I absolutely love singing in harmony. It would have to be my most favourite thing to do. At church it takes lots of self-control to stop myself singing harmony all the time. (But I do refrain most of the time since it can seem a bit show-off-ish, and also off-putting if you are meant to be leading people in the melody up the front!)
But give me a few spare minutes and some other keen people, this is my preferred activity! There is just something totally mysterious, extraordinary and beautiful about the way harmonic notes blend together. When people ask me to write them some harmony parts for a song I rejoice at the challenge and opportunity to sit and fiddle with harmony for a few hours. (I’ve often wondered if this could be a lucrative business activity via the internet! What do you think?)
You may call me crazy for such harmonic enthusiasm, but this is what comes from being brought up on huge doses of harmony singing, at home, at school and church, in choirs and small a cappella groups. Yet despite my experience, when people ask me to teach them how to sing harmony I scratch my head and wonder? How do you teach someone what is a pretty complicated process in listening and anticipating?
“In the simplest style of vocal harmony, the main vocal melody is supported by a single backup vocal line, either at a pitch which is above or below the main vocal line, often in thirds or sixths which fit in with the chord progression used in the song. In more complex vocal harmony arrangements, different backup singers may sing two or even three other notes at the same time as each of the main melody notes, mostly with consonant, pleasing-sounding thirds, sixths, and fifths (although dissonant notes may be used as short passing notes)”. (So says Wikipedia)
You can now see why I say it is a pretty complicated process, especially if you are going to improvise!
I think the only way to learn to harmonise well it is to hear it, to hear someone do it, a lot, then try it! When you sing harmony you have to anticipate what’s coming, both in the melody and the chords that support it. You have to anticipate what will blend well with the note coming up. You have to hear the harmony in your head before you execute it, and then you need the courage to try it. Good harmony singing has to be “caught not taught”. I had about 17 years of ‘weekly lessons’ in harmony singing with my dad – well not formal ones, more just singing in the pew beside him each Sunday, listening to his improvised tenor line for every hymn in the book.
And are there any benefits of harmony singing, you may ask? Well for singers you have to listen to other people well, which has to be a good thing. It develops team work, and together you create something beautiful which one voice alone could not create. In performance it helps shift the focus from the glory of one person, to the team work of several. There are also benefits for the listener, as they hear the blend, the movement of sound, the tension and the resolution of different voices working together.
And of course there is a spiritual application here. Living in harmony with others requires the same practised skillful decision making. We must choose to listen to others, consider where they are heading (they may be walking in shoes very different from ours), and then choose grace over judgement. Again, these skills are often better caught than taught. Great harmony can be achieved from a group of people who are careful to keep in tune with God and each other, living selfless lives. The loving characteristics of our heavenly Father blend so well together. If we are reflecting his character and glory we cannot help but harmonise beautifully. He is the Father of all harmonies, both musically and between us.
2 Corinthians 13:11 NLT
“Dear brothers and sisters, I close my letter with these last words: Be joyful. Grow to maturity. Encourage each other. Live in harmony and peace. Then the God of love and peace will be with you.”
Here is a clip of some harmony singing I did with a friend (on melody) at a recent women’s conference. Oh the Deep Deep Love of Jesus.
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