Have you ever arrived at practice with singers that are very capable at improvisational harmonies, but end up criss-crossing, doubling, leaving open 5ths, or inadvertently dropping into melody? There is a tendency to assume that just because you “can” harmonize on-the-fly, that there need be no preparation for the vocalists before practice. However, preparing multiple harmony roles and what those harmonies are before is actually what will prevent a lot of those flops we talked about earlier. More preparation and a streamlined plan of attack can spare overwhelming the congregation with free-for-all harmonies that may be perceived as brash, awkward, or just too busy. Operating in harmony can be a tricky thing, so lets look at some practical ways to nail it every time.
There are four basic types of contrapuntal harmony: “Parallel”, Similar”, “Contrary”, and “Oblique”. The type of harmonies we tend to gravitate toward are “parallel”, or “similar” – following the lead vocalist’s intervallic melody either exactly, or at least very closely. While this is a solid choice for seating your initial harmony, there are several issues to consider. Should I just keep following the lead through the entire song? What if the lead vocal line has a large tessitura (range)? What if the melody has a higher register and my higher harmony makes it sound “chipmonkey?”
Building an arrangement for vocal harmony should almost always begin with the lead vocalist fielding the melody alone for the entire first verse. Building a single, higher parallel or similar harmony on the 2nd verse or next dominant phrase should generally follow, then adding a lower “oblique” harmony for a full three-part harmony (only on the chorus and/or B-section) deepens the harmony experience and generally makes the overall harmony more impactful.
Let’s talk about the most unused – but most solid choice for the 2nd or 3rd harmony. “Oblique” harmonies are static (or “drone”) diatonic notes that remain unmoved for the most part. “Contrary motion” harmony tends to move opposite the melody line, and when combined with an oblique foundation thicken the overall harmonies while minimizing the probability of harmonies walking over each other. If the two harmonies can be selected above and below the melody and stick with a more oblique motion (usually restricted to suspensions and/or resolutions), this almost always gives the melody freedom to move within the chord – also allowing that melody to solidify a rich harmony – while maintaining its independence.
No matter how the harmonies are established, the best method for making the parts both impactful and practical is arranging them to more closely follow oblique motion – limiting their intervallic register as much as possible. Establishing your oblique focal points will ultimately allow your backup singers to be more creative with their harmonies without the probability for the dreaded awkwardness of the unexpected.