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Secrets of Singing Harmonies: Never Merely Stick to Thirds

Getting the backing vocals right for your recording is a tricky business, where do you start… and where do you stop? – asks David Combes.

David Combes regularly sings backing vocal sessions with Capital Voices, who have just recently topped the UK album chart with Michael Ball and Alfie Boe, and recorded for Bradley Walsh’s album which was the highest selling UK album for a debut artist of 2016. 

I had some misconceptions about back-up singers. One was that they weren’t as good as lead singers. I quickly realised that was not true. They have to be better
Morgan Neville, the director of  ’20 Feet From Stardom’

A simple mistake to avoid is believing that a ‘third above’ is always going to work. It might work for the first note or two but simply following that pattern without taking into account the chords will soon get you into trouble.

With most backing vocal parts, if you stick exactly to the shape of the melody when trying to harmonise you get a series of consecutive intervals that don’t sound great. You might even find that you need repeated notes in one of your harmony lines even when the melody is moving.

Simplicity is also often the most effective route to go down; layering up dozens of tracks might make the chorus of your dance floor filler come to life but it could also sound completely wrong and overpower a more delicate Folk ballad.

Work Out Your Harmonies

Using last week’s chord progression of C major going to F major and a melody that goes E, D, C (where the E in the melody is over the C chord and the C is over the F chord so the D is just passing) if you go a third above you get G, F, E and that final E creates a major 7th – which, out of context sounds lovely, but it may not fit.

If your harmony went G, F and then repeated the F you may get a better fit. Only by listening to both can you decide if that extension to the basic harmony works.

I Will Wait

Have a listen to ‘I Will Wait’ by Mumford and Sons – it’s difficult to categorise this song but let’s all it Contemporary Folk.  It’s really easy to hear that even though in the verse sections the backing vocal line stays close to the shape of the melody it isn’t identical, particularly at the ends of phrases.

This is even more apparent in the chorus where there is a really obvious repeated note, sung lower than the melody, that fits almost all the way through and sort of anchors the harmonies down.

This isn’t uncommon as it is really important that your harmony puts flesh onto the skeleton that is the chord progression.

Need You Now

With Folk, and to an extent Country, the backing vocal lines often mirror the shape and the words of the melody, rather than coming in as a wall of sound on long, held ‘oohs’ or ‘ahs’ though it is a little unusual to have harmony right the way through a Folk song.

The more traditional arranging style of Folk is to keep things very simple, possibly just a single additional line coming in on a chorus – however all rules are made to be broken!

Another great example of this mirroring of the melodic shape is Lady Antebellum’s ‘Need You Now’. In this song it is used for a specific effect, as both singers need equal billing.

This is done by creating a backing vocal line that not only follows the shape of the main melody but can be swapped between vocalists.

Here again the additional 3rd harmony line that’s added in for the chorus has very few pitch changes compared to the leads.

My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry

Timothy Christian Liu Timothy Christian Liu - Blackbird

Thanks for submitting this song Timothy. You obviously enjoy singing it and that comes across in your performance. You really made me smile and nothing is more endearing to an audience than watching and listening to a singer who obviously loves singing. This is a deceptively difficult song to sing and needs the perfect balance of effort so it is technically secure but feels almost like the singer is reading a piece of beautiful poetry – not easy when Paul McCartney is so comfortable at the top of his voice, making those high notes feel effortless! I would like to suggest that you think about the amount of effort you are making, could you lower the muscular effort in your tongue root, throat and larynx and still get the notes? Possibly this, plus your posture over the guitar, is contributing to a sense of tension, which is also affecting the eveness of your vibrato. Taking some of this effort away and smoothing out your vibrato might help make this feel even more personal – begin by recording your own backing track and singing along, standing up, with good posture.

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

  • keith

    Harmonies are the toughest and most fun thing to do singing for many of us, more articles please.

  • David Combes

    Thanks Keith, there’s a few more to follow :-)