Why it’s better to sing in unison than with bad harmony

Schola Cantorum de Caracas (Venezuela) led by Maria GuinandDown through the more than 30 years I’ve been teaching vocal harmony for various choirs and groups I’ve developed a reputation as a “perfectionist”. Unfortunately I don’t think everyone who says this about me means it in the most positive way. In fact I’ve been accused of nothing short of dictatorship, although not in so many words. I suspect the same is true for many choir directors, music ministers and musicians around the world who are charged with teaching the songs their various choirs and praise teams bring before the congregation week after week.

As we discussed in another blog, some of the hardest, most frustrating rehearsals in fact have been those where the harmony didn’t come together quite so easily, but I continued to push until we got it right. In fact sometimes we didn’t get it right, and we decided to simply come back to it in another rehearsal rather than perform it before we had it perfected. And it’s times like these when people really wonder why it’s such a big deal to have everything so “perfect”. It’s most frustrating too, when it’s a really small thing that we just can’t get our heads around, you know what I mean? Like one note in one section that is being sung a half-step off, making this really unpleasant clashing of  harmony between the musicians and the singers. Often it’s hard for the choir members and praise team members to understand why it’s such a must that things like that be fixed.
Well, I can really sum it up for you with one sentence. it’s something God dropped in my spirit when I was very young, and it’s been one of the driving forces behind my style of teaching and ministry. He said this:

“The harmony is right when it’ becomes transparent.”

Looking back I think I knew everything that sentence meant the minute it came to me. And I knew that if I could help my choir understand this it would change the way they felt about the work involved with perfecting the harmony. Instead of resenting it they would come to embrace, understand it’s necessity and even prefer it. So God started to not only reveal this to me, but to admonish me to teach it to others so they really had a whole new understanding of why it’s so important to do this work.

So to explain it in a nutshell, God showed me that when harmony is right, nobody is paying attention to it. They’re only paying attention to the message. Beautiful harmony just makes the message that much more powerful. But when it’s right, the harmony is NOT the main attraction. The message is. Ironic, isn’t it? That we put so much work into the sound for the express reason of getting it to the point where nobody pays attention to it? But that’s the real reason we do it. The reason we MUST do it.

Because you see, when it’s wrong, everybody’s paying attention to it. But nobody for the right reason. When someone or some section is off-key, even if everything is going great up until that point, it will immediately draw everybody- and I mean every member of the group AND every member of the audience- OUT of worship and praise and focused solely on trying to figure out what’s wrong; “something doesn’t sound right”. Choir or praise team members start looking around at each other, the musicians, the director- ANYBODY that can help them find where they’re supposed to be. So again; NOBODY’s thinking about the message. There is no praise or worship going on at this point. Just uncertainty, confusion, embarrassment. Now everybody’s out of the Spirit and in self. So the negative effects are even worse on the choir or praise team than they are on the audience.

Case in point.

Our choir was doing a particular song one Sunday morning. It was a beautiful, powerful worship song. As we began to move through it the Holy Spirit started to move through the members and the audience as well. People were starting to lift their hands and just worship God through the song. But then we came to a place in the song where there has always been some uncertainty. It was a rather complicated movement, and not everyone really understood what was happening there.

The minute we reached that part in the song, it was as the Holy Spirit hit a brick wall. We immediately came out of worship as the members realized they didn’t know what part to do or where to do it. We didn’t understand it. We hadn’t perfected it until we really, really knew it. We went on and struggled through the whole movement to end the song. The embarrassment and utter disappointment was palpable enough to cut with a knife. Not having been the original teacher of the song, I vowed then that we wouldn’t sing it again until I could make every member understand exactly what was happening in this movement, to the point where it was almost instinctive.

And that is the most clear illustration I can give you for why song teachers, choir directors and music ministers all over the country drive and push their music ministries to excellence. I know what it looks like. But it’s really not about us at all. It’s about removing all distractions, hindrances and uncertainty that would take the focus away from our true mission; to deliver the word of God in song, and to do it in such a way that it’s effective and reaching the hearts of His people.

For that reason alone it is almost better to just sing in unison than to sing with bad harmony. But I feel the need to also make sure everyone understands that it isn’t about harmony. You don’t have to have harmony at all to have a powerful, anointed performance. A group of people singing in unison has the same effect as a group of people singing in perfect harmony. The sound becomes transparent vessel that delivers the message without distraction. Hezekiah Walker’s “I Need You To Survive” is a great example of a very powerful choir song that has no harmony.

The real point is to never allow yourself to be ok with putting something before God’s people that doesn’t sound good and you know it doesn’t. Not, at least, when He’s blessed you with the talent and resources to give Him better. There is a reason why the most disciplined, hard-working choirs and praise teams are usually the most anointed. God honors your music ministry when you’re giving Him your best. Once you really understand that you’ll slowly see your attitude go from “why does it have to be so perfect, we ain’t no professionals!!”- to ” can we go over our part one more time?” And that’s when God takes your ministry to another level.


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11 Responses to Why it’s better to sing in unison than with bad harmony

  1. Is it possible for a choir to sing in unison and register at the same time?

  2. Becky says:

    A question: Seems to me that you either can hear harmony and in turn, harmonize…or you cannot. Do you think it’s a “ya got it-or you don’t” type thing? I understand if you have strong altos around you…you can sing a long….but if you’re the only alto…can that ability to sing a part by yourself be learned or is it a gift… I ask because I’ve had many singers through the years who could sing the melody beautifully…but couldn’t hear parts at all…

  3. Becky says:

    I enjoyed this article and I look forward to digging into more of your site. I love harmony, but I also love the powerful sound of unison. Some songs we sing pretty much in unison are, Israel’s Turn it Around & Still Standing…and most of William McDowell’s – Standing. I very much appreciate what you said about accompaniment tracks. I’ve never had a steady drummer to play with…I play slower -contemporary songs easily, but good ole’ Gospel/fast songs, I stink at…and I’ve leaned on tracks to help me out in that area. Thanks again for being so helpful!

  4. Andrea says:

    I have these attitudes so badly in my church choir. They do fairly well with harmony, but they don’t like to work, but rather show up to “quickly”rehearse and to leave. They don’t like to drill, they hate it if I say there are harmony parts, (rolling their eyes) and they are always push push push. I wonder why, on earth, are they in a church choir if they do not like to sing?? I love to praise God, AND I have a passion for singing. I think you need to have both!

  5. Joe Limbo says:

    In a smaller group (like 2 or 3) I feel the opposite. A bad unison, whether slightly off by a few cents will always sound worse than a bad harmony off by a few cents. Worse still is the unison harmony females contribute, when this is off it can sound horrendous. I was an open mic host for 15 years and have suffered numerous times. And I’m not saying my pitch is perfect but when someone offers to sing unison they will make me sound worse even if they are more in key than I am. I learned a long time ago that as my friend hit the wrong chords on his guitar it sounded even worse when I hit the correct ones with him. Same is try in unison, and it is not as forgiving for timing either. In choir, maybe its okay, or if your the same 2 lads from Liverpool.

  6. Music Minister says:

    Hi Mr. Cross, this is a wonderful article. I’ve started a praise and worship team. So far, it’s only five of us. Finding the harmony in some of the songs we minister is a challenge sometimes. The group is always concerned which songs have harmony, which parts should we go into harmony. I’m a singer and I don’t play any instruments. I believe this makes it more challenging not being able to play a certain note so they can hear what notes they should be singing. So the few times we’ve song, we just result to singing in unison. I haven’t gotten to the place where I’m comfortable with teaching harmony on certain songs. This is all new to me and new to the group as well. Also, since I don’t play any instruments, we do have musicians to play for us sometimes. But other times, I use my accompaniment tracks. I bring up the accompaniment tracks because I feel they help us when we don’t have the harmony down.They help us with singing on the right key. But I don’t want to always use them as a crutch and want to advance to the next level. I’m also looking into learning how to play an instrument such as piano or guitar. Do you feel accompaniment tracks are professional when ministering? I’ve heard various opinions about this.

    • Ron says:

      Hi Music Minister,

      There’s nothing at all wrong with using accompaniment tracks. Many professionals do it all the time to avoid the hassle and expense of taking a live band everywhere.

      There is certainly nothing wrong then with a small church ministry who doesn’t have musicians yet using them.
      Hope that helps!

  7. Frustrated beginner says:

    Hello Mr. Cross. I wholeheartedly agree with your article. I have recently taken on the task as the head of the music ministry at my church. I gave my life to the Lord five years ago and believe in the seriousness and power of music ministry. Leadership has fallen to me by default because no one else wants to do it or believe they cannot do it. Prior to that music was a large part of my life throughout my growing years; I’m now 30. However I have never been able to afford vocal training or instrumental training. Im now putting in the time and funds to learn piano but can’t afford vocal coaching.
    My church’s music department has never had a music director nor can they afford one. I’ve begun implementation of practices twice per month. The difficulty here is my only training in harmonizing is from a child when I was a catholic choir singing chamber style music. My choir master told me to sing the harmony by moving the note “one and a half down”. However this doesn’t always work and I end up with something that’s sounds like a unison. Is there such a thing as unison harmony? Because our praise team has never before had regular practices, we went up there winging it and sounding a total mess. I would like the singers to do harmony for now until we learn how to harmonize the songs properly. To date the song leader has been teaching the group how to Harmonize however she doesn’t know how to explain it technically. She has learned how to harmonize by listening to the american gospel three part harmony.
    Now the situation is a mess but I’m praying and seeking out resources to help me. In the mean time, how do I convey to this group that we need to sing in unison or just allow the “natural harmony” of our voices do the job until we get the harmony structures right.

    • Ron Cross says:

      Well frustrated beginner, I think this article is a good place to start as far as conveying to the group the importance of either singing with good harmony or singing in unison. Feel free to print it out, along with any of the other blogs you see here on the site. I also have a couple of videos posted on the subject of harmony and understanding how it works. I’m guessing by your comment regarding your current song leader, that you’re not from America?

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