How to Sing Harmony Properly
Learn the fundamentals and get tips on singing better vocal harmonies
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Last Updated: January 2023
So you want to know how to sing harmony like a professional?
In this guide we’ll show you exactly what harmony is and how singers approach harmonizing vocals so that you can start singing harmonies right away.
If you’re new to singing, make sure you read our guide on how to sing properly before diving into harmony.
OK, let’s get into it…
Article Table of Contents
- 3.1 Avoiding Clashes
- 3.2 Perfect Your Pitch
- 3.3 Learn the Theory
- 3.4 Study the Music
- 3.5 Re-Harmonize the Greats
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What is Singing Harmony?
When most people think of harmony, they think of a bunch of background singers singing together at the same time as a lead vocalist.
And although this is true to some extent, it’s not the full story.
They’re not singing the exact same thing.
If you’re harmonizing vocals, you’re more often than not singing different notes than the lead vocal is singing. They’re not random notes, however – they’re strategically chosen so they sound good (i.e. in harmony) with the lead.
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Harmony in Music Theory
In music theory harmony can mean a couple of things. In simple terms, it can mean more than one note playing at the same time (i.e “chords”) or a series of chords played one after the other (i.e “chord progressions”) that sound pleasant when played in sequence.
These are closely related to the concept of music scales – something you can learn more about in our free music theory guide if you’re totally new to the idea. (It’s a good idea to learn music theory essentials in that guide to really understand harmony singing).
Think of harmony like this: sing or hum your favorite song.
What you’re most likely humming is the melody of the song, and that’s usually the lead vocal line in popular music. If you imagine the rest of the song (the piano/synth/guitars/bass, etc) you’re thinking of the harmony of that song.
It’s the underlying movement of the music from chord to chord that brings our a certain emotion or feeling.
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Harmony When Singing
Now when we’re talking about singing and harmony, we’re usually talking about more than one singer singing together at the same time, but using different notes.
One vocalist will sing the original melody of the song while the other will either:
- match the shape of the melody (ex/ if melody moves down, harmony moves down as well)
- stay on the same note regardless of how the melody moves
- move in an opposite/different direction than the main melody moves
Most often, harmony parts will match the movement/shape of the original melody.
But, it will usually use different notes.
Why Learning Harmony is Essential
If you’re an aspiring singer, you need to know how to write harmonies. As an independent artist, you’re responsible for everything related to your music production and career. You can’t always (if at all) have a producer or writer come in to help you with your harmonies.
Performing live with harmonies is tough as an independent act, but you’re also probably a recording artist (and if you’re not, you should be). Meaning you can absolutely record your own harmonies when working on a single or album.
You could do every single vocal part yourself, and indeed even the pros do this.
Ariana Grande did her own harmonies in that massive choir outro in her smash “God Is a Woman.” It was like 27 vocal harmonies. Craziness. Thank God for digital music production.
Getting Started With How to Sing Harmony
So how do singers know which notes to harmonize with?
Well if they write their own harmony parts, they have a good understanding of music theory – chords, scales and intervals.
What do you do if you don’t know all that?
Using Songs to Discover Harmonies
Then you need to practice harmonizing with your favorite songs to get an idea of “where” normal harmonies would occur and how they’re structured.
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Here’s a quick exercise you can do to familiarize yourself with how they’re supposed to sound
- Find a song you love (and know well) that features a female singer and a male singer singing together.
- Listen through the song paying attention to the main melody being sung (the part you’d naturally sing along to)
- When both singers sing at the same time pay close attention to both vocalists – who is singing the main melody?
- Now listen again and try to “ignore” the main melody singer and focus in on what the second vocalist is singing – that’s the harmony.
- Try to match what the second singer is singing – often it will be different notes than the main melody.
At first, you’re going to automatically fall into singing in perfect unison (the same notes/pitches) with the main melody.
That’s normal, just remember to catch yourself and go back to matching the harmony, ignoring the melody while you’re singing only the notes you’re supposed to be singing.
If you do the above exercise a lot with various different songs you’ll find yourself able to naturally just “know” what sounds good as a harmony.
But there’s a quicker way to get better at singing harmony – use music theory. Here are more musical concepts if you’re interested.
How to Create Your Own Harmonies
Harmonies can get pretty complex and intricate when you fall down the rabbit hole.
Most basic vocal harmony parts simply use either an octave, a major/minor 3rd or a perfect 5th interval to harmonize with the lead melody.
What’s that mean?
If your melody line is using a C note in one place, a basic harmony would use the note that’s a 3rd, 5th or octave above that C note when singing along.
If another spot in the melody is sung using the F note, you could look to the 3rd/5th above that note as a harmony note.
But you don’t HAVE to only use a 3rd, 5th or octave. Try out a 7th above/below the note. Try something else. If it sounds good, it sounds good. And that’s all that matters.
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But for the sake of simplicity, let’s stick to thirds and fifths for now. Here’s how to find those intervals for various notes.
Finding Thirds and Fifths Using Musical Intervals
An interval in music is simply the distance between two notes.
Intervals are measured in the number of “half-steps” or “whole steps” that you have to travel to get from your starting note to your destination note.
A half-step is a move from one piano note to the note directly next to it. A whole step is when you skip a key between the note you’re on and the next note.
So a half step would be a move from the C note on a piano to the C-sharp (D-flat) note.
A whole step would be a move from the C note to the D note.
Here’s a picture of a piano to help illustrate this concept:
And here are the intervals you need to know to start writing basic harmonies for your melodies:
- Minor 3rd – 3 half steps (ex/ C -> E-flat)
- Major 3rd – 4 half steps (ex/ D -> F-sharp)
- Perfect 5th – 7 half steps (ex/ F -> C)
- Octave – 12 half steps (ex/ C-> C)
There are many other intervals you can use and various scales you can write in to get really crazy, but those 3 intervals will get you started.
Tips for Better Harmonies
Strategies to get your harmonies sounding better
Once you’re comfortable with the basic concept of finding and singing harmonies, you should keep pushing yourself to get better. In the history of singing, harmony has been essential.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when you’re starting out.
When you’re writing your own harmonies, you can’t just choose a random interval and think it’ll automatically work. At first, you’re going to have to go through trial and error, note by note.
It’s going to be daunting, but it’s important.
For example, depending on the scale you’re singing the song in, your harmony might not work with a minor 3rd on any given note. So try a major third. Still doesn’t feel right? Try a fifth or an octave.
Work it out so that your harmony sounds the best it can be.
Perfect Your Pitch
It’s important that when you sing, your pitch is as good as it can be. You don’t necessarily have to be pitch perfect but you have to be in the ball-park.
And then you can work on singing louder.
There’s nothing worse than a great written harmony that’s sung off-key. Learn how to sing higher.
Practice your pitch! Auto-tune won’t always save you.
Learn the Theory
One of the best ways to quickly know what will work is to learn the music theory behind it all.
We have a full guide available for free.
If you learn about “diatonic harmony” it’ll make it a lot easier to know your way around intervals, chords, scales and more.
You’ll be able to confidently build harmonies that sound fantastic.
Study the Music
But if you really want your harmonies to become out of this world, study your favorite songs closely.
Break down the melodies and harmonies and find out why they work by analyzing them against your music theory knowledge.
You’ll be writing hits in no time this way.
Re-Harmonize the Greats
In this context when we say “reharmonize” we mean create a new vocal harmony to famous singers and their most popular music.
Find acoustic/”unplugged” versions of songs where it’s just the lead vocalist and a guitar/piano. And then create your own harmonies to these versions of the songs.
- it’s different than the original harmony in the studio version of the song and
- it actually sounds good.
This is an invaluable exercise that will markedly improve your ability to write and sing harmony like a pro.
Frequently Asked Questions
Harmony can refer to several things. Harmonic progression is the underlying movement of a piece of music. Harmony can affect the emotional mood a piece of music creates. Harmony can also mean the consonant nature of various notes in that they sound “harmonious” together. The work together. In sound, harmonics are the naturally created additional vibrations created along with a root tone/frequency that sounds pleasing to humans.
Harmony is important in music because it not only forms the underlying emotional pull of a piece of music, it guides the formation of other parts of the song, including melody. And harmony is versatile enough to subtly change the emotional vibe of a piece in almost infinite ways.
Singing harmony is not particularly difficult, but can be for some people. It can be tricky at first if you’re not a seasoned singer or haven’t practiced the song much. You naturally want to sing on the tonic note, so it does take some focus to be able to hit the pitch you’re supposed to hit to support the singer singing the tonic. Practicing your ability to hit various pitches correctly can help make singing harmony easier. Using a piano to play the harmony notes along with yourself singing them in harmony with another singer helps a lot.
Singing the melody of the song means you are singing the main pitch that song is meant to be sung in. We can call this the tonic note of the melody. It’s the note the original melody was written in. The harmony would be another note within that tonic note’s scale – it’s often a third, fifth or seventh away from the main note. The harmony note is meant to support the main melody note and add emotional complexity to it.
No, you cannot sing harmony with yourself in a live setting, unless you record an loop each part you sing. The voice can only create one pitch at a time. And singing in harmony means to sing along with another note being sung.
Yes, anyone can learn how to sing harmony. It’s often difficult at first, because your natural tendency is to sing the main melody of a song. You have to get better at recognizing different pitches, and being able to hit certain pitches with precision. It can help to sing harmony with someone else while also playing a piano using the notes of the harmony you’re supposed to sing, to keep you on track.
When you first start singing, and you try singing a harmony part it’s difficult because your natural tendency is to want to sing the main note of the original melody. It’s the way the brain works. What you have to do is get better at recognizing the differences in pitches of the main melody note and the harmony note you’re trying to sing. Using a piano to play the harmony while you sing along to the original melody is a good way to get better.
The best way for a complete beginner to sing harmony is to sing along with a piano. Play a piece of music that you want to sing harmony to. If you don’t have one, record yourself singing the main melody. Next, play it back and sing harmony along with it – play the harmony notes on the piano as you sing them to help you stay on track, and stop you from singing the main melody (which will be your natural tendency). Eventually you’ll get better and better at singing the actual harmony pitch without the use of the piano.
There’s really only one way to get as good as you can be at vocal harmony.
The best way is to use online vocal lessons.
They’ve got in-depth lessons and exercises on everything you need to know to step up your game and really turn pro.
And structured lessons and dedicated practice are the ONLY way to really become a great singer.
Thanks for reading our complete guide on how to sing harmony. If you liked it check out some related articles below!
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