Singing Harmonies Adds So Much More To Songs.
Singing in harmony is one of singings most profound dimensions. Harmony is a background player, supporting the
rest of the sonic cast. While melody articulates the conscious narrative, harmony gives shape to a song’s subconscious emotional message or subtext.
From building suspense to lending your song a polished, balanced feel, without harmony, no other part of the song will have context. When we’re talking about harmony, we’re often thinking about the groove. So what is the groove?
It’s not just a funky bassline. The groove is a
combination of elements—including tempo, feel,
and rhythm—that make up the rhythmic core of
a song. Whether the groove is played by a lone
guitarist or a 15-piece mambo orchestra, all of these
elements are present in their groove.
Individual groove elements are often very simple
out of context. The power of a song’s harmony will
come from how these simple elements work against
each other and how they are developed. Visualize
the sound of a lone sustained chord. Without a
groove, that chord would hold only limited interest.
However, inside a groove, that same chord could be
interesting enough to last the duration of an entire
song. There are endless rhythmic variations that can
be used to build up a groove. A guitarist and a bass
player might use the same rhythmic ideas, though
the idea might be offset by a beat or two. Similarly,
the rhythmic ideas of the groove may share rhythmic
ideas in the melody. Basing some song’s elements
on others is an easy way to develop an organic,
We can see how rhythm can add to the feel of the
track. But how do we develop the overall sound?
Like any artist you have access to a palette of
different colors to work with. Major, minor, power
and seventh chords are the four types of chordal
colors. Each key color can serve as a source for
harmonies that will work with the primary chord.
Let’s describe a C major chord color as bright
yellow. Like a painter, you may choose to “paint”
your song entirely with that shade of yellow.
However, as the emotions of a song become more
subtle, you may find yourself wanting to use other
shades of yellow, and maybe even related colors.
These chord colors are suggestive too.
It’s important to remember that harmony thrives on
variation. Changing the progression’s length, chord
rhythm, and chord order can all keep a harmony
fresh. All of these are variations of timing, and the
chords themselves stay intact. Varying the timing
and order of a chord progression preserves much
of its essential character, and helps you adapt a
standard progression to a song. These changes can
highlight a unique lyric, change the pacing of the
groove, build excitement, and otherwise support
the songwriter’s dramatic intentions.
Putting together these variations in timing, color,
and rhythm are easy enough out of context. The
real trick is putting everything together. But how
do we develop the harmony throughout a song?
Think back to some of the songs you’ve heard over
the years. Many of these songs use the same chord
progressions, chord progressions that become
familiar very quickly. These progressions occur so
often, and are so powerful I refer to them as power
progressions. They are so strong, that you can
use any one of them alone to suggest an entire
key color. The power progressions will be your
constant allies as a songwriter. Consider the power
I IV V
This progression is arguably the most famous chord
progression in rock music. Countless songs have
been written around it. So what can we do with
it? What if the chord progressed backwards? How
would adding a minor second or a minor third into
the progression change the feel of the harmony? By
just considering the different chords we can add to
this progression, we’ve opened up pandora’s box.
But we’re not limited to the realm of major and
minor. Let’s look at how we can utilize modes in our
progressions. For example, the difference between
the major and mixolydian key colors is only one note.
But what a difference it makes! Listen to Jimi Hendrix
“Manic Depression” and pay attention to the riff.
The song moves in an I bVII IV progression, another
power progression. What kind of feel does it give the
whole track? How does it support the lyrics? More
importantly, now that you’ve heard it, what kind of
variations could be made to mix things up a bit?
Power progressions like these are common phrases
of speech, or expressions—tried and true musical
objects. Though they may have been used countless
times before, there is always something new
that power progressions can be used to say. By
modifying the power progressions, or any chord
progressions, you can create endless variations
of them, and spin countless songs from the same
Chord progressions, the power of a groove and
the colors of the keys are all just barely scratching
the surface of harmony. Harmony is the bedrock,
the backbone of any song. Every harmonic
development and every means of variation will
become a tool in your arsenal. And with the more
harmonic tools at your disposal, the easier the
songwriting process will be