How to sing in harmony (not just by ear)

Often singers find themselves in situations where they need to sing in harmony. This might be when writing or practicing original or cover songs, and often these situations occur under pressure – such as in the recording studio, or in preparation for a live gig.

Being singer or musician means that you likely already have an awareness of harmony, and can generally find and hold some notes, however perhaps you feel a little slow, or limited in your choices? Or perhaps it often doesn’t work and clashes with the melody. Other vocalists who sing in harmony usually make it look so effortless and easy. Can they really be pulling those beautiful harmonies out of the blue? Well, singing in harmony is a skill that takes repeated exposure to get better. It’s a little bit like speaking in another language. One must hear and practice repeatedly to do it fluidly.

I’m going to show you an easy way to understand these concepts, without needing any sheet music written out, or needing to play an instrument really well.

Within this 6 minute video (and see accompanying post below if you prefer to read), I will teach you a method to find rich, colorful harmonies, using the harmonic structure of the chords in your song.


Online Lesson Video: How to Sing in Harmony (not just by ear)


The biggest mistake singers make when attempting to sing in harmony

The biggest mistake singers make when attempting to harmonize, is to do it purely by ear, without having knowledge of the underlying musical structure of the song. This would be like trying to find your destination without a map.

Learning other instruments requires learing from the foundations up. No one is expected to play and improvise their instrument, completely by ear! Yet, with voice, we expect ourselves to be able to hear and play fluidly, the natural way. Thinking about it this way, one can see how unrealistic this expectation is. This often contributes to negative mindset issues, where singers feel shame, and lose confidence. I talk a lot about this in my book, Singing for the Self-Conscious. Grab the 1st chapter free here.

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Two things you need to understand in order to find great harmony notes

Having an awareness of these 2 foundations in the song you are singing will give you the ‘road map’ to finding rich, interesting, beautiful harmonic notes that work with the melody line.

  1. The chords of the song you are singing.

Write down the chords of your song, then specifically, the notes 1, 3, and 5 of each chord in your song. These particular notes make up the harmonic structure of the chord. Most harmonies simply move around these 3 notes. And other notes around each chord/key center might also work, and create rich, interesting movements. So don’t be afraid to try the other notes! I love the interesting sound that the 2nd and 7th notes of a chord can provide.

2. What the melody does in relation to the chord changes.

And of course, to sing in harmony with the melody, you must first be aware of what the melody is doing around the chords. Then, instead of only using your ear to find the harmony, you will be able to know which notes of the chord the melody falls on, and therefore pick your harmony notes based around this.

For example, if you see that the melody is sung over notes 5 and 4 of the chord, then you could write in a harmony on different notes of the chord: 3 and 2 for example. See the example of the harmony I found for “Summertime Sadness” by Lana del Ray.

Quick tips for singing great harmonies

  • Don’t worry about moving exactly with the melody. Harmony lines often stay on the same few notes, while the melody moves around. Keeping them always tracking exactly the same distance apart can sound overly saccarin-sweet, or kind of old-fashioned and hymn-like.
  • Keep your harmonies as close as possible to the melody. Close harmonies sound the best.
  • When working it out, make sure to first isolate the melody line, then isolate your harmony line by singing them through separately. This will help you remember your harmony.

Grab my Handy Harmony Cheat Sheet here