One of the elements I've been devoting time towards developing is the understanding of how vocal harmonies work. It's an illusive subject because most of the instances in popular music that we hear vocal harmonies in isn't academic. From the communities that I grew up in and folks I've chatted with, it seems as though most singers just use their ears to guide them through decisions rather than formal analysis or planning.
My vocal background is in choral music and some simple background harmonies on stage in a few circumstances. I've been working with a student on developing an approach to singing harmonies in Americana and Bluegrass with ear training and a fair amount of observing what the greats do. Brandi Carlile with Tim and Phil Hanseroth have a level of vocal collaboration most musicians dream of.
The Eye is the song we'll be looking into today. Just a heads up, I've pitched this chart down a whole step to E. Give it a listen and we'll dig in.
There are a couple of elements outside of note choice I want to point out before we go into harmonies. The first is how well they are synchronized. Vibrato is a rhythmic element in our voices that tends to become apparent when we hold out long tones. This trio has managed to sync their vibratos together. This is a fine level of detail that makes the trio sound like one voice. The other element is that they switch places in their vertical position. During the verse, Brandi is singing the highest pitches, while in the chorus she sinks into the middle. There are all sorts of other variables that contribute to their blending (volume, breath timing, vocal embouchure, etc.) but that is as deep as I'll go here.
Let's delve into the harmonies.
We're in the key of E. The most common tones to be concerned with here are included in the E Major Pentatonic Scale.
E F# G# B C# E
The chart below color codes all of the notes in a verse. Notice that the chord tones of our 1 chord (E, G#, B) are Red, Orange and Yellow. While the F# and C# are Blue. The A's occur rarer still and are circled in Blue (because they are outside our reference scale).
First of all, look at how few notes are outside of our reference scale. Five instances of A. Secondly, how little Blue there is in general. Most of these blue notes are passing tones (moving from one of the R.O.Y. colors to another). Despite all the chord changes (E, A, B, C#m) we basically have variations of an E Major chord the entire time. Finally I want you to notice the black arrows. These points are highlighting where all three voices are singing outside the E chord. Each of those points the voices build up a 2 chord. (F# minor= F#, A, C#)
This next chart reveals where Brandi's melody is inside of the chords. All three staves have been condensed into one for a clear image of how close all three parts are.
This chart is showing the different inversions that the vocal harmonies are in.
My hope here is that you come away from this with the insight that singing one chord throughout a piece of music can be very effective. There are some simple vocal exercises to practice this with. Get used to your arpeggios and how to invert your chords. A little bit of practice with your friends can be a fun way to strengthen your ears and voices.
If you want some clarity on what's happening in this vocal arrangement, take some time to practice the same observations in the second page.
This next chart is my vocal harmony cheat sheet. I've taken the I, IV, V and vi chords (arguably the most valuable in popular music) and spelt them vertically. It's color coordinated as well (Root is Red, 3rd is Orange, 5th is Yellow).
The goal is to move from Left to Right picking a route to sing through. Example 1)
E E F# E is moving through all four chords while barely moving at all. A static Harmony.
G# A B G# moves up and back down to the same starting pitch. It also is starting on the 3rd of the chord.
B E B G# is using much larger intervals and outlines an E major chord the entire time.
E C# D# E E F# G# is a part that spans two times through the progression.
Remember that the top row is equivalent to the bottom row because our musical alphabet is a circle. You can make your own chart and reorganize the chords to whatever progression fits your needs. Play with how dynamic and static you can be. Practice starting on different chord tones. Remember that rhythm is important too!
You can download the sheet music here.
As always, take your time, enjoy the process and keep playing.