Updated: Aug 7, 2022
Every so often I am asked to teach someone how to #harmonize and it is then that I am reminded how blessed I was to grow up singing in choirs where this was a weekly practice. Of course, one can learn to harmonize at any age, even if they have no experience singing in a choir. However, it is a bit more time-consuming to learn this skill in one-on-one voice lessons.
To get started, it is best if you have access to a piano, keyboard, or at the very least, an app on your tablet or phone. I use the Music Studio app when I am away from my instruments and need to check a quick pitch. You could also use a pitch whistle, but when learning to harmonize, it is helpful if you can play and hear more than one pitch at the same time.
How #Harmony is Made
Harmonies are based on triads, chords built in 3rds. Let's use the C Major scale where the notes are C D E F G A B C, or Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do. Hopefully, you have heard the end of the Do Re Mi song from The Sound of Music (video example: https://youtu.be/XnApWOj2vZ0).
To begin, play these three notes, C, E, G at the same time, and sing with each pitch individually while you play the chord.
Exercise your ears!
A fun exercise is to use the song Lean On Me
The opening lyrics of the song "Lean on Me" (Sometimes in our lives) has #triads (3-note chords) going up and down, which will go like this: CEG, CEG, DFA, EGB, FAC
First, sing the bottom notes (C, C, D, E, F) while you play each triad. (This is the melody, or the tune you probably hear most prominently.
Next, sing the middle notes (E, E, F, G, A).
Then sing the top ones (G, G, A, B, C).
To advance this skill further, try to reverse the order of the chords: FAC, EGB, DFA, CEG.
Once again, you should try singing the top, middle, and then bottom notes.
(If this is too challenging, a simpler step would be to just play the lowest and middle notes of the chords and just sing either note while playing both.)
Learning about triad inversions will also help in your understanding of how harmonies work and how to hear and sing the separate notes in any given chord.
The military song “Taps” uses to inversions of the C Major triad. Start on the G below middle C, or G3. The order of notes here is: GCE
Then continue to go higher, but only sing or play the notes of the C Major chord: CEG
Then play all the notes of the song consecutively: G GC---, G C E---, G C E, G C E, G C E---, C E G-- E--C--G---, G G C---
The more you do this, the more you will begin to get comfortable with the idea that all these notes are part of the same triad, no matter where they are played (high or low).
Like your mother always said...
Yes, it's true. Mother really does know best, and when she told you that you really ought to learn to play piano, she was right! The best #eartraining, aside from singing in a choir every week, is for you to learn to play the piano, because there is just nothing like you playing and hearing notes along with seeing and hearing the distance between them, at your own pace.
Training your brain note by note and interval by interval will open up a whole world to you, but if you want a place to get started, try using little exercises like these.
If you're looking for a teacher to help you train your brain, your fingers and your voice, look no further than the teachers at Lori Moran Music, where the author of this blog, Shannon Kauble, teaches voice and piano.