Enhance your knowledge with practical step-by-step tips on how to get better at singing harmony with everything you need to know from beginner to advanced.
The threading together of two or more exquisitely refined voices sounds beautiful and effortless. However, harmonizing can trip you up if you’ve never done it before. It’s even dicier a cappella, having no instruments to lean on.
At first, trying to sing harmony while following the melody line can be a little like patting your head and rubbing your tummy—our brain wants you to sing along with the melody line! It takes some getting used to, but it can be a rewarding experience once you get the hang of it.
If you want to learn how to get better at singing harmony, we have a few tips to keep you on the right notes.
What is harmony?
First, to sing better harmony, there are a few things you need to know about it. Oxford Languages defines harmony as “the combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce a pleasing effect.”
These pleasing musical notes fall into two main categories–consonance and dissonance.
Consonance sounds pleasant and fits the melody. Consonant harmonies are in the same key as the piece of music. This harmony adds depth to the melody and makes the singers’ voices sound full and rich.
Dissonance, on the other hand, combines notes or chords that clash with the other notes. You can use dissonant notes to create tension, make a statement, or transition to a bridge. You don’t want to use dissonance too often, though, or the harmony line may just sound ‘wrong’ to the ear and clash with the melody.
Consonance and dissonance are the two broad ways to categorize harmonies. A more specific division in harmony types is diatonic, non-diatonic, and atonic.
Let’s look at the meaning of each.
Diatonic harmony uses notes, chords, and scales naturally in the song’s key. If you are singing in C, a diatonic harmony does not contain sharps or flats, giving it a restful consonant sound.
The opposite of diatonic harmony is non-diatonic harmony. (Simple enough.)This dissonant harmony uses notes and chords that don’t naturally occur in the key—like singing F# in the key of C. It wakes the listener up a bit and makes them think about what happens next. Many songs (especially jazz songs) use at least some non-diatonic harmony to add complexity to a piece.
Atonal harmony is rarer than diatonic and non-diatonic because it doesn’t adhere to any key. While many harmonies use dissonance, they usually resolve on a tone found in the key signature. However, with atonal harmony, there’s no resolution and no definite key. This type of cacophonous harmony sounds jarring.
Now that we’ve tucked a little musical theory under our belts let’s look at some tips on how you can begin to sing harmony like a pro!
Six tips for singing better harmony.
1. Isolate the harmony line
Hearing the melody line while trying to sing on a different note can be difficult. So when you get your piece, pick out the harmony line on the piano first. Sing it out as if it is the main melody. When you know your part like the back of your hand, try playing both the melody and the notes while singing.
2. Practice with chords
You can take any song and train your ear to find the implied harmony–the notes that go well with the melody line. The brain is wired to hear them, But you may just need to exercise those skills.
For practice, play the melody line of a favorite song. Then build a chord from the note in the melody line. (The I, IV, and V chords are often used in major keys.) Some chords will sound ‘right’ while others clash.
Try singing notes from the chords both above and below the melody line. Which notes sound best?
3. Sing in rounds
Singing in rounds and echos has been a tradition since the 12th century. We still practice this tradition today. It is a fairly simple way to get better at harmony because you just have to know the melody line and stick to your part.
However, you will hear a different part of the song and different notes, so you have to pay attention to stay on track. The patterns of many kid’s songs are rounds or echos, such as Row, Row, Row Your Boat, Frère Jacques, and When the Saints Go Marching In.
4. Listen to other singers
Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, the Beach Boys (and many Disney duets) pack a lot of harmony into their songs. Home Free and Pentatonix are pure a capella groups who sing in 5-part harmonies. Choose a song that uses few (or no instruments), so you can clearly hear the different voices. Then, sing along with one of the parts!
5. Choose your position wisely
Bands have different types of singers. Some sing on the same mic, while others keep a bit of distance. Some singers find that standing close together is helpful because their implied harmony skills go to work to match voice tones.
But, if that’s not helpful for you, place some distance between the lead singer and yourself so you can focus on your part. If you sing in a group choir, you usually split into the first sopranos, altos, tenors, and bass. When several people are singing the same part as you, it’s easier to stick to the correct notes.
6. Know (at least some) music theory
The more you learn about music theory, the better you’re able to sing and create your own harmonies! Learning more about chord progressions, key signatures, and scales will help you train your ear to find implied harmonies.
You’ll also have a better idea of how you want your harmony to progress and where to pop in some attention-getting dissonant chords. Or you may decide to shock your audience with something atonal.
Learn and play.
While learning is essential, playing is more fun. Either way, it’s possible to learn more about harmony while you play.
We’ve created an app that teaches you more about music through challenges, games, and hands-on experience. So, instead of reading boring books on theory, you can learn more about melody and harmony by playing tunes on the piano.
Download SimplyPiano on your phone to train your ear to pick up on harmony lines while your fingers learn basic scales and key signatures.
You can play while you work.