Though it can seem that some singers just have a gift at finding harmony parts, all singers can benefit by knowing at least a bit of music theory: so harmony singing can be more than just getting lucky.
My last article on harmony singing used no music theory…this time, I’d like to introduce some basic music theory which can help you nail your parts.
Keep in mind that the melody is the “tune” and that harmony means singing other notes at the same time which sound good against the melody. Harmonies can be above or below the melody. Harmonies are typically 2-part (one melody with one harmony part) or 3-part (one melody with two harmony parts).
Let’s start with a fun and effective way to learn the notes on the keyboard.
Start with the two black note patterns. These are the Dog Houses. Inside the Dog House lives the Dog (musical letter D).
The Cat wants to get into the Dog House and the Elephant want to get into the Dog House, but only the Dog can be in the Dog House. (See how this works?)
Now onto the Main House- that’s where the people live. We have our Front Door and the Back Door and inside the house lives George and Alice.
If you have a keyboard handy, practice playing all the Dog Houses and all the Main Houses on the keyboard. Then find the Dog, Cat, and Elephant. Finally, play and say Front Door, Back Door, George and Alice. Cool, isn’t it?
HALF-STEPS & WHOLE STEPS
Next, I’d like to describe the intervals known as half-steps and whole-steps.
Half-steps are also called “semi-tones” and are the “touching” notes at the top portion of the piano keys.
Whole-steps are simply twice as big- meaning two half-steps, for example, C to D is a whole step but C to C# is only a half-step.
MAJOR SCALE FORMULA
Did you know that you can make a major scale (Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do) with a simple formula? Here’s the formula for the major scale: Pick any note on the keyboard and on that note say “Start”. Then go up a whole step, another whole step, a half-step, 3 more whole steps and finally a half.
Simply put, here’s the formula:
“Start, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half”.
Now say the formula 5 times in a row out loud. I’ll wait 😉
To put the formula into action, play a C on the piano or guitar and say “START”.
Then go up a whole-step (that’ll be D). Then go up another whole-step (bringing you to E). Then a half-step to F, a whole- step to G, a whole-step to A, a whole-step to B and finally a half-step to C.
You’ve just played a C Major Scale! Hooray! But it gets better: you can start on ANY note and by playing the “formula” (Start, W, W, H, W, W, W, H) you can play the Major Scale in any key. B, Db, F#, you name the starting note, play the formula and you’ve then played the B Major Scale, the Db Major Scale or the F# Major Scale.
In my next installment, I’ll cover the most common intervals used in singing harmony, 3rds and 6ths. Stay tuned!
– Lisa Popeil
Lisa Popeil is an LA voice coach with more than 35 years of professional teaching experience. Creator of the Voiceworks® Method, the Total Singer DVD, and co-author of the book Sing Anything-Mastering Vocal Styles, Lisa trains singers in vocal technique, stage performance and vocal health for touring professionals. www.popeil.com