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Harmony Singing

11 May 11 - 10:36 PM (#3152462)
Subject: Harmony Singing
From: Sandy Mc Lean

I perhaps ask a stupid question but must three or four part harmony be always a capella? I would think that a fixed reference note would screw up a triad and I thought barbershop type stuff only set a reference pitch for the melody to begin, but I know nothing of music theory. I was listening to some old Mills Brothers stuff on YouTube and they seem to be doing a chordal harmony while someone tinkles a piano. I wonder if perhaps the notes were added later as a seperate track?

12 May 11 - 12:03 AM (#3152483)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: Joe Offer

We do four-part pieces in our church choir, Sandy; and almost always use an accompanist - usually piano, sometimes accented by violin and trumpet or flute.

Oftentimes, the violin, flute, or trumpet is used to "answer" the sung parts of to fill in the spaces between verses - but the piano usually plays throughout. I have a hard time singing with wind instruments, and I'm not exactly sure why.


12 May 11 - 12:14 AM (#3152486)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: GUEST,leeneia

No, it doesn't need to be acappella. For example, I just heard Beethoven's 9th Symphony with four-part chorus and orchestra. Also soloists.

Church choirs often sing four parts with instruments.

12 May 11 - 03:32 AM (#3152587)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: Tootler

It's normal for choirs to sing with accompaniment; most commonly a piano.

12 May 11 - 04:04 AM (#3152592)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: Richard Bridge

It is equally normal for folk bands to play and sing four or five part harmony - for example Jon Loomes old band Whorticulture

12 May 11 - 04:43 AM (#3152604)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: GUEST,Grishka

Sandy, your question is not stupid, but it shows that you are quite new to the music scene. YouTube is not the worst of all educators; go on discovering things at that pace and you will become an expert in a couple of years.

12 May 11 - 05:44 AM (#3152630)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: Max Johnson

Nice to hear from another Mills Brothers fan.
No doubt you are familiar with their early stuff. When they started out they were a vaudeville novelty act and used to make the sounds of the instruments themselves. Very clever, and very funny on occasion. They're one of my top five ever harmony groups along with the Andrews Sisters, The Pacific Airs, and The Comedy Harmonists.
Anyway, the Mills Brothers had the best of both worlds.

12 May 11 - 06:50 AM (#3152640)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: Midchuck

Can you say "Bluegrass?"


12 May 11 - 08:35 AM (#3152676)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: ripov

It's all about "temperament" (qv). Some notes fit together; others, with the same names, don't seem to. Some instruments are stuck with the notes they're tuned to; others, including the voice, can modify the notes to sound in tune. (Given a skilful performer!). And there are many "in tunes", depending on the desired effect.

12 May 11 - 08:57 AM (#3152683)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: GUEST,Marianne S.

West Gallery music in the UK - four part vocal, instrument(s) playing the vocal lines and sometimes separate instrumental parts. Traditional from very roughly 1650 to 1850. Still exists in Sheffield Carolling tradition

12 May 11 - 10:55 AM (#3152738)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: Sandy Mc Lean

Thanks all for the replies! It is not that I am new to music but I always or at least usually sing solo to my own guitar. Any harmony that I have attempted would be in unison on the same or a different octave. If I play with others I can be easily distracted by a bass or other instruments even when they are playing in tune with my voice. For that reason I usually avoid group or choir singing. I sing old country and Celtic folk as well as my own compositions, so harmonizing has not a requirement. I have no music training but my electronics training gives me a compentent comprehension of hetrodyning and the effects of blending frequencies both in and out of phase.
All that being said I am fascinated by barbershop singing and the ability to sing to the fourth and fifth of a scale while following the pitch of the fundamental. To me it is forcing yourself to sing out of tune until you hit that desired chordal blend. Any barbershop singing that I have seen was a capella with only a reference note at the beginning. However YouTube directed me to the Mills Brothers and they seemed to be doing the same thing while the piano played throughout and from that rose my question. Thanks again!

12 May 11 - 11:10 AM (#3152753)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: GUEST,highlandman at work

In general -- and of course all generalizations are false -- four part vocal harmony may be acapella or accompanied, more or less indifferently.

Now in broad terms there are two ways to accompany a vocal ensemble -- one is for the instruments to simply duplicate (double) what the voices are doing. This is the normal modus operandi for hymn book arrangements. In that case, whether the parts are doubled or not makes no difference harmonically, as long as they are all present one way or another, but obviously the *sound* will be different.

The other general way is for the instruments to take parts that are not present in the vocal music, and vice versa. These arrangements require that the instrument be present. Many choir anthems are arranged this way. Also, think about groups which have 3- or 4-part vocal harmony plus have instruments playing complementary but necessary parts, like bluegrass, or swing (Mills Bros for example). In those cases dropping the instruments out will definitely leave something missing (usually the sense of rhythmic drive, or movement in between phrases). (BTW their studio recordings may or may not have been tracked, but I guarantee those Mills Bros arrangements were performed live, many many times, just the same way.)

But isn't the devil in the details? In the first case, where you have a harmonically complete 4-part arrangement, like a hymn, if you try to double the parts it has to be with an instrument (and a player) that is capable of doubling the parts precisely (think piano or organ) and not approximately (guitar, in most cases). Playing cowboy-style guitar chords to accompany a fully-harmonized hymn tune is barbaric. On the other hand, a guitar accompaniment carefully worked out to complement and not clash with the vocal lines can be delightful.

And as you (Sandy) suspected, there are types of vocal music that resist accompaniment by instruments. Barbershop is one -- that has to do partly with stylistic matters but also with the intonation (scale temperament) the singers use vs the temperament of the instruments. Chant (generally) rebels against instrumental accompaniment. And Sacred Harp tunes, for some reason, seem to defy all attempts to accompany them instrumentally.

Fun stuff. (And here's a guaranteed argument starter:) neither studying theory nor wide listening/performing experience is the best way to understand these matters. Each approach informs the other. Application without theory can be limiting and frustrating; theory without application can get too far from the realities of what the stuff actually sounds like.


12 May 11 - 10:45 PM (#3153098)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: Sandy Mc Lean

Thanks Glen!
Now back to a more basic question:
I am not sure if I am using the right definition of three part or four part harmony. Three or four people singing together on the same scale but one singing lead (fundamental) one singing on the fourth scale note and one on the fifth scale note to form a triad (chord of the fundamental key) and I believe this is what happens with barbershop with the bass an octave below the lead for four part.
Another type of harmony would be a tenor, a baritone and a bass singing on the same note but an octave apart and this is what I hear more often with Bluegrass. When bluegrass notes blend in a triad the music often seems to stop or drop. I wonder if my ear is just confused by the music?

13 May 11 - 10:31 AM (#3153335)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: GUEST,Grishka

Sandy, I think your ears are the least confused parts of you ;-). Eh - what was the unanswered question?

13 May 11 - 10:46 AM (#3153343)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: Steve Parkes

Sandy, as you pay guitar you'll be quite familiar with choirs, and what chord goes with each part of a tune. You'll soon get the hang of singing one of the other notes instead of the melody note. If you listen to the English Copper Family, you'll hear that, in duets, the second part often switches between the third above and the fourth below; whatever was comfortable for his voice. In barbershop, the bass is often more of a counter-melody than a strict harmony.

Sing what feels right. Good luck!

13 May 11 - 11:27 AM (#3153372)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: GUEST,highlandman at work

Sandy, singing harmony takes some getting used to. Part of the skill is learning to hear the other parts but not being confused by them.

Your terminology is confusing me a bit. Like Steve said, think about what you do on the guitar during the bits when you aren't singing. Each string could be like a voice in a choir. Each string/voice goes up or down more or less independently of the others, to arrive at a note which is part of the chord being sounded at the moment. Independent, but coordinated by a higher purpose (yours).

Harmony is not only a vertical idea, meaning what notes are sounded together to form a particular set of intervals (= a chord), but also has a horizontal dimension, meaning where the parts came from and where they are going as the chord progression moves along. Western theory calls this "voice leading." It's not something we often consider as guitarists, but we should -- it adds clarity and sophistication to the sound. But the point is that each part is a tune of its own. Sometimes more interesting, sometimes boring, but it is a tune.

Another thing is that it is not at all necessary for chords to have the lowest or highest part on the root (fundamental). There are other arrangements of voices possible. Think of a G major chord with B bass on the guitar. This is a first inversion chord, and it's very common. Voices in harmony work exactly the same way. Any voice can occupy any note in the current chord depending on the sound the composer wants to create, the voice leading, and what other notes in the chord are accounted for by the other voices.

I don't think I'm doing a good job explaining.... trying to summarize a 400-page theory textbook in a 200-word post. Sorry.

It's a pretty complex subject, lots of people have made lifelong studies of it -- but you don't have to be Herr Mus. Doktor to benefit from dabbling with theory a bit. Have fun, listen and experiment.

(Making music collaboratively is a lot like making it solo, in that you have to do it badly first.)


BTW the effect of the music seeming to "stop" at certain points could be one of two things: either the arrangement is highlighting the dramatic chord on purpose, by stopping the accompaniment -- or your attention is captured by the interesting harmony at that point and the accompaniment is dropping below your aural "radar"... listen to the same few seconds on a recording over and over, and try to follow each part and each instrument, one at a time. It can be a challenge but it is educational at least. -G

13 May 11 - 11:35 AM (#3153376)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: Sandy Mc Lean

As I said I sing solo usually to the chords of my own guitar and my voice tracks, hopefully on key, with the flattop. I change chords by instinct and do okay but I can't explain to anyone why or when to change except that it " sounds right". I don't read music but can recognize notation enough to help me play a melody that I already know. My voice does not have a lot of range (baritone) so I carefully select the best key for the song. My diction is clear and although I have and know my limits, I have a hell of a lot of fun performing and seem to be able to please an audience.
The main question I suppose deals with how it is possible to make your voice harmonize into a chord structure or triad while listening to the melody. I see no problem with what I, perhaps incorrectly, call harmonic harmony, but wondered about chordal harmony.
In any case my singing will always remain with a simpler structure but I am fascinated by the barbershop style especially. Thanks again to all for your great response to this thread!

13 May 11 - 12:31 PM (#3153423)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: SylviaN

Bit late, as you have had a great deal of information and help already, but here is my two-penneth worth.

Yes, there are those who are very skilled in arranging harmonies and getting exactly the effect they want instrumentally, but we all know, as you quite rightly say, Sandy, that vocally we all have our limitations. As with most things, put people into a perfect situation and you can't guarantee a perfect outcome.

So, although you say you arrange chords by instinct and know when to change because it "sounds right", it's what most of us do. All I can add to that is - experiment and have fun.



13 May 11 - 12:38 PM (#3153428)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: SylviaN

Me again.

Although stating the obvious, arrangement is important.

I remember being fascinated by a group, who harmonised and played instruments, and their rendition at Warwick Festival of Eleanor Rigby.

There is a drone note in the song, and this note was passed skillfully from one to another. As they held the note, this, of course, shifted the pattern of voices and harmonies. Also, on a few sections of the song, the drone was passed to an instrument. This enabled the group to create the effect they wanted in the song. I'm ashamed to say that I can't remember the name of the group. I had thought it was Cuckoo Oak, and it may still be, but I think they sing unaccompanied.

So, to add to my previous message - experiment, arrange but, above all, enjoy.

13 May 11 - 12:42 PM (#3153432)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: SylviaN

Just looked on the Cuckoo Oak website, and it definiately was them.

13 May 11 - 01:57 PM (#3153482)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: GUEST,highlandman at work

A proverb in music studies is that "theory follows practice."
You have obviously absorbed a great deal by reflecting on your experiences. That's how theory comes about.
The only difference is that you have formulated ideas in your mind without the "conventional" vocabulary those observations are usually expressed with.
My own experience was much the same. In my younger days (before dirt was discovered) I experimented a lot, played and sang a lot, and formulated my own thoughts about what worked together and what didn't. When they sent me to school to teach me how to be logical, I learned that a lot of what I knew was right -- but now I knew how to talk about it in the lingo of the trade. I also learned a lot of other things that dovetailed in with what I had already discovered. Expanding horizons and all that.
There were also many things I thought I knew which I was taught were "wrong" -- only to find, many years later, that under more "advanced" rules such things really did have a place.
All of which is to say, if you have the time and the interest, studying formal theory absolutely will NOT hurt your spontaneity and creativity, as long as you remember the dictum that practice trumps theory.

05 Nov 15 - 07:40 PM (#3748826)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: keberoxu

The Mills Brothers are favorites of mine. They were before my time, but reissues of their recordings document their very lengthy history.

As a previous poster has stated, they went through different stages in their career. What I have learned about their history comes largely from liner notes to their back catalog.

Initially they were promoted as four brothers and a guitar. They were actually singing along to a guitar before the Ink Spots arrived, if I read correctly, and the Ink Spots emulated the Mills Brothers. Always singing in close harmony, with or without the guitar. Their early, classic recording of "Hold That Tiger!" has no guitar. It is all voices, and in the middle they throw out the lyrics and just imitate a brass band, from the tuba to the trumpet with a trombone somewhere in the middle. It is told that they could stand on a railway station platform and vocalize Duke Ellington's Black and Tan Symphony which is NOT a vocal composition, but a band piece, and they could imitate the band to perfection. An awful lot of rehearsal time must have gone into something like that.

The oldest of the four brothers was the guitarist as well as the bass singer, and it is said that he ws the ambitious one. Everything almost ground to a halt when he suddenly died young. But that was when the parents, who survived their son, spoke up to the remaining brothers and more or less bullied them into continuing, carrying on in their brother's memory. In fact, at that point, their father joined the Mills Brothers, singing the bass lines formerly sung by his son. Another musician was hired to supply guitar.

It was only after many years of hard work that the Mills Brothers made studio recordings with anything more than that one guitar, although eventually there would be piano arrangements and band arrangements. The Mills Brothers continued to sing some things unaccompanied, such as "You Tell Me Your Dream and I Will Tell You Mine," which other doo-wop bands have claimed was an example for them to emulate. A lot of history there.

11 Aug 16 - 08:45 PM (#3804638)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: Donuel

12 Aug 16 - 04:09 PM (#3804765)
Subject: RE: Harmony Singing
From: Jack Blandiver

Love The Mills Brothers - and their arrangement of Caravan is one the wonders of the known universe. Just a shame that it's used in the context such a noxious piece of racial stereotyping. Shameful.