The Anatomy of a Background Vocal Arrangement. Part 1, harmonies.



[Originally published on AirGigs on 11/16/16]

Hi, I’m Lydia Salnikova and I’m here to talk about one of my favorite subjects: background vocals. First, please allow me to share a bit of my own background – not only to establish credibility (which never hurts), but also to shed a little light on my perspective and viewpoint.

There are different schools of thought on the subject of background vocals, varying somewhat from one music city to the next. My experience, skill set, instincts and expertise were shaped to a great extent by having worked for 10+ years in THE Music City: Nashville TN. You see, I used to be a singer and keyboardist for the Grammy-nominated band Bering Strait; we had several major record deals, were on “60 Minutes” and released 2 studio albums a few years back. Being in a group with 2 other vocalists already placed a certain emphasis on harmonizing. And then we were also fortunate enough to have 2 outstanding Grammy winners for producers: Brent Maher, who discovered The Judds, and Carl Jackson, who produced, sang and played with countless Bluegrass and Country artists. If working with such masters doesn’t teach you a thing or two about singing in harmony, then I don’t know what can. And after I left Bering Strait, I continued my work as a studio singer and musician, honing my harmonization (and other) skills even further.

So what is so special and distinct about the “Nashville school” of singing background vocals? First of all, it is about a good vocal blend with the lead singer: in terms of tone, texture, vibrato, etc. And then it is about creating a super-tight harmony, with precise phrasing matching and very deliberate part placement. Typically that placement is pretty close to the melody (third above, third below or whatever exact interval works with the underlying chords), although sometimes it can be spaced out more. Everything is done with intention, there is no approximating. And you essentially have to become “one” with your lead vocal, its shadow – both in tone and in phrasing. Finally, whatever you do, please be sure to sing in tune! 🙂

Singing a harmony is to a large degree intuitive, so I can’t really explain how to “hear” harmony parts. It helps if you know the basic chord progression of the song, as then you can make sure your notes are consonant with the chords – but that knowledge in itself is not a requirement. It helps if you can read music, as then you can actually envision your exact part in your head before you sing it – but reading music is certainly not a requirement either. If you simply sing harmonies long enough, you’ll eventually develop a sense of what complements the melody and feels “right”.

Back to Nashville’s harmony approach, and I will illustrate the points I’ll be making with short clips of some of my background vocal work. Tight harmonies can be very effective in supporting the lead vocalist without taking too much space in the audio spectrum or “diluting” the performance. Even a single harmony part can sound great if it’s nice and tight, as it keeps the attack and the energy of the lead vocal very “pointed” and direct, creating a strong 2-part harmony. On some songs, that may be all that’s needed!

      She Can’t Love Me Anymore - artist Ryan Story

The introduction of a 3-part harmony (lead vocal + 2 harmonies) lifts the performance further:

      I Like Them Like That - artist Sherry Lynn

      Nashville TN - artist Pascal Bessette

A technique of alternating 2-part and 3-part harmonies can make for very dynamic choruses:

      Get Outta My Way - artist Jordyn Mallory

When tight harmonies stay so close to the melody and each other, it gives them an element of transparency, where they can almost sound like the lead vocal’s overtones and not call too much attention to themselves. In contrast, when a harmony strays further away from the melody, it becomes more audible, separate and distinct, giving the performance a “duet” feel:

      Resistencia - artist Andre Galiano

On a personal creative note, one of my favorite things to do, when it’s right for the project, is start out with a closer harmony in earlier parts of the song and then “branch out” later. But that tactic can quickly become the focal point of the song, so it has to be used sparingly and only when intended.

Every project is unique and deserves its own individual approach. However, if I were to come up with a very (very!) general “rule of thumb” on how I develop my harmony parts, it would be something like this:

Verse 1
Stay out. You’ll get your chance later. Let the lead vocal speak.

Pre-chorus 1 (if applicable)
You can make an entrance with 1 harmony part.

Chorus 1
1 harmony part on several lines. If you want to add a 2nd harmony part, it would be especially effective to do on the “hook” of the song, to help it really stand out to the listener.

Verse 2
Come in on a line or two. If the 2nd harmony part was not introduced during chorus 1, now would be a good time to do it.

Pre-chorus 2 (if applicable)
Definitely sing this time around, although 1 part might still be sufficient.

Chorus 2
2 harmony parts for a nice 3-part sound! Sing on most lines, if not all.

This really varies. Sometimes it’s nice to stay out and give some breathing room to the lead vocal. Sometimes 1 harmony can work on a line or two. Sometimes oohs work better.

Chorus 3
If it’s a full-power chorus right off the bat, support it with 2 solid harmonies throughout. If it’s a breakdown chorus which then builds back to full power, stay out at first and then gradually bring back harmonies as the energy rises.

Tag (if applicable)
Sing tag with the lead, especially if it’s also the hook of the song. If tag repeats several times, alternate or scale down gradually. Consider letting the lead have the last word (line), especially if it’s a soft and intimate one.

Or did you think I was just “winging it”? No friend, there’s certainly a method to my harmony madness.

And with this I conclude my crash course take on the anatomy of a harmony arrangement. Wait, you say… What about other types of background vocals? Oohs and aahs? Call and answers? Background choir? More on all that – with more audio examples – to follow. As this is a 2-part harmony article. Get the joke? 😉