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Operating In Harmony


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.

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2 Responses to “Operating In Harmony”

  1. In addition, there are a couple more terms terms to consider when arranging contrapuntal harmony: “Melody, Latching, Counter-melody, and Choral”.

    In this first example, we hear the group “Hanson” practicing mostly parallel and similar harmonies that are melody-latched. Occasionally, you will hear the 1-on-2 counterpoint (one lead and two on choral latching).

    In the second example (same song), we hear melodic parallel/similar latching – as well as counter-melodic and choral latching (in the bridge).

    When we arrange vocals for service, we should arrange them to BUILD – and not go the Hanson route (full-frontal parallel harmony). Verse 1 should be the lead alone, then add a parallel or similar harmony, then round it out with either a 3rd oblique or a 1-on-2 lead/choral-latched (if there are only 3 vox). If you have more than 3 vocalists, here is where you can REALLY let the harmony thicken the music, by building to a 2-on-2-on-2, or 2-on-3, or 3-on-2-on-2 (etc.).

    Hope this helps.

  2. Hi, Broken link for Hanson. This is very good. It is frustrating to have people pop back and forth between the 3rd and 5th of harmonies, so sometimes it is just easier to have the female lead sing the octave up from the male and then just put one person in on harmony. Sometimes multiple harmonies don’t sound modern, but very “Point of Grace” and 1990’s. Do you have a song example of Oblique? I did have a vocalist do that with “Holy Spirit” – but with no other harmony added, it sounded very very strange. Thanks for all of this!

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