Secrets of Singing Harmonies: Counter Melodies

Gladys Knight and The Pips

Top artists will teach you ways of introducing additional vocals to your songs, all achieving very different effects – says David Combes.

David Combes as performed backing vocals for Lionel Richie, Elton John, Gary Barlow and Beyonce. He has performed at the Royal Albert Hall and Wembley Arena, and regularly performs in front of British royalty.

Getting ready for Wembley Arena for The Legend of Zelda

Getting ready for Wembley Arena for The Legend of Zelda

We’ve already discussed how you can bring a new texture into a section of a song by mirroring the melodic shape with an additional voice (or more) so that it runs parallel with the lead vocal. And I discussed the importance of adhering to the chord structure that underpins the melody even if you are harmonising every word.

Understanding the basics of chord structure, and following the chord progression, is always going to be important, even if the backing vocal line happens in the spaces.

Give your Backing Vocals an Identity

There are times when, rather than moving with the melody, you might want to consider giving your backing vocal part an identity all of its own; rather than reinforcing the melody it could comment on the main melody.

This has been going on since the dawn of time, and was possibly more obvious when artists were often associated with specific vocal groups; Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Elvis Presley and The Jordanaires, Martha Reeves and The Vandellas.

It isn’t right for every song, and is trickier to get right, but when it works it can be really effective.

Midnight Train to Georgia

My personal favourite example is ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ by Gladys Knight and The Pips.

It is an absolute triumph of vocal arranging, a classic soul tune, and a lot can be learnt from listening to the way the backing vocals and the lead vocals play off each other.

‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ is a little unusual, and there aren’t many songs where the backing vocal section is so separate from the lead vocal.

However, having a backing part move slightly differently from the lead vocal, often as a sort of echo, is relatively commonplace and is a favourite effect with Pop writers.

Back for Good

‘Back for Good’ by Take That is a great example of this effect being used to help build a song. Plus, it is fantastically catchy!

In the first verse and pre-chorus Gary Barlow is basically left on his own to sing the lead. Right up until the first chorus this sounds like a song by a solo artist.

When we get to the first chorus there are some simple background ‘oohs’ and the first partial echo phrase comes in. However, throughout the second verse there are more and more interjections from the rest of the band, gradually building layer upon layer.

By the time we hit the second chorus there is a whole counter-melody running alongside the lead vocal bringing a completely different feel to the second chorus, with the rest of the band taking to role of ‘The Pips’ in ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’.

The song ends with an epic double chorus where, in the final chorus, the main melody is sung by the band and the echo phrase, or the counter-melody, is sung by Gary Barlow.


My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry

Horacio Grotewold Horacio Grotewold - Shout

Horacio, I’m a bit of an 80s guy so I loved hearing one of the most recognisable songs from the 80s (especially from a band that came from the place where I was born, Bath). You obviously have a real love for this type of music and I really like the way you play and sing. Some singer/guitarists hide behind their instruments but for you the guitar is a comfortable extension of your performance. There are a couple if things you might want to consider when performing this song. For me this is a political song and the title is a clue as to where you need to go vocally. At the moment, your vocal delivery is all on one level and there is room here for dynamic contrast, in both directions. I think you could aim for a more thoughtful verse and a more demonstrative chorus, with more passion – not easy when it isn’t actually that high. You might also want to have a listen to the different pronunciations of ‘th’, always a tricky sound to master, as it isn’t the quite same for ‘these’ and ‘things’ and it is easy to slip into the habit of singing something close to ‘d’ for both. I appreciate that this is very hard for someone who is already doing a great job of singing in English, but it would be worth a little time.


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