Today I’m going to cover something I hear a lot of people having trouble with. That is, how to understand harmony.
Many people are still having trouble harmonizing with others or being able to find their part. It’s a skill that takes some time but definitely one that can be learned for most people. The key though is not learning how to hear and memorize your part. The key is understanding the basics of how common 3 part harmony is built. Today I’m going give you a “paint-by-numbers” way of starting to understand how harmony works.
First let’s think about the major scale in music. You know, the one that goes “Do Re Me Fa So La Ti Do”. That’s the major scale, and it works that way in every single key. Now, hear that scale in your mind. Let’s get rid of the “do re me” stuff and just sing the scale on something simple, like “Ahh”. Go ahead and sing that scale out loud so you can hear yourself doing it.
Now here’s what I want you to do. I want you to take every note of that scale and assign it a number from 1 to 8. In other words, in stead of “Do Re Me Fa So La Ti Do”, you’ll think/sing 1,2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 8. Now, in music the note we sing on number 8 is the same as the note we sing on number 1. So we just call it 1 again, instead of 8. Got it? 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1.
Harmony is created by playing notes together at the same time in a way that sounds pleasing to the ear. Usually to get that pleasing sound we skip one or more notes between the notes being played. To get different sounding harmonies, we just change how many notes we skip between each note. Now, let’s go back to the numbers again.
Think about the major scale using the words; Do Re Me. Now let’s take out the word Re, and leave just “Do and “Me”. If you played that on a piano or had a friend to sing “me” while you sing “do”, you’d have perfect 2-part harmony! But we can make this even easier to understand by using numbers instead of words to represent the notes.
So instead of thinking “Do __ Me”, think 1_3. In music we call these spaces between the notes “intervals”. We name these intervals by simply counting the notes, beginning with the first one. So in our example above we would call that harmony a “third”. We get that by simply counting to 3. Instead of “do re me”, it’s 1, 2, 3.
So when someone is singing the melody line of a song, you can quite often find the harmony by simply counting 3 notes up from where they’re singing. Think about the major scale again, using numbers. Now, think of notes 1, 3 and 5. If you played or you and 2 friends sang these three notes together you would have a perfect triad; a chord with 3 notes.
Well, a triad is really just a chord made up of two thirds stacked back to back. Let’s look at a song that will help you hear this “third” in action. Remember the old song ” Michael Rowed The Boat Ashore”? If you take just the first 2 words, you can hear that 1, 3, 5 happening in the first 2 syllables of Michael combined with the word “rowed”.
“Kum-ba-Ya” is another example. “Kum-Ba-Ya” = 1, 3, 5! If you went to a piano or keyboard, you could easily create a third by simply playing the “C and E” together. This sound is very common in harmony and very easy to recognize. Very often in 3 part harmony the chord being sung is just a combination of two “intervals”. Usually it’s two 3rds or a 3rd and a 4th. What’s a 4th? You can find it the same way we found the 3rd. Think of the major scale again. Start from 1 and count the notes to number 4. Now, sing the 1 and the 4 and leave the 2 and 3 out.
A great song to hear that interval really clearly is “Hear Comes The Bride”. The space between the word “Here” and “Comes” is a 4th. You can find the 5th the same way. Think of the line from the Christmas song that goes “Do You Hear What I hear?” The space between “do you” and “hear” is a 5th. These 3 intervals; the 3rd, the 4th and the 5th, are the most commonly used in harmony. They account for almost all of the harmony we encounter in most choir and praise and worship harmony that uses 3 parts.Understanding what these spaces are and being able to recognize them by ear is the first step to really understanding harmony.
Because once you understand them you can listen to another singer and almost instinctively hear exactly what interval you need to add to the note he’s singing to harmonize with him. Here’s an example: If I started singing “I shall not, I shall not be moved”, you could listen to the note I started that word “I” on, count to 3 from there and sing that note for your “I”. You would instantly create a perfect 3rd, just like that!
Do you need help teaching parts to your choir or praise team? Maybe you’re a great director or musician, but teaching parts just isn’t your thing and you don’t have anyone else to do it. I’d love to help! I’m currently doing just that for 3 choirs locally now, and have space for about 2 more at this writing.
How does it work? Simple. Send me links to the songs you need taught, tell me where to be and when, and I’ll come in and teach your songs for you. Great for special occasions, musicals, etc. Or even just regular rehearsals. I can only take a couple more though, so if you’re interested and you live in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area reach out to me via the Contact Us link at the top of the page.