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A solo melody line can be catchy, but there is a special aural sensation when additional notes sound simultaneously with the melody. These additional notes function as harmony, and they can transform a piece of music.

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What Is Vocal Harmony?

Singing harmony involves supplementing a vocal melody with additional notes that fit the underlying chord structure. For instance, if a melody sung over an A minor chord features the note A (the root note of the chord), you could harmonize by singing the note C (the minor third of the chord and a minor third above A) or the note E (the fifth of the chord and a perfect fifth above A).

How to Harmonize When Performing Music

To sing harmony or harmonize on an instrument, focus on the chord progression of the song and the scale upon which the melody is based (typically either a major scale or a minor scale).

  1. Thirds: The most common type of harmonization is a third above or a third below the melody note. For instance, if the melody of your favorite song calls for the note A over an F major chord, this means the melody is using the third scale degree. To harmonize, you could sing a minor third above the note A (the note C, which is the fifth of the chord) or a major third below the note A (the note F, which is the root note of the chord). Such harmonies are pleasing to the ear in Western music.
  2. Fourths and fifths: Harmonizing notes with perfect fourths or perfect fifths can create a distinctive sound. This type of harmony pairs well with the pentatonic scales of East Asia.
  3. Octaves: When male and female vocalists sing unison lines, they usually end up singing an octave apart due to differences in vocal range. Octave harmonies thicken the frequency spectrum, but they tend not to sound quite as thick as harmonies based in thirds or even sixths. Octave harmonies tend to sound denser on string instruments.
  4. Close harmonies: To create the iconic sound of barbershop quartets or vocal pop groups like the Beach Boys, try arranging harmony notes very close to one another. Whether you're using all chord tones or a few tensions (like a major ninth or a major seventh), you can create a harmonically rich sound—particularly when the close harmonies move together to follow the melody. Close harmonies are famously tricky to sing, and it can take many years of music lessons to master the technique.

Many vocalists take singing lessons to learn vocal harmonization, and classically trained singers can harmonize by reading sheet music. Popular music singers may teach themselves to harmonize by ear, which requires a mixture of ear training and natural ability.

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