7 Useful Principles of Singing Harmony

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Singing harmony can add huge amounts of fun and sheer musical beauty to just about any jam you stumble into as we’ve discussed before. Today we will focus on some 7 wide-reaching principles for the beginner harmonizer that should help get you on your feet in the “harmony business”.

*originally posted May ’15, updated April ’17.

First, I highly recommend checking out the two previous articles about harmony to get a solid starting point before reading today’s article which aims to be more advanced:

how to sing harmony (2)

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best harmony songs


7 Useful Principles of Singing Harmony

1 – At First, Start by Singing Unison to Get A Hang of The Song

Singing unison (Unison is the musical interval of 0 half steps) is a fancy way of saying “singing the song just like the original singer did”. So before we go artsy and start to create our own lines of harmony, it is easier to just go with the original flow of the song and sing with the singer at the same pitch, at least for a few lines, to get both feet planted steadily on the ground.

music meme--kid-listening-to-music27
Kid – don’t remember to start unison…
2 – Watch Videos That’ll Show You The Basics of Singing Harmony

There are plenty of good video resources on YouTube that will show you the basics of singing harmony, and I highlighted the best ones for you in the “How to Sing Harmony” post. It’s truly a great place to start and you can be much wiser after you spend an hour or even less of studying and watching examples of people who had already mastered this art of singing harmony.

3 – Keep Playing Around with the few Different Forms of Harmony and Use the Different Forms in Every Song

Do not stick to just one harmony style / form when you are harmonizing a friend in a jam. Instead, keep playing around, surprising the listeners and enriching the song with the different forms of harmony. I am talking about the different forms as in “oohhh’s and ahhh’s”, chordal harmonies, echo & response… You can watch examples to all of the above harmony styles in the “Best Harmony Songs” post.

It's always fun to be able to join in and add great harmonies when your friend is singing. Most of the songs take a good leap forward when you do that!
It’s always fun to be able to join in and add great harmonies when your friend is singing. Most of the songs take a good leap forward when you do that!
4 – Forget About the “Rule Of Thirds” or any Other Strict Rules

Here I am not talking about the familiar photography world’s Rule of Thirds, but about the harmony world’s rule of thirds… When you are learning harmony, a lot of resources will tell you to stick mostly to singing a third (an interval of three or four half steps) above or below the original pitch (and it is, indeed a very common line of harmonization).

However, I have noticed that harmony comes much more naturally, and paradoxically also much more accurately, when you are simply trying to sing “slightly above” or “slightly below” the original pitch. It’s all about the ears. (see point number 7) Try it for yourself and see. And this also brings us to our next point:

5 – Do Not Expect to Sound Good When You Are Just Starting Out

In fact, you might even sound pretty terrible. Do not let this discourage you and stop you from becoming the harmonizer that you can become with practice. Just like you did not really sound good on your first tries with the guitar or with singing, harmony is something that is learned by doing.

Actually, in the beginning, I mostly refrained from harmonizing a lot in public and in jams with friends and focused more on what’s in the following point which is key to becoming good:

6 – Your Car is Your Harmony Skills’ Best Friend, Especially in the Beginning…

Honestly, most of us would not sit at their homes, play songs on the stereo and practice harmonizing to them. It just does not work that way… BUT, where everybody DOES like to sing along with the music that’s played? That’s right, in the car. So why not take it forward and actually become productive with this fun habit? You can sing in your car and enjoy while working on your harmony skills. How? Play your favorite music, and just jump into it!

Try different methods of harmony, sing horribly, sing beautifully, try it on different music genres and harmonize to a male/female voices. Learn the differences by doing. It’s your time to shine because the car tolerates everything… (:

Your car is your best friend when first practicing harmony. This picture was taken on a weekend desert trip so with a crowded car it's less of an advantage... (-:
Your car is your best friend when first practicing harmony. This picture was taken on a weekend desert trip so with a crowded car it’s less of an advantage… (-:
7 – Above All, Let Go and Trust Your EARS

As I said above, harmony is learned by doing. Your ears will slowly improve their ability to tell you whether your harmony is spot on or whether you need to lower or higher the pitch a little bit. Trust them. If you are also engaging in some ear training so you will even be speeding up this process.

Also, to really speed up the process of getting better – try to record yourself harmonizing along to a familiar song. Yes, this might sound horrible in the first few tries, but if you keep doing it you will notice a very bold improvement curve. Save the first tries as well so you can compare and pat yourself on the back as you get better!

That’s it, I hope these principles / tips will be of a great aid to you on your singing journeys. To cap it off, here’s a Rolling Stones cover from YouTube that I really like, and also features a nice deal of harmonies on a random afternoon jam, just like the ones we’re talking about right here. Enjoy!


Photos are here thanks to www.cardinaldistrict.org, www.livelifesg.com.

how to harmonize tips
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Alon Cooper

Alon Cooper

Hey! I'm Cooper, and I hope I can be a helpful friend on your musical journeys. I'm a music artist based in Austin & Amsterdam, playing venues with a band / solo, and trying to learn with the most inspiring musicians wherever I go. In the last 8 years I've lived in Australia, northern Europe, the US and more.

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The Guitar Campfire Songbook

I hope this list has given you some great ideas, and if you want to have another bunch of song ideas in a fancy PDF songbook form, then feel free to download the songbook in this link.

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