, with a melody on top, rather than how the G in your C major chord should move when you move to an F major chord.

Those 2 chords have a little common ground. The temptation is to expect your singers to jump from one chord to the next, in the way that your fingers can jump around the frets.

If you write a harmony line for singers that looks like a heart rate monitor it may not sound as good as one that looks more like a gentle wave, where each note of the chord naturally ‘leads’ to the next. Follow a simple horizontal path, while still filling out the chord.

Small Intervals

Using those two basic major triads of C major and F major and employing three singers, there is one note in common, C.

If the person singing the C stays on that note then all is good, no pitch change is the easiest of journeys.  If the person singing the E moves up a semitone to an F they also have a very easy journey. Leaving the person singing the G with an equally easy movement, just up a tone to the A – your C chord is now an F chord.

This is the essence of ‘voice leading’. Although there is a great deal more to it than that, it is the foundation of good backing vocal writing, the skeleton you should always return to.

Other rules around consecutive intervals and note doubling are less strict in Pop but are important so you should always ultimately use your ears to judge.

I Have a Dream

If you have a simple song that you want to keep sincere then following the basic rules of voice leading may just do the trick.

Listen to the verse sections of ‘I Have a Dream’ by ABBA, from verse 2 onwards. Its lullaby-like melody is just made a little more texturally interesting, without distracting from its simplicity, by wrapping it up in harmony lines that hardly move but flesh out the chord changes.

One of the downsides to strict voice leading is that it can get a little boring and you can end up with something that lacks any real contrast or fizz.

However, it is a great place to start. By mixing in a few other elements it doesn’t take much to bring a little more life to your arranging.

My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry

Tina Franklin Tina Franklin - Drift Away

Thank you so much for submitting this, I haven’t heard ‘Drift Away’ in years and it really is a great song. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to your version. It was refreshing to see a performance on stage in front of an obviously appreciative audience. You have a relaxed confidence on stage that immediately put me at ease. I have the most minor of suggestions for you to consider. Even though this felt like a fairly relaxed event you don’t really hit your stride until you are quite a long way into the song, which makes me think you could possibly take a heartbeat before beginning to centre yourself. You have a lovely natural sense of phrasing but shy away from making this song your own until quite late. I actually really liked the little melodic changes you brought to this classic tune – with such a well known song you obviously have to be true to the original, especially at the start, but your interpretive skills and instincts are good. I think a little more belief in your ability to bring something to the party could go a long way. The section around 3:10 feels so much more engaged because it feels like it is coming from within you.

Why I chose Tina Franklin as a Finalist

I chose Tina Franklin as a finalist because she has a confidence in her voice, and performance, that comes across on the video, allowing her to deliver something that feels really sincere while remaining technically secure.

David CombesDavid Combes has backed Beyoncé Knowles, Chaka Khan, Elton John, Annie Lennox, Lionel Richie and many more. He’s sung on several series of “The X Factor” and “Britain’s Got Talent”. His vocals have been in films such as “The Corpse Bride”, “Transformers”, “Pirates of the Caribbean”, “Nine”, and “Pan” (end of 2015). He is also a solo performer and a tutor on the vocal faculty for The University of West London and for The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance. www.davidcombes.com

  • Spot on, David! A clear and concise Harmony 101…cheers!

  • David Combes

    Thanks Jaime.