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Vocal Harmony Tips

Updated: Nov 5, 2023

New Tips Posted Each Month

You Don’t Need Music Theory to Sing Harmony: Find Your Starting Note with the “Siren Method”

The biggest leg up you can give yourself in harmony singing is to have a strong sense for your starting pitch.

If you know the contour of the melody, then you can often sing a decent harmony part intuitively as long as you have a good starting point.

From there, it becomes more a matter of recognizing when you’ve drifted into another “harmony lane”, which you can check by paying attention to whether your voice is singing the same notes as another singer, or by repeating the siren method as described above.

Here’s the method in a nutshell:

  1. Hum the starting pitch for the melody.

  2. Strum or play the chord that the melody note is accompanied by.

  3. Make a slow “sigh” or “siren” up or down and stop when the note you are singing fits in the chord you are strumming (See video for demonstration)

What’s the best way to learn melodies or harmonies fast and efficiently? I’ve been sharing some of the strategies that I learned in college studying music.

One strategy I thought I’d share is drawing the contour of the melody over the lyrics.

Or you can underline words that line up with the beat.

Finding these intricacies involves listening to a song very closely and at a reduced speed.

Check out these great Resources available on YouTube.

“Being able to play (or sing?) harmony parts is one of the most useful skills to have as a musician

In this episode, Keith teaches you how to find basic harmony parts using a system of finding the proper interval with the major scale.”

The Secret to Four Part Harmony

If you’ve ever spent a weekend at a bluegrass festival, you know that Sunday mornings almost always feature some sort of sacred music. There’s nothing like a good four part gospel song in the morning after days of late night picking!

Sacred music made its imprint on Bluegrass through Hymnal singing and black spirituals. The secret to this kind of singing is the addition of the bass vocal part, which usually sings the root of each chord, much like a bass player would.

Since harmony in Bluegrass music is usually triadic (Meaning there are three notes in a chord), the bass part will inevitably be a double of either the lead or tenor, just an octave lower. This serves to “warm up” the chord by providing lower frequencies.

Here's my take on the classic quartet: Over in the Gloryland

Here are some of my personal favorites:

So Happy I'll Be - Bluegrass Album Band

Up Above My Head - Nashville Bluegrass Band

Over in the Gloryland - Bob Amos and Catamount Crossing

The Lord Will Make a Way - Fairfield Four (Oh Brother Where Art Thou)

I love Becky Buller’s recent collaboration with the Fairfield Four on this track: Tell the Truth

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize - Alan Bibey and Grasstowne

Just a Little Talk with Jesus - Bluegrass Cardinals

All About You - Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver

SLOW Practice Makes Perfect!

Whenever I am studying a vocal part- be it the intricacies of a lead or the contour of a harmony part, I like to listen at 75% speed or less.

Often, I'll set a loop around a section I want to learn, like the chorus, and listen 20 or so times in a row. Often, I'll do this with a cup of tea or coffee in hand- or while doing dishes/laundry.

There are many ways of doing this, but the easiest would be using the Google Chrome Extension, Transpose.

I also have a playlist of songs that I want to learn and I love to pair common household chores with listening to these whole playlists at a reduced speed.

This helps with learning lyrics and building a repertoire or musical vocabulary. Often, I will quiz myself on the previous verse by singing it over the instrumental break that follows it.

There is a great book called "The Primacy of the Ear" that has many practical tips on learning melodies and harmonies quickly and efficiently.

Another great feature of Transpose is its ability to change the pitch/key of a song. Working on harmony can be difficult if the song is not in your range.

Find a key that's comfortable for you - I often sing in the morning or afternoon when my voice isn't fully warmed up.

I'll go through a playlist of songs I want to learn all about 3 half steps lower so that It feels light and relaxed.

Bluegrass Harmony Singing Tip of the Month,

Finding your first starting note is the biggest challenge in good vocal harmony singing.

If you start off in the right place, you can follow the contour of the melody and harmonize the whole time! Watch this video above for an explanation.

Here's an explanation of Bluegrass Harmony -

This video outlines the terms "Baritone", "lead" and "Tenor", explains how to "stay in your lane" - it also dispels the popular belief that the tenor always sings a third above. Let me know if this is helpful! It's a snip it from my online harmony workshops.

Ever wonder how great harmony singers seem to effortlessly find that “missing note” and blend so perfectly in a group?

I’ve been spending time “reverse engineering” the thought processes of harmony singers and attempting to share that with my students, especially in my group Wernick Method Bluegrass Jam Classes.

Many of these processes have become automatic for me after having spent years of training in college sight singing/ear training, music theory, and other courses.

In my recent Music Fundamentals class, I described strategies to study a song that are easy and accessible:

  1. Print or write out the lyrics to a song you’d like to learn

  2. Draw the contour of the melody above the lyrics (Little lines indicating when to go up vs. down, especially if there is more than one pitch on a word)

  3. Analyze the melody and transfer it to solfeggio (Do, re, mi), or scale degrees (1,2,3)

    • This is a more challenging step and it is not necessary, but can be very helpful, especially in finding harmony notes.

I had to use these strategies in college when I had to learn 2-3 new songs every week in the college worship band and my local church gospel group.

They also serve as memory tools if you intend on using the lyric sheet in a jam or in a performance.

One of the most common real time strategies that a harmony singer will use is to hum the root, third, and fifth scale degree of whatever chord they are on. They use this strategy to find their note and make sure they are not doubling someone else's. More on that here: How to find your first note in Bluegrass Harmony Singing

Classic bluegrass harmony is arranged where all three of these notes are present- so if you know which of the three is the melody, the tenor or baritone part will be the next highest or lowest of the three. I explain that more here: Bluegrass Harmony Explained

Finding that root, third, and fifth, of a chord can be challenging, especially because the root will not always be on the bottom ie: if the melody sits on the fifth, the baritone part would be the third, while the tenor part would be the root.

You can see in the image below, that if bluegrass harmony usually works like a sandwich around the melody, then the root could be on bottom, top, or the middle depending on the melody note (middle note)

Being able to hear these three notes, regardless of their order, is the key to finding that missing third harmony part. That’s why we practiced singing these in my college ear training classes.

“Do you ever play along with a YouTube video to practice a song or learn from a music tutorial lesson? When you need to master a song in a different key you can use this tool to pitch shift the audio, repeat a section in a loop or slow down the video to get a hang of it quicker.”

“Go to a video site like Youtube or Vimeo, select a music video, and open the extension to get started. Do you want to pitch shift an mp3 file? This could be a faster way!”

Use Transpose on any song you are learning to find a key best for your voice.

😎 Free

✓ Real time audio processing

✓ High quality audio pitch & transpose

✓ Control the playback speed

✓ Loop between two time markers

✓ Jump directly to a time marker

✓ Supports all online audio, including Spotify web player (pitch shift only)

✓ Remember settings for each video

✓ Transpose Mp3s and Mp4s

Ralph Stanley was an American Bluegrass Banjo player and singer who was known for his gospel numbers. I first heard "Over in the Gloryland" on Bob Amos's record "Body and Soul" to which I owe this arrangement. Bob mentored me for a time and I've since learned a lot from studying his singing.

The harmony singing took me right back to the days of my own coming to faith- absolutely overwhelmed with the beauty and mystery of Acapella gospel singing.

I sang a ton in choir throughout high school and college. Bringing that background to bluegrass music- I LOVE working out sweet harmonies. That's why I started the Bluegrass Harmony School.

And this month I'm thinking of trying something new... When I was teaching public school, I would have my students make multitrack videos like the one above.

It got me thinking, what if by the end of each online vocal harmony class, my harmony students left with something like this? Well, I'd like to try that tonight if you'd consider joining me.

Here is my geeky "Lesson Plan"

Students learn 3 part harmony to a Bluegrass standard

  1. Students hear all three parts

  2. Students Learn Lyrics (Or they are projected on screen)

  3. Students Sing through each vocal part isolated

  4. 5-10 minutes practice time on a vocal part of their choice

  5. Students submit voice recordings OR VIDEO on their phone

  6. I combine them into Trios in class

  7. Students leave with mp3s OR multitrack videos like the one above

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