Harmony and Me

3 stooges singing

These guys would’ve kicked
butt on American Idol.

If you’re in my age group, I apologize if you read this post’s title and cannot get a certain Elton John song out of your head.

Let’s talk (I’ll go first) about singing harmony. A band’s harmony singer is like a baseball team’s #2 pitcher: They may not get the spotlight as much as the lead singer, but you’re not really going that far without one –and he’ll occasionally prove invaluable. I admit I’m biased because I primarily have this role in one of my bands. My singing voice is pretty accurate, but I wish I had a wider range and more strength (Roger Daltrey-ish, please). I try to compensate with the ability to vary my voice a bit to approximate some of the artists we cover; I’m unsure if I’m simply a good listener or if my perfect pitch (technically, absolute pitch) is at work here. So I think I’m a decent part-time lead singer. For certain songs. At certain times. When Mercury is retrograde.

But Heavens to Murgatroyd, I’m one heckuva backup singer! I’m pretty darn proud of that. Singing harmony is usually harder than singing lead (assuming either is in one’s range). Pick a song with at least two voices from your teenage years that you know but never performed in a band. You already know what the melody sounds like! How about the harmony? For example, let’s consider this song that was filmed before a live audience…apparently at a cherub convention (view the clip to understand that reference):

The collarless suit would not be popular again until centuries later, when Star Trek: The Next Generation latched onto it for the first few voyages of the Enterprise-D.

If you have the slightest trace of singing ability (i.e., a non-lethal voice), you can sing the melody, or at least recognize it. At least in the chorus.

Now try the harmony. Did you (a) recognize it and (2) sing it without drifting into the melody? Half the time my biggest problem singing harmony is avoiding drifting into the melody. Beatles songs especially have really nice parts that are sometimes difficult to discern harmony and melody. Ditto for Everly Brothers, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beach Boys… Hmm, I notice a trend. Those are all artists with great vocals.

Yes, I enjoy taking a few lead vocals per set, but it’s more rewarding for me when the harmony rings. It’s quite a challenge to harmonize well on songs like “If I Fell” or on this number by the Dave Clark Five:

You counted the band members, didn’t you?

So whether you sing lead or harmony, sing like nobody’s listening. Unless you’re on stage in front of people. Then you should either sing well or call yourself a rapper.

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6 responses to “Harmony and Me

  1. As a woman who’s voice range peaked in the second alto range sometime during puberty, I can totally relate. There isn’t a lot of great music written or us seconds so we’re either kicked to the curb or forced to sing backup harmonic vocals. Either that or (horror of horrors) we have to ask the band to perform our favorite chick songs in a different key. In a pinch, singing a Billy Joel song with hastily rewritten lyrics to make it gender appropriate will always suffice.

  2. As you know, I have absolutely no ability (in any capacity) when it comes to vocalizing. However, as both a life-long fan and a part-time performer, I have tremendous admiration for an accomplished vocalist. I completely agree that singing harmonies is more challenging than singing lead/melody – with the exception of range with some artists. However, the same level of control (perhaps even more so) is required from the harmonist – not to mention having to deal with the tension and anxiety of relying on the lead vocalists ability to maintain the proper melody and control…otherwise it sounds like the harmonist swallowed a kazoo! As a guitarist (and especially while in acoustic mode), not having vocal ability is like a runway model not having shoulders…you can still walk the runway but you can’t display the art that most have come to witness.

  3. On the catwalk. On the catwalk. We should do our little turns on the catwalk at the next gig.

    Thanks for some nice insights.

  4. Your words ring very true Mike. As a lead I often find it very difficult to prevent drifting into the melody when trying to harmonize so I fully appreciate the job you (and others) do. Part of the difficulty I have even when practicing on my own it is that I often harmonize with the entire track instead of picking out what the backing vocalist is doing and this often doesn’t translate well when singing live with others. All I can say is thanks being so good at what you do and for helping me to sound my best!

  5. Good harmony without a great lead is wasted. Thanks, Dave. You’ve made me like so many songs I initially thought wouldn’t work.

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