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Topic: Harmony vocals in "country" music

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  1. #1

    Harmony vocals in "country" music

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    Does anyone know a good source of information about harmony singing in \"country\" music?

    I\'m speaking not of commercial country music, but of older arrangements in which the lead voice is an alto and the harmony voice, traditionally called the tenor, but sometimes technically a soprano, enters for the chorus\\burden to sing thirds or fifths above the lead line: the harmonies of the Carter family, Everly brothers, CSNY, Flying Burrito Brothers, and now Freakwater. (Has anyone heard this Chicago band? The album \"Feels Like the Third Time\" has some amazing music on it--for example, \"I Try to Remember\" and \"My Old Drunk Friend.\" Their song \"When I Stop Dreaming,\" is also amazing, but hard to find. If anyone has a place to post mpgs, I upload a thirty second portion of this song to illustrate the harmonies I\'m trying to describe.)

    I must admit to some trepidation in posting this question: I fear musicians accustomed to hearing clean, soaring John Williams scores may not appreciate the subtleties of occasional sour notes and four chord songs.

    But I digress.

    Obviously, much of this type of arranging derives from European choral and more recent protestant choir arrangements. But the harmony, even when the song is reduced to two singers, is more complex than it may seem, and I\'d like to learn much more about it:

    1. It doesn\'t follow the often followed guideline of having the emphasized melody note as the top note. (The harmony is in the higher register, but not so lightly sung as to fall away and thus give the emphasis to the lower note. Both vocals have the same volume and emphasis, but the lead is still clearly the lead.)

    2. As in many hymns, \"folk\" songs, and pop songs, the melody note at the start and end of phrases is often the third. Sometimes I seem to hear the tonic being sung in the higher, harmony voice. (Is this just a matter of the harmony voice briefly \"taking over\" the lead role at strong moments, or is this just not as unusual as I think?)

    3. What I\'m describing is basically triad harmony. But not quite, or it would sound like barbershop singing with a voice or two removed. So I try to form some principles for this type of harmony, and find myself struggling with guidelines such as:

    The harmony voice always sings a
    third above the melody line except
    (sometimes) on sustained notes at the end of
    lines or legato lines, where it may leap to
    the fifth of the chord or sing the
    tonic if the melody ends on the third.

    But when I try to sing behind albums (which is something you do not want to hear),I can\'t predict with much regularity where the harmony (tenor) voice will move. Yes, this means I am expecting predictablity but listening to music. Which leads me back to my original question: Does
    anyone know of a good source of information about this tradition of harmony singing?

    (If some of this post sound familiar, it\'s because I posted a similar request for information on the ProRec site several months ago. Thanks to those of you who responded.)

  2. #2
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    Re: Harmony vocals in "country" music

    Originally posted by Jake Johnson:
    Does anyone know a good source of information about harmony singing in \"country\" music?

    <font size=\"2\" face=\"Verdana, Arial\">No, sorry. Unfortunately you\'ve not had much reponse.

    Maybe you’re looking too hard for guidelines. Most harmonising in this music genre is done by ear and if it sounds good, no doubt some theoretical guidelines will fit it.

    I think there are many different ways of approaching it on paper. I ‘m not schooled and can’t write the gospel on this, but have done a lot of 2, 3, and 4 part arranging, always using the same approach and have never got my head round more theoretical methods. To harmonise a melody I find the most important step is to establish a chordal sequence that moves the melody along, which often means introducing additional chord changes in the middle of bars as links, (or sometimes to produce stresses where lyrics merit it). This is especially true for acapella two part harmony, where good voice leading is even more crucial.

    This gives you your palette. Usually the harmonies then write themselves, using notes from the chords without needing to think too much about the intervals. There is often a juggling of notes between the different voices to produce the best horizontal lines in each. As for rules: if it sounds bad it’s against the rules, such as exposed parallel fifths and fourths. Short phrases containing parallel thirds usually sound OK, (even if it seems not to comply with the chordal sequence), but changing this to contrary or oblique motion usually sounds better. Make use of the added notes in the chord in the harmony voice(s); if this produces a 2nd, introduce it as a passing note as an extra step leading to the resolution. Don’t be afraid to include single steps doubling with the lead when necessary, but only on the tonic or 5th.

    I don’t think it matters too much whether the harmony voice is above or below the lead, as long as it stays there. The lead is usually distinguishable if the melody is strong, provided the voices do not cross or overlap (e.g when the lower voice moves to a note higher than the preceeding note in the upper voice).

    Good 2 part acappella harmonising is especially challenging, because you need to establish tonality, maintain good voice leading, as well as having a decent horizontal line. I find it easiest to approach it with a chordal sequence with good voice leading. Even with two voices, frequently not using the tonic, the chords are \"suggested\" by the interval in the context of the preceding and subsequent intervals, even if there are added notes. It is then much easier to write horizontally \'cos your voice leading is done.

    I don’t know how correct all this is from a scholastic point of view, so smoke it but don’t inhale. There are properly educated guys on this site that eat, breathe and fart harmony and it would be interesting to hear from them.

  3. #3

    Re: Harmony vocals in "country" music

    Thanks for responding. I was getting worried that I\'d posted into oblivion.

    You mention passing chords. Can you suggest specific chords and voicings, or recordings to listen to? (Your response gives me a lot of information, but it\'s hard for me to absorb it without being able to hear your suggestions at work.)

    And: I\'d like to share the Freakwater songs. The name of this band is intentionally, I think, off point, to distance people who might want a Nickle Creek Sound, but they have the best two part harmonies I\'ve heard in a long time. If you have the time or interest in listening and sharing your impression, I\'d like to post excerpts, if I could find a place to post them. Sorry to sound like a band fan, but these women are very serious lyricists and singers and arrangers.

  4. #4

    Re: Harmony vocals in "country" music

    Hey Jake,

    Check out the harmonies in these new \"old\" country songs:
    http://www.bluestandardmusic.com/LGS.htm

    Hans

  5. #5
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    Re: Harmony vocals in "country" music

    Basically passing notes in the lead can be left harmonically unsupported, if they are unimportant both rhythmically or lyrically, in which case the harmony voices sustain the previous pitch (and sylable), OR you can choose to support them by forming a new chord (which may present itself with the new pitch in the lead and repeats of the previous pitches in the harmony, which would then voice the new sylable in the lyrics). To illustrate:

    Say you had a phrase in Cmajor in 4/4 (starting on C5): c d c d / e, you\'ve got the chord of Cmajor in bar 1 but Am in bar 2(\'cos the word is \"lost\" or \"bye\" or something). You could leave both d pitches as passing notes. However C to Am is not a strong progression. So you use the second passing note to add a chord of G which gives you a smoother movement to Am. So a harmony line might go (starting on e4): e -> e b / c. Or for 2 part acappella: e -> g b / a (to avoid ambiguity in bar 2).

    It\'s a lot of words so if it\'s still not clear I\'ll come up with more graphic examples

    Incidentally in answer to another point in your first post, if the lead does not finish on the tonic, the harmony should normally pick the tonic, otherwise it sounds unfished. So the interval depends on where the lead is.

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    Re: Harmony vocals in "country" music


  7. #7
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    Re: Harmony vocals in "country" music

    Hans,

    Thanks for that link.......very much enjoyed the simple breath of fresh (old) air.

    Frank

    PS I liked your period photos too. Particularly the one of the lady in the \'Contact Us\' page.....nice.

  8. #8
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    Re: Harmony vocals in "country" music

    Hi Hans,

    Does Brigitta like older men? [img]images/icons/smile.gif[/img] Only kidding!!

    You may like to know that my 27year old son also thought your photographs were \'brilliant\' and he appreciates this sort of thing more than I.... and certainly isn\'t one to casually say that he likes something....so they must be good!!

    Frank

  9. #9

    Re: Harmony vocals in "country" music

    Hans,

    I\'m having trouble playing the mp3s. When I try to open them in Quicktime (windows), I get a message saying that the file name is bad. Redownloaded and got the same message.

    Anyone else getting this message?

  10. #10

    Re: Harmony vocals in "country" music

    Have you tried looking up \"high lonesome\"? It\'s a form on country harmonization that involves upper harmonies as well as false voice leading and parallel lines. It\'s eerie and beautiful when done well, but like a barber shop quartet, can get old quickly.

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