While there’s plenty to learn when it comes to singing alone there’s just as much to learn when you start adding more voices to create harmonies. With just one extra voice, you can already sing awesome harmonies, so just imagine what happens when you start adding even more!

Vocal Harmonies: A Few Tips & Some Theory


This blog was written by Alfons Verreijt, the developer of the VocalFeedback method and author of the book The Essentials of the Voice.

Vocal Harmonies: The Theory

To start, we’ll delve straight into the theory behind creating vocal harmonies. So, if you’re not too bothered about knowing about what makes harmonies possible, then just skip to the practical stuff further down.

Thousands of Years Old

Singing in harmony is a tradition that probably stretches back thousands of years. Way before life as we know it now, (so, pre-history as it’s called) singing in harmony was a part of human culture. Have a listen to some African choirs – the extraordinary harmonies used often slot together ingeniously, and while technically ingenious, these forms of vocal harmony arose spontaneously before being passed on from generation to generation. It wasn’t until way into the middle ages that people in the West first attempted to write any music down, which evolved through varying forms before it became the musical notation that we know today.

Polyphony & Harmony

Polyphony is an often misused term when referring to harmonies. For example, a polyphonic synthesizer is able to voice multiple notes at the same time, while a monophonic synthesizer is only able to voice a single note at a time. However, the strict meaning of polyphonic is actually far less broad. Officially, polyphonic music is made up of a number of melodies that are played or sung at the same time and where each of the melodies is as essential to the piece as the other. So, strictly speaking, a song made up of a vocal line accompanied by chords, like in much pop music, isn’t actually polyphonic, even though many different notes are often played at the same time. What this kind of music is actually called is monody, which has two meanings: monophonic (single-note), or it can be used to describe a melody accompanied by chords.

A very well known form of polyphonic music is the canon or fugue. Remember singing Frère Jacques in a round when you were a kid? One person or section of the choir would start singing the song, then the next person or section of the choir would come in on the second line, but starting at the beginning of the song again. This is a canon. The fugue on the other hand is a more complicated form of polyphonic music that composers like Bach were big fans of, and in this form of polyphony, what’s referred to as the counterpoint plays an important role. The counterpoint is what binds two or more different melodic lines together to form a polyphonic piece. Now, you might think that things are getting a bit complicated already, but don’t worry too much about it. It’s pretty rare to find a counterpoint used in pop music, since much of it just isn’t polyphonic.

In pop music in general, harmonies are used, which are much easier to deal with than polyphonics. However, that’s not to say that there weren’t or aren’t any pop musicians who know how to use it. A prime example is Freddie Mercury who (thankfully and ingeniously) insisted on writing polyphonic passages that included a counterpoint into many of Queen’s hits. Polyphony is also used regularly in musicals.

However, in this blog, we’ll stick to harmonies and how a second and eventually a third voice can be added to build them. There is no one way to build a harmony – in fact there are quite a few of them, and here, I’ll try to explain them all before moving on to how you can apply them. But first, we start with the theory.

The First Method

The first place to look for a harmony is the third interval. The third is so common and easy to find that it can often be sung spontaneously and without much thought. The downside of sticking to the third is that it’s likely to sound a bit corny and predictable. But that’s not to say that it’s not the perfect choice for the second voice in some parts of a song or piece. Used by everyone from the Beatles to Beyonce, the third interval lies a distance of three notes away from the note being sung by the first voice (the main melody), and the second voice could be singing a third above or a third below the lead voice. Another rule of the third is that it must be diatonic – which means that it needs to belong to the key that the song or piece has been written in (see our blog about basic chord theory to get a more in-depth look at this). So depending on the key, you’ll be looking at a major or minor third, which sounds more difficult than it actually is, since anyone with even a little bit of musical ability will be able to find the third. As long as you know the melody already, and your singing partner gives you the first few notes, you’ll probably be able to run the tune off in thirds with no problem, since the third always moves up or down, parallel to the melody.

The Second Method

The second method overlaps a little with the third interval method. Most of the time, you’ll sing the third interval, but whenever there are big jumps in the melody, this method departs a little. Here, the second voice stays as ‘horizontal’ as possible, meaning that the third is not alway sung, but every now and then a fourth or a fifth interval in the same key is sung instead. Choosing whether to sing the fourth or the fifth will depend on the chord being played at that moment, since following this method means choosing a note from the chord. If you already have a developed musical ear, then you’ll be able to hear this. The benefit of using this method is that it sounds less monotonous than singing the whole number in thirds. It also injects a little space and rest into the music.

The Third Method

Using the third method, the second voice gets even more ‘horizontal’, which injects even more rest into the music. This method involves choosing a note from the lead chord and then moving as little as possible away from the first note at every chord change, so you’re not making any big jumps, as it were. With a good set of musical ears, you can get a long way using the first and second methods, but for the third method you might need a little more knowledge of chord theory. Having a piano or keyboard handy so you can try things out is also useful so you can see what’s possible and find the best set of harmonies.

The Fourth Method

The fourth method comes closer to polyphonic music and its counterpoint. Here, the second voice kind of mirrors the path of the first voice – which is exactly what Bach did in any of his fugues. So, with the mirrored image of the first voice to the second in mind, if the first voice goes up in pitch, the second voice goes down in pitch, and the other way around. Occasionally, there will be a big difference between the first and second voices, and it’s this difference that creates tension – and maybe even the feeling that something wicked this way comes.

The Fifth Method

In the fifth method, the main melody and the bass provide the starting point. Here, the second voice weaves a path in between the rising and falling melody and the bass line, again, keeping it as horizontal as possible and using the key and the chords being played as a guide. Just as with the fourth method, this might take a little puzzling and experimentation to figure out. So, with the first and second methods, the second vocalist can pretty much follow their intuition, and with a little musicality, the third method shouldn’t be too hard. But, with the fourth and fifth methods, a little more attention and study is needed. But in reality, it’s just a question of trying stuff out to find what works. Again, having a piano handy is never a bad idea.

The Third & Fourth Voice

So, what happens when you try adding a third or even fourth voice? Luckily, finding the notes for a third or fourth harmony follows the same set of principles. The method used for the third or fourth voice will, of course, depend on the kind of song you’re working on, and basically, what you prefer. What I will say is that things get more exciting as you move from the first method through to the fifth. If you were rank some music genres in terms of their ‘polyphonic tension’ (i.e. the complexity of the harmonies) then you would start with nursery rhymes, move on to sea shanties, then to simple pop music, then onto more advanced pop music, and from there to musical theatre, and ending with jazz. By using exciting, tension filled vocal harmonies you can make a song sound more interesting and do it with relative ease. Classic American barber shop quartets make a living doing stuff like this. The only thing you need to watch out for when adopting this approach is going too far and making things more exciting than they need to be. For example, if you’re arranging a version of something like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, you can find any number of ‘over-produced’, over-layered versions out there, but the fact is, that sweet and simple always works best. In short – always try to serve the song or piece.

Good to Know

Higher or Lower?

Usually, the second voice will sit lower than the first voice. Intuitively, the listener will focus more on the higher voice, so it’s logical for the lead melody to be the highest pitched. When a male voice takes on the lead melody and a female voice takes on the second voice, this can change things, since female voices tend to be naturally higher pitched than male voices. If you need to write the second voice in this case, then you could simply follow the male lead as if it were sung an octave higher. Usually, the second voice will fill the gap somewhere between the lead vocal and the backing singers, but not always. Britney Spears’ backing singers (for example) tend to sit really close to her lead vocal line, and some would argue that this is done to bury and ‘hide’ her voice. However, with Lady Gaga’s backing vocals, things can go either way.

Verse & Chorus

The second (and third) voice are often used to inject a little drama into pop music or to ‘thicken’ up the arrangement, making the track sound wider and more orchestral (ABBA are literal masters of this). By singing the chorus with vocal harmonies, immediate contrast is created between the single-voiced verse and ‘bigger’ sounding chorus. It’s also a nice effect to pick out and emphasise certain lines of a verse by adding extra harmonies.

Vocal Harmonies: Some Practical Tips

Here are a few little exercises you can try out to help you out in rehearsals and on stage.


Is singing the second harmony entirely new to you? Try starting by singing in thirds as described earlier in this blog. You don’t have to be mind-bogglingly talented or know everything about music theory to sing in thirds. As soon as you’ve found the first two or three notes, the rest tend to just come naturally. Make sure to listen closely to the lead voice as you sing but make sure not to slip into simply singing along with the lead voice. Just stick close to your own pitch and make sure that the notes you’re singing fit with the chords that you hear. Also, try keeping the pitch as horizontal as possible, so avoid making big leaps in the melody that you’re singing. As as soon as you think you’ve found a vocal line that works, record it and have a listen back. Recording yourself and listening back with a critical ear is really useful when it comes to developing as a singer, and that doesn’t mean that you have to fork out for expensive recording equipment since almost every mobile phone now comes with a recording function. If you do want to take things a step further, of course, you can pick up audio interfaces or recorders for relatively little money these days. The fact is that it can be tough to accurately hear everything that’s going on in the music if you’re busy making it. So always record and have a listen with a kind but critical ear.

Singing with Chords

If finding those thirds is already getting easy, then we have another nice little exercise for you, but to do it, you will need to have a piano or guitar handy and know how to play a few chords. Play a chord and sing the lowest of the audible notes in the chord. That doesn’t necessarily need to be the root note. Now, change chords and continue to sing the lowest note. Work through the chord progression of an entire song or piece, and once you’ve found your notes, try singing them beneath the main melody. This immediately gives you a great second harmony for the whole song and is an easy way to find a second voice. This way of finding a harmony also works with the music itself, and is a method that really helps when it comes to working with more harmonically complex music. The combination of a bass note and the melody actually gives you all the harmonic information you need about a song.

Singing Arpeggios

A variation of the method above is to sing arpeggios – otherwise known as broken chords. This is where the notes that make up a chord are sung one after the other, from low to high and back again in a kind of scale. You can do this with three note or four-note chords, but also four-note, and even five or six-note chords (9th and 11th chords). What’s the point of this kind of exercise? It can not only sound great, but it trains your ear – or solfeggio (your ability to hear what’s happening within the music). It also helps get you more confident when it comes to writing harmonies, until at some point, you’ll be able to do it intuitively. Training your ear will also stop you from making mistakes like singing a minor third over a major chord – which sounds terrible. Another great exercise for finding harmonies is to play with the original melody, so change the melody while making sure it still fits with the same chords, then try singing it as a harmony alongside the original melody. Listen to songs that include second or third harmonies, seek out the second voice and sing along. It all helps.

On the Stage

If you’ve practised hard at home, then you might be ready to perform on stage. When you’re singing on a stage, monitoring (being able to hear yourself and your singing partners) is absolutely essential. If you’re singing the second voice, then your monitor needs to be set so that you can just hear yourself and you can always hear the main voice clearly, since it’s this voice that will lead you. Hearing your own voice quietly can take a little getting used to but ultimately, it’s the best method. When singing the second voice it’s not just about singing the right note and being in tune with the melody, but it’s also about timing and intonation which needs to be exactly parallel to the lead voice (assuming that you’re singing a second voice that follows the lead voice exactly).

It’s here that we also come to another important part of singing the second voice: breathing. Your breathing basically serves as the punctuation of any line you’re singing. The way that you breathe depends on a few factors of the line being sung: the volume, the amount of compression, the ‘twang’, the amount of air it needs and so on. It’s best to follow the pattern of breathing of the lead vocalist when singing the second voice. Try breathing parallel to them, just as you do when singing parallel. You can do this mainly by ear. Close your eyes. Your ears will catch it, and your brain will do the rest (using what’s referred to in neuroscience as your mirror neurons – see the passage about monkeys further down the page for more on this). As soon as you start following the breathing of the lead voice, then it will naturally synchronize your singing in terms of timing, intonation, volume, and so on.

Breathing In

By definition, breathing in plays a critical role in music, singing, and speaking. While a lot of voice overs in adverts are just long streams of sentences one after another, this is because those little pauses taken to breath in have been cut out to save precious seconds. The effect is less than natural, and if you cut the breaths out of a vocal take when recording, the effect is really unnatural. The breathing should be audible, and moreover, should fit with the line being sung. Vocal coach, Alfons Verreijt illustrates this beautifully with the following anecdote:

“While recording a session, I hit the record button too early by mistake, and there was a breath from an earlier take just before another line. We didn’t notice it at first, but we could definitely hear that something was up. It was only later that we figured out what it was. The breath, or punctuation of the previous take was completely different, so as a listener you heard a differently ‘patterned’ line than you expected, based on that one breath.”

Self Confidence

Singing the second voice can be difficult and, of course, you can make mistakes, but that doesn’t always have to be a problem. If you happen sing the wrong note but it works with the music, then then no one in the audience is going to notice the difference – just as long as you keep a straight face. The same applies when you hit a note that really is wrong. Rather than making awkward faces, just carry on as if nothing happened and no one will notice. Even pros make mistakes. Legendary trumpetist Miles Davis would sometimes play a bum note, and continue playing it until a chord hit that actually fitted it. Maybe it’s best not to follow his example to the letter, but he offers a great example of how to play it cool when you know you’ve got something wrong. And a final tip: If you often sing the second voice, then sing the lead voice every now and then. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting conditioned into thinking that you’re ‘just the supporting artist’ and will lose self confidence as a singer in your own right. Don’t get into the habit of just following the lead vocal. Take the lead yourself sometimes and even step out and sing on your own.

Good to Know

Everything starts with singing out of tune

Singing, and especially singing harmonies is learnt by doing it, and doing it a lot. At the start, you’re going to be singing out of tune. Our advice is: don’t worry about it, just keep going. Making mistakes might as well be called learning since it is the very best and in fact the only way to learn anything. You’re never going to be arrested by the singing-police for singing a bum note. “If you want to learn to sing, either as a lead or backing vocalist, then you actually have the right to sing out of tune!” States vocal coach, Alfons Verreijt. “Do it with conviction. Commit. If you’re scared, then things are more likely to go wrong. The notes are already there, in your head, and if they don’t quite come out the way you expected, then just work on your technique. The first thing to look at is always your breath support.”

Multitrack recording can help

If you have recording software and can make multitrack recordings, then you can easily record yourself singing multiple harmonies by recording a harmony per track. This way you can really experiment and give your progress a detailed listen. Also, once you’ve recorded your ‘self-made choir’, you can make your own mix and make the second voice louder so you can really analyse what you’re doing and practise by singing along with it. If that works out, then you can make a second mix, where the second voice is really quiet, or taken out completely, so you can really nail the part.

Tip for solo musicians

In this blog, we’ve already touched on the importance of breathing when singing or speaking. This also applies to instrumental music, and especially when it comes to solos. When playing a solo, allow space to breathe and avoid playing it as one continuous chunk. Making space for the ‘breath’ is also known as phrasing. Solos that allow breathing space simply sound better and have more tension and excitement to them then solos that just run through in one continuous line. The legend of Toots Thielemans (who is now in his 90s) starts when he was a humble jazz guitarist looking to improve his solos. As such, he only picked up the harmonica because someone told him that it would help him learn to ‘pause for breath’ when playing guitar solos. He’s now a renowned harmonica legend, and while we’ll never know the real story, the advice is still sound.

Monkey brain

In this blog, we also mentioned mirror neurons. These clever cells were first stumbled upon by Giacomo Rizzolati in 1996 while he was studying monkeys and realised that they were no only active when you’re doing something, but just as active when watching someone else do something – or even hearing them do something. So, if someone near you takes a deep breath, the mirror neurons in your brain do the same. This way, your breathing can actually synchronise with someone nearby. This actually goes some way to explain why many people sing better as part of a choir than they do when singing alone – people very literally, naturally support one another – to the point where a choir literally breathes as one. That the tendency to imitate is a central part of any learning process and plays a crucial role in early development has only become clearer since the discovery of mirror neurons.


Below, we’ve included some examples of vocal harmonies. Of course, these are just a few and there are thousands upon thousands of examples to learn from.

A third above – Sting: chorus of Fragile

A third above – Coldplay: chorus of Fix You

A third above – Snow Patrol: chorus from Chasing Cars

A third above – Jason Mraz: I Won’t Give Up

Three-part harmony – Radiohead: Bridge from Paranoid Android

Lead vocal with repeating chorus (three-part harmony) – Beyoncé: Best Thing I Never Had

Chords, chord-led melody, parallel and counter: Queen: Bohemian Rhapsody

See also…

» Microphones & Accessories
» Singing Books
» Vocal Effects
» Speakers

» How To Sing And Play At The Same Time
» How to Record a Full Choir

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