How to sing vocal harmonies

Whether you’re a professional singer or just dabble with singing in your spare time, this beginner guide is jam-packed with simple guidelines for arranging vocal harmonies. Ready to upleve your singing? Let’s go!

Implementing vocal harmonies into your song gives a dramatic effect if done correctly. 

But first, we need to understand some basic music theory. 

For instance, a solid grasp of intervals, chords, and musical scales provides you with the foundation for creating an epic vocal harmony.

Music intervals.

Music intervals refer to the spacing between notes. Understanding intervals makes assembling chords much easier. 

The musical alphabet consists of seven letters.

A – B – C – D – E – F – G

And part of playing music is knowing how these notes interact. Intervals have two parts–the interval number and interval quality. Determining the interval number is as simple as counting the distance between each note. For instance, the distance between A and E is five. Therefore the interval is a fifth. 

  • The interval numbers: First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Octave. 
  • The different types of intervals: Perfect, Major, Minor, Diminished and Augmented.

Understanding intervals helps you assemble better-sounding chords with more proficiency. In essence, chords are harmonies, and some notes work better together than others. 

What is musical harmony?

A musical harmony occurs when several notes play together as a singular musical unit. A harmony includes two or more sounds–in different pitches–that add an aggrandizing effect to a song.

Harmony refers to building chords, chord qualities, and chord progressions. Notes in a harmony are a pitch above or below the melody. You can also play both the higher and lower pitch at once. 

We typically see the power of harmony through instruments such as pianos and guitars, and many of our favorite songs also use vocal harmonies. 

Vocal harmonies

Vocal harmony is the same as musical harmony, except it refers to two or more vocal tones reverberating in unison.  Just like chords, there are additional vocal inputs that support the lead vocal. They serve as background vocals to add texture to a song. Because of the unique timbre emanating from vocal harmonies, their effect on a song differs from instrumental harmonies. 

Whether you’re just starting out or not, vocal harmonies are essential for any songwriter–they’re in every kind of music genre known to man, from R&B tracks and folk songs to classical music.

The building blocks of harmony 

When designing a harmony, you need to replace the chord’s name with a roman numeral with the corresponding scale or pitch of the root note.

The three categories of harmony include:

  • Tonics Chords–The base or root of the harmony. 
  • Dominant chords–Place these on the fifth or seventh degree of the triad.
  • Pre-dominant chords–A bridge between the tonic and dominant chords.

Knowing which notes work well together is crucial for assembling chords and harmonies. This template will help you find the correct tension between the tonic and dominant harmonic progressions.

The motion of harmony

There is also the chords’ motion or vocals to consider when it comes to harmony. As a song progresses, so do the notes that people sing and various ways it can happen.

In sheet music, harmonies can move in four different types of motion:

  • Parallel—Two voices move in the same direction while maintaining the same interval number.
  • Similar—Two voices follow the same melodic contour.
  • Oblique—One voice moves while the other stays in place.
  • Contrary—Two voices move in opposite directions.

Now that you understand the building blocks of harmony and how they work, it’s time to refine your technique. 

How to use harmonies.

While there is a mechanical element to the music, ultimately, it’s an art form. There’s no universal rule on how to use harmonies. However, some practices produce better effects than others. 

Here are some things to consider when creating your harmonies.

Interplay between vocals

You need to consider how the vocal harmonies interact. 

Once you’ve set the stage with your harmonic building blocks (Tonic, Dominant, Pre-dominant chords), it’s time to consider their movements. At this point, you know what kind of emotions you’ll evoke. 

Consider what purpose the vocals serve. Generally, there is one lead vocal, meaning that the background vocals are there as support. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t break the mold.

Take the time to explore the various effects you can create with the vocal interplay. For instance, does oblique motion emphasize or empower the chorus? Maybe a parallel motion works better. 

There are countless ways that vocal harmonies interact, so take your time and enjoy the creative process.

Timing & placement

In music, timing is everything. A masterful mathematical precision is underneath the awe-inspiring reverberations that make up our favorite songs.

The subtle inputs can emphasize a particular note, they add power to the chorus, and these delicate touches distinguish songs that are just okay from music that moves our hearts.

Harmony adds texture to a song. If you use it all the time, you may diminish the effects. So taking the time to see when and where to implement the harmonies can impact your song. 


Sticking to a single set of notes or a single motion can make your song repetitive. 

So mixing things up can help you keep your listener’s attention.

Harmony is a complex and intricate art form, and you can use it in various ways. For example, you can choose when to use harmony and when to change the notes and motion.

Naturally, this will add some depth to your song. So while it lengthens and complicates the songwriting process, the effects speak for themselves.

Figure out the best pitches 

Like chords, some notes or timbres work well together, while others do not. It’s crucial to avoid using dissonant tones. 

This is where understanding intervals and chords make the difference. If you take the time to learn how intervals work, then assembling vocal harmonies is a smoother process.

Knowing which notes work best together helps you compose more powerful and synchronized harmonies. Meaning they will be consistent and even enhance the message and energy of the song.

Wrapping up

Understanding and knowing how to use vocal harmony can be tricky. There’s a lot to account for, and assembling a vocal harmony is much easier if you understand intervals, chords, and musical harmony.

And what better way to practice musical harmony and chords than on your piano? With SimplyPiano, you can learn all about chords, intervals, and ultimately musical harmony in small, doable steps.

Once you grasp the various parts that make up harmony and the different ways they can move, you can start to explore the effects they can produce.

Harmonies add a unique texture to your song and add layers of complexity that can drastically impact your music.