A harmony is formed by layering one or more notes over a primary note or the basic melody of a song. Two or more vocalists singing in harmony can contribute complexity and depth to almost any vocal composition. Harmony may be more or less intuitive for people who are musically trained, but anyone can learn how to harmonize and hone this skill.
Start by practicing alone with a piano, keyboard, or another instrument. You can also try singing along with a recording of a song that you want to learn to perform in harmony. The most efficient way to learn about harmony is to sing along with trained vocalists. These skilled singers can help you determine when you are in or out of harmony and help you train to reliably hit the right notes. It can take plenty of practice and time to harmonize with any singer or song in the right key and pitch.
Here are five tips to help you train your ear and voice so that you can sing basic and more complex harmonies.
Figure out thirds and fifths
A piano or electric keyboard can be one of the most useful tools for learning harmony. It is easy to figure out thirds and fifths, which are the principals of basic harmonies, on this instrument. Start by striking the middle C key. The third of this note is located two white keys up from the original key, making it E if the original key is middle C. The fifth is four keys up from the original key or two keys up from the third, making it G if the original key is C and the third is E.
You may already be familiar with the spacing of thirds and fifths from playing simple chords. If you play all of these keys or notes together, you will sound the chord. This can help you to hear how harmony directly contributes to melody. One of the easiest ways to achieve harmony is to sing along with one of the root notes that comprise the chords in the melody.
Match key and pitch to melody
When it comes to harmonizing a single voice with a piano or keyboard, you should start by choosing a key and pitch that is suited to the melody of the song you want to learn to play and sing. Start by trying to sing the same note you are playing. Matching your voice with the original note, third, or fifth as you play can help you practice achieving and sustaining the right key and pitch.
Once you master mirroring your voice and the notes you are playing, you should move on to more challenging aspects of harmony. Try moving back and forth between the original key, third, and fifth until you can match all of the notes with your voice. This is an important step toward training your voice and ear and gaining the confidence to sustain a note as you play different keys or sing along with other singers to create harmonies.
Maintain harmony as the note changes
One of the most challenging aspects of singing in harmony is learning to maintain the note you want to contribute while others sing or play different notes. One of the secrets of how to harmonize consists of maintaining your interval even when the notes you are singing vary from the root of the main melody.
To practice this important skill and train your ear to maintain the note you want to sing, try playing thirds and fifths while still singing the original note or hitting these notes with your voice as you play the original key. You can also try to hold one of these notes as you shift between the original, third, and fifth keys.
As you gain more skills, you may want to experiment with moving the harmony in an opposite direction of the melody or experimenting more generally with following chord tones as well as non-chord tones when these are present in the melody. If you hit the right notes in a suitable key and pitch, you should create harmonies that sound good even though you are playing and singing different notes.
You can also challenge yourself by singing along in harmony when you practice scales. This can also be an efficient way to warm up your hands, ears, and voice for a practice session or performance.
Practice harmony with other songs and singers
Once you have a grasp on the basic concepts of thirds, fifths, scales, and maintaining your note in the midst of other notes, you can learn the most about harmony from a session of harmonizing with skilled singers. Working with just a piano or keyboard and your own voice can be helpful for grasping the essentials of harmony and melody, but you will get the most benefit out of practicing singing in harmony with other vocalists.
An effective way to train with others is to sing a song in basic harmony. This means singing the notes of the main melody either a third or a fifth above for the duration of the composition. Some vocal performance experts suggest singing along with recorded songs, especially simple melodies, with a five second delay. Although the end result may not sound great, singing in the round can help to encourage you to maintain your focus on achieving harmony.
As you practice singing in harmony, you may find it helpful to work with songs with a small range of notes, such as no more than five notes between the lowest and highest notes. This can help to ensure that you do not run out of range. Some popular songs with limited ranges include songs written for children, gospel or spiritual songs, or holiday songs. Many people also know these songs, which can make them easier for practicing harmony with others on the fly without a great deal of preparation.
If you want to learn how to harmonize quickly, the best way to do so is to sing with people who are more experienced than you are when it comes to making harmonies. These singers should be able to identify when you are off pitch and may hear things about your voice or the notes you are hitting that you cannot hear yourself. As you work with another singer, you might harmonize on single notes. One singer should sing and hold a note as the others aim for harmonies at set intervals above this note.
Hum while you learn
You can practice harmony in subtle ways without singing. If you are not in a situation where you can sing along or do not know the lyrics to a song you want to sing, you can still practice harmony anywhere at any time. Listen to a song a few times to familiarize yourself with the melody and hum harmonies along with the singer.
Do not rush yourself as you are trying to figure out harmonies. Once you are familiar with the melody of the song and how the singer delivers these notes, you may find it easier to sing in harmony. The most essential step is to conceptualize the thirds, fifths, or other intervals that complement the melody. You can do this by either humming or singing.
After you are familiar with a song, you may find it easier to sing in harmony because you already have a sense of which notes are likely to complement the melody. You may find that harmony is a relatively intuitive concept, especially as you start to sing with others and see which choices they make when it comes to achieving harmony. Even though harmony is a core musical concept, you may also discover that it is deceptively simple.
Once you know which notes are likely to sound best, you may still need to experiment with harmonizing to determine which intervals are suitable for your vocal range or the qualities of the particular song you are singing. If you follow these steps and keep practicing, you should gradually be able to train your ear and voice to reliably sing in the right key and pitch. Once you obtain this core musical competency, you should gain the ability to achieve harmonies with almost any other singer.
As with most musical skills, the basis for learning harmony lies in pattern recognition. You need to become aware of which notes you can hit that will accentuate and harmonize with the other notes or melody being sung or played, rather than creating dissonance by playing or singing out of key or at the wrong pitch. It can take a long time to learn how to harmonize. The more you sing along with a piano, recordings, or other singers, the more opportunities you will have to learn and practice achieving harmony and increase your skills and the ease with which you can harmonize with new singers or songs.