If you’ve been singing for any length of time, you either know how to sing harmony or it’s probably crossed your mind to learn. Without a doubt, one of the questions I find myself answering most frequently is “how can I learn to sing harmony?” You might be surprised to know that, at first, I found it somewhat difficult to teach others to do something I had been doing for most of my life. For me, harmony is like a native language, one I learned at the tender age of two.
It’s true that, for some people, singing harmony is like having two native languages. Think of it like this: For a person born in the United States, English is most likely their first language. But say, for example, their family is from a Latin American country. In this case, Spanish may also be their first language, especially if it is the primary language spoken in their home from their infancy. In singing, the native language for most people would be melody, but for many singers harmony might also be a first language, primarily if music is a language “spoken” frequently in their home. What do I mean by this? Multiple studies have shown that early childhood/infancy can be one of the best times to learn foreign languages. Growing up, singing was a favorite pastime for my family. We were like the southern gospel version of the von Trapp or Osmond family, without the matching outfits (in fact, we were the “Ozmun” family. No…. really). The bands my family listened to exemplified classic 3 and 4-part harmonies, such as The Lettermen and The Statler Brothers. You could say that, because so much of my early learning environment was saturated in this style of music, it was only logical that I should absorb the sounds that I was hearing around me. Learning through immersion was the primary reason I was harmonizing at such a young age, not because I was some kind of child prodigy (even if I did enjoy telling people this as a kid).
All the same, if you’re older than two, you can still become “fluent” in harmony. In my opinion, your best learning environment is going to be the same as mine was: immersion. Surrounding yourself with Lettermen LP’s and 8-tracks of the Statler Brothers may seem distasteful, but you might find it to helpful to listen to songs that incorporate clearly defined 3 and 4-part harmonies. If you feel ready to “pick out” your part, listen to songs with 2-part harmonies. The best ones will have singers who don’t deviate from their part to “cross the harmony” lines, so to speak. I call this “getting on my harmony.” It’s best to stay within your own pitch when singing 3-part harmony.
When learning harmony, I believe that a basic knowledge of two particular parts of music – intervals and chords – can be useful. Understanding intervals and their relationship to chords can help you incorporate more dynamics into your performance and make you an overall better singer. So let’s take a look at them:
A “chord” is a combination of three or more tones (notes) sounded together in harmony. In essence, if you have three people singing together – each in a different pitch – they are creating a chord. If you’re a musician, it’s quite possible that you can learn to pick out the harmony of a song using the notes within the chords you’re playing.
An “interval” is the distance between two notes. Intervals occur in whole and half steps. Think of a piano keyboard: a half step would be the distance between a consecutive white and black note, with the exceptions being the half steps that occur between the notes of B and C and between the notes of E and F; a whole step is made up of two half steps and is the distance between two consecutive white or black keys.
Intervals come in varying sizes: Unisons, Seconds, Thirds, Fourths, Fifths, Sixths and Sevenths. Seconds, Thirds, Sixths and Sevenths are Major and Minor intervals whereas Unisons, Fourths, Fifths, and Octaves are Perfect. By raising intervals half a step you can create augmented and major tones and by lowering half a step you can create minor and diminished tones.
Until next time…