Before presenting the definition of a vocal harmony, let’s take a minute to consider the other, non-music based definitions of the word, according to Miriam-Webster:
a: pleasing arrangement of parts
b: agreement, accord
c: internal calm :tranquility
d: an interweaving of different accounts into a single narrative
Lovely word, isn’t it? When a harmony is done well, two or more vocal parts come together in an arrangement that adds feeling, depth, texture, and perhaps even a sense of tranquility to a song. Many of the singers we’ve interviewed describe the experience of singing harmonies as causing a physical sensation almost like a buzzing when they’re getting it right.
There are endless examples of vocal harmonies across just about every genre, from Broadway show tunes to traditional country to pop. If you’re not familiar with what a harmony is, watch this clip of the band Joseph performing “Sweet Dreams.”
Okay, so you know what a harmony sounds like, but what is a harmony in music? The simplest definition is “the sound of two or more notes heard simultaneously.”
In the above example, vocal harmony happens when the second and third singers layer their voices with the other. In this next example, the duet of Lucius often sing full songs together, with their two voices almost sounding like one.
This isn’t just random magic: chords are at play. Harmonization happens when musical notes combine into one chord often in thirds or sixths, and then into chord progressions1. In a simple two-part harmony, the first person sings the melody and the second sings above or below that melody within the chord structure. In rock or pop music, a backup singer will harmonize with the lead singer by adjusting the pitch of her note based on the lead singer’s pitch so that they are in tune. In doo wop, backup singers would harmonize with each other in the background, taking the place of the instrument.
Some singers, like those involved with barbershop quartets, think of harmony as practically mathematical in nature. When they sing their four-part harmonies, getting it right is a science in which each singer has his or her own role often based on their voice type. For others, the ability to harmonize well is a skill they can’t explain but they’ve developed by listening and practicing, with that perfect harmony buzz as the goal. Many of the voice coaches we’ve interviewed who find harmonies hard to explain but easy to sing have grown up in a church setting, hearing and singing hymns when they were very young.
Singing harmony well involves factors such as pitch, timing, and amplitude, which we’ll expand upon in a later post, but for now you can use our Harmony Helper harmonizing app to hear and watch the notes that make a harmony as they float across the screen. This might help show how voices in a harmony relate to each other.
In the meantime, dig deeper on this topic by reading Rob McClure’s post, “What makes a harmony good?”