Brooks Williams, Mary Gordon Hall, Paddy Dougherty Braunstein, and Cindy Novelo learn a little acappella harmony with Sheridan at Cedar Run (photo by Cindi Slaughter)
When I first heard harmony on a little crystal radio set, I was intrigued by the "other voices" singing magically in tune with the melody. I initially learned harmony by ear from listening to and singing along with groups like the Everly Brothers, the Beatles, and Peter, Paul and Mary and other. When my grandfather gave me a Top Ten 1966 Barbershop Quartet album, I was amazed at the wonderfully resonant sounds that human beings could produce. Now I'm using that harmonic knowledge and vocal technique to help other singers and songwriters learn to make better vocal music together. Here's a sample of information from one of my harmony workshops.
Triad Secrets For Better Harmony
Triads are important building blocks for chords in Music. Triads are (as the name implies) three notes and form the foundation for the four primary chord sounds in music: Major, Minor, Augmented, and Diminished.
In Western music, generally two triads are used for vocal harmony: Major and Minor.
Triads are initially built in two note intervals called thirds. Intervals are the distance from note to note. Thirds can only be major or minor, and it’s a good exercise to learn both.
A major third is four frets or half steps. In the key of C, the interval from C to E is a major third, and on a piano would be four half steps apart.
A minor third is three frets or half steps. In the key of C, the interval from E to G is a minor third, and on a piano would be three half steps apart.
A Major triad in the key of C would be C, E, G or 1,3,5 or do, mi, sol with the major third interval on the bottom half, and the minor third interval on top.
This pattern holds true in every key. If you know the key note sound or root you can find the 3 and 5 notes with a little ear training. Try it in different keys.
A Minor triad in the key of C would be C, Eb, G, or 1,3b,5 or do, mi flat, sol with the minor third interval on the bottom half, and major third on top. Try it in different keys.
The rarely sung Augmented triad is a stack of two major third intervals and has an expanded feel with tension. The Diminished triad is a stack of two minor third intervals and has a compressed feel with tension.
Common Triad Stacks and Inversions
The simple major triad is Baritone on root or Do, Lead on 3 or Mi, and Tenor on 5 or Sol above.
Another better variation if the “Lead” sings the root or Do, a typical triad has “Tenor” sing the major third or Mi above the lead, and “Baritone” takes the 5th or Sol below Do.
Try and sing these intervals. (think “Born Free” to find Sol below Do)
Another variation has Tenor on Do, Lead on 5 or Sol below, and Baritone on 3 or Mi below Sol. Overtones explain why this is a difficult chord to tune by ear.
The “buzz” or resonances of chord sounds are actually overtone sounds generated by the matching word and resonance sounds of the singers. In physics of sound, a single freely resonant note creates overtones in the following sequence:
Building chords with 1 or 5 on the bottom tends to create lots of overtone buzz.
Since 3s and b7ths don’t appear until the higher frequencies, building chords on them tends to muddy the musical waters, and many singers have trouble tuning them.
Try building triads in various stack combinations and listen to the difference.
What about b7 th, 9 th, and 6th chords?
These notes are added to triads, or used in place of one of the triad chord notes to create movement, color, or tension. The b7th note is found by singing a minor third above 5 or Sol, or two half steps down from Do. A b7 th is usually used for a turn- around chord at the end of phrase, a lift into a chorus, or a bluesy melody touch.
The 9th note is two half steps above a high Do, or a high Re. Try singing a Major triad and adding the 9th as a fourth voice, or leave out do, sing the 9th Re and resolve to Do.
The 6th note is two half steps above Sol, or La and is often used to resolve into Sol in Major triad. Swing and blues sometimes end on 6th chords without resolving.
Strategies for “woodshedding” or harmony improvisation
Warm up and vocalize with techniques for producing clean resonant tones. Simple peel off exercise for improvement in singing and listening simultaneously.
Try matching vowels and word sounds by singing the song melody in unison first. This also helps develop a feel for attacks, releases and dynamics.
Find a triad note in the chord and your range: for brighter chords keep thirds up high
Don’t move until you have to, and then not far. A root harmony note on the 1 chord becomes the 5th or Sol note on the 4 chord. A 5th note on the 1 chord becomes root note on the 5 chord. In four part, basses often double with a note an octave above, and often sing the same 1-5 intervals, and walk ups as bass players play.