You’re working on your latest song- you’ve got a good melody, chords, lyrics but now it’s time to sweeten the sound with background vocals.  Though harmonizing comes naturally to many, for others, creating harmony parts can seem like elusive magic. 


How do you choose which notes to pick out of the air?  


Let’s start by clarifying what musical element we’re harmonizing with…and that would be the “melody”.  We all know what a melody is, right?


It turns out that the definition of melody is not as obvious as you might think.  I like to define melody as a tune with rhythm.  A tune is a series of notes which relate to each other by varying distances called ‘intervals’.  So, a tune is a sequence of intervals with a rhythmic pattern.  


What’s a harmony line then?  Isn’t a harmony line a kind of melody? 


Yes, it is, but a harmony line is NOT the tune.  Harmony is a melody which sounds pleasing when sung or played as a counter-melody to the tune.  


Though it’s best to have some basic music theory under your belt, you can still begin to harmonize intuitively by picking a higher or lower note to the melody that sounds good with the chord underneath.  


Another rule for learning to harmonize is to go up or down in the same direction as the melody, UNLESS it sounds better to repeat your last note.  You don’t have to move your note. Move only when it sounds good and then in the same direction as the melody.


Visualizing the relationship of melody to harmony can be helpful. Imagine a ‘musical sandwich’ with the meat of the sandwich being the melody and the harmony parts as the bread.   Both 2-part harmonies (melody + 1 harmony) and 3-part harmonies (melody + 2 harmony parts) are widely used.


Here are several configurations of 2- and 3-part harmony “sandwiches” with listening samples:


2-part harmony with melody on top:
M (melody)

LH (lower harmony)

Samples: Keith Urban ‘Stupid Boy’, Cream ‘Sunshine of Your Love’, Justin Timberlake ‘That Girl’, Simon & Garfunkel ‘Sounds of Silence’, Colbie Callat ‘I Never Told You’



2-part harmony with melody on bottom:

UH (upper harmony)

M (melody)

Sample: Buffalo Springfield ‘For What It’s Worth’, Grass Roots ‘Midnight Confessions’



3-part harmony with melody in the middle:

UH (upper harmony)

M (melody)

LH (lower harmony)

Samples: Dixie Chicks ‘Landslide’, Ronettes ‘Chapel of Love’, Mamas & Papas ‘California Dreaming’



3-part harmony with melody on the bottom:

1UH (highest upper harmony)

2UH (lower upper harmony)

M (melody)

Sample: Crosby, Stills, Nash ‘Helplessly Hoping’, Beatles ‘Here Comes the Sun’



3-part harmony with melody on top:

M (melody)

1LH (top lower harmony)

2LH (bottom lower harmony)

Sample: Linda Ronstadt ‘Blue Bayou’

The late 1960‘s and early 1970’s were the heyday of great harmonies, so find old-school recordings, sing along with the melody first, then find the complementary notes, whether above or below the melody, to practice the great art of harmonization.


– 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.

Originally posted 2013-05-18 20:24:09.