Archive for March, 2011


Backing vocals

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

I recently had the pleasure of singing backing vocals for Portland, Oregon based singer/songwriter Marie Schumacher. Coincidentally, I’ve recently had several new clients coming in for lessons for themselves and other members of their music groups in order to work on just that, and thought it was an appropriate time to discuss backing vocals, different varieties, and how they’re created.

Background vocals generally work in one of two ways. First, moving in a complimentary fashion and using the same lyrics at the same time as the lead vocal. For example, one of the songs I sang with Marie was Poetic License, track number 9 there at CD Baby. Marie’s lead vocal is alternately alone, and then with her own backing part chiming in.

Secondly, backing vocals can also provide a counter-melody to the lead vocal. Often they’ll use some of the words that the lead vocal has, but not necessarily. The note content can be completely different from the lead. Anytime Soon (located in the player on the left of the page) does just that. As the backing vocals come in they alternate singing with and providing a counter-melody to Marie’s lead vocal. This becomes much more apparent as we get into the second verse.

Within the context of both styles of background vocals we have to choose from four basic types of melodic motion. Parallel, similar, contrary, or oblique.

In popular music, these motions are often mixed and matched in consideration of the lead vocal melody, and the chord progression that one is following. I found an excellent website that gives great audio examples of these four forms of melodic motion. Learning and Loving Music Theory by Robert Reno has a variety of examples, but at the bottom of that page the four examples of melodic motion are clearly demonstrated.

So how do we write these parts?

Step one is to know the lead vocal melody. That can mean being able to sing it or knowing the notes of the chords that it uses, but preferably, both. I also find it very helpful to know the complete range (how high and how low) that the lead vocal will cover. This allows me to plan my harmony parts so that I never get too high into my range, nor too low. If I must do a voice crossing, where I begin by singing above the lead vocal, and then cross to sing below them (or vice versa), I can be prepared for this so it is executed smoothly.

Two is to know the chord changes for the song. This is when I really begin planning my part because depending on the melody and chord changes, I’ll be able to determine where my part is going to begin and ultimately go to. For example, if we’re in G, and the lead vocal begins on D4 (D above middle C) then I am most likely to start my harmony part on the root (G below middle C) or the third (B below middle C) so that I don’t get too high in my range. This is particularly important if the lead vocal melody is ascending!

From here, we can construct our parts according to both how the melody moves and what the song is calling for. Flowing melodies in stepwise motion often lend themselves quite well to parallel or similar motion harmony parts, such as Marie’s Valerian. Most importantly this works very well with the conversational, narrative style of the song. In this way, our backing parts stand out minimally, as there is very little contrast to what the lead vocal is doing. They are extremely complimentary and help to lend a full rich sound to Marie’s lead part.

Alternately, on Anytime Soon the oblique motion in the verse creates a bit more tension, which is appropriate for this song that has a bit more angst. The backing vocals stand out a bit more, and create a dynamic between the two parts, adding to the drama of the song. This increases the further we get into the song, particularly in the second verse where a call and response between lead and backing vocals increases the excitement and sustains the energy and motion very thoroughly ultimately launching us into chorus 2.

The bottom line, however, is that all of these devices are meant to enable us to augment the emotion and impact of our songs. A good background vocal part doesn’t just take your song up a notch in impact, it goes up by at least a dozen, and the more we know about how these parts are written, the more we can choose the best way to express the emotions that the song was meant to.

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Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

I talk about this frequently in my lessons, however I rarely get the chance to put it into practice, which is the idea that singing when you have a cold isn’t entirely bad, it just requires a bit more care and rest during your practice sessions.

The cold and flu season this year doesn’t seem to be any worse than others in recent memory, the only difference to me being that I got sick this time! I normally avoid colds somehow, usually by hitting my body with Zicam at the first sign of any illness. My general rule of thumb there is that you have to spend thirty dollars on any combination of products and use them all simultaneously. It’s worked well for me in the past, but somehow I let it slip by me this time.

So I got sick, and today I’m returning to singing. First and foremost, I’ll check myself out before I start any vocal pyrotechnics. How does my body feel? Any irritation in the throat or vocal fold area? Can I vocalize above my break? So long as all of that checks out, I’ll be fine to sing, with certain restrictions:

First and foremost, fluids, fluids, fluids. I find that echinacea tea with small (really small) amounts of honey keeps me well lubricated. I drink it when it’s not too hot, and am certain to drink more room temperature water than anything else.

More rest between exercises or songs. Body fatigue and a disinclination to use your core muscles to support will contribute to vocal fatigue more now than when one is not tired from being sick. I’ll need to monitor my body energy more carefully, and make sure that I am consciously using my support muscles.

Don’t overdo it. With some care and moderation having a few days off from a cold can amount to vocal rest. Unfortunately, I could only somewhat moderate the coughing that accompanied this one, so there is a little bit of irritation that will need to go away before I’m back fully, however, I can help this along by being careful, staying extremely well hydrated, and returning to singing slowly and with a conscious effort towards rejuvenating my voice.

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