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Ear Training Basics: How to Sing Harmonies by Ear

Ear training is a critical skill for vocalists, but what does it actually require? How does it relate to practicing harmonies in particular?

Well, before I dive in fully, let me properly introduce myself:

My name is Rob McClure and I am an actor. I'm currently on a national tour with my 6th Broadway show, Something Rotten, and have been doing musical theatre for (I can't believe it...) 20 years. So, as you can probably imagine, singing harmony has been a huge part of my life, considering that, as of tonight (12/19/17), I have done 2,973 live performances in over 100 different professional productions. Yes, I've kept track, thanks to an 86-year-old legendary actor named Eddie Bracken who encouraged me to do so when we shared a dressing room in 2001. Eddie was being inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records for celebrating his 15,000th performance on stage that night. He told me he hoped I'd break that record one day... We'll see.

In those early years of my career, ear training was a huge part of my daily education, whether I realized it at the time or not. Now the term "ear training" can sound intimidating. I get it. Images come to mind of bulky lobes with dumbbells, jogging up endless staircases like Rocky Balboa.

No? Just me? Fair enough.

The point is don't be scared. I assure you, like any skill, learning to sing harmony requires only one really big commitment: practice.

Some people can develop a knack or "ear" for harmonizing without a full understanding of the technical and structural relationship between the notes they are singing, but that comes from lots of exposure to harmony singing.

For some, like my wife, fellow actress Maggie Lakis, they get a vague understanding of harmony simply by listening to their favorite bands on a loop, and, like osmosis, some of that ability rubs off. As early as elementary school, Maggie immersed herself in The Beatles and obsessively strove to understand and identify each singer's part. She would turn the volume way up in her headphones and think to herself, "Oh... In 'Love Me Do', John Lennon is singing the main tune (or 'melody') and Paul McCartney is singing those higher notes above him." Her "ear" was, somewhat subconsciously, developing an understanding of the distance between those notes.

Pretty awesome.

For others, like myself, it comes from growing up singing in school or church choruses. I sang tenor harmony in high school chorus for years, and, eventually, that led to my ability to create tenor harmonies to pop songs on the fly. But even then, both my wife and I eventually found ourselves going back to music theory text books to fully understand what felt like naturally developed super powers. As it turned out, our "ears" had developed a decent understanding of music theory and chord structure, but our brains had some catching up to do. Some folks learn to harmonize using books to fuel their brains, and some use music to fuel their ears. It's the combination of brain power and ear power that makes a truly great harmony singer.

So what exactly do your brain and ears require to practice harmony?

In the Lessons section we're developing for Harmony Helper, I'll train your brain to know that the notes C, E, and G, when sung together, create a C Major Chord. I will teach you that, in that scenario, C is the "root" of the chord, E is the major third and G is the Major fifth. I'll show you those notes on a piano, so that you can see the distance between them and how they relate to one another. I will explain to you the circle of fifths and how chords relate to one another in the progression of a song.

But it's not until you HEAR these notes, chords, and chord progressions that your brain will fully understand. Inversely, if I played you these notes, without explanation, in time, you may be able to begin to notice patterns of sound, but when your brain has an understanding of the musical structure, it will fast track your "ear" to success.

Harmony Helper will simultaneously train both your brain and “ear” with crash courses that are sure to have you harmonizing in no time. I hope this answers this very common question

Harmony using piano

What Makes a Harmony Good?

I love this question. The very nature of this question has fascinated me for over two decades.

Harmony is defined as the combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce chords and chord progressions having a "pleasing effect".

But who decides what is "pleasing"?

Ever since I began singing in middle School chorus, I've often found myself pondering the origins of harmony. Music and singing date back as far as human beings themselves do, so at what point did someone decide that pitches a major-third apart feel satisfying to the ear in a "pleasing" or "happy" way, but pitches a half-step apart, when sounded together, would instill a sense of "conflict", "uncertainty" or even "danger"? I would find myself sneaking into my high school auditorium to tinker on the piano. I would play a "C", "E", and "G" together and wonder why my body, mind, and soul would respond positively to that sound, while, if I played the same "C" and "G", but with an "E-flat" between them, I would suddenly be hit with a clear sense of "sadness". Little did I know at the time, but by adding that "E-flat" I was making a "Minor Chord" instead of the "Major Chord" I had previously played. The more I learned about music theory, the more I began to understand that composers, from Mozart to Bruno Mars, used harmony to illicit very specific feelings in the listener. They are experts in the emotional resonance that happens in us when we hear certain combinations of notes.

So, again, what makes a combination of notes "pleasing"?

I guess it depends on both the intentions of the composer, and the expectations of the listener. So, while a composer writing a "feel good pop song" would never consider smashing their flat hand across the low end of a piano to create a "pleasing effect," another composer, writing the score for a horror film, might do this very thing to scare the heck out of its audience. To that composer, that is a perfectly "pleasing effect" in that it achieves the intended emotional impact.

As the singer of harmony, there is one factor that is essential to making a harmony pleasing: It must be sung correctly.

Whether we are belting out a profoundly satisfying major chord to end the finale of a Broadway Musical Comedy, or singing complex arrangements of tragic songs about heartbreak, it is of utmost importance to the integrity of the music that the singers hit the correct notes if the intended emotional response is to be evoked. This skill, like any other, is only achieved with practice. Harmony Helper will not only assist you in your training, but will also allow you to form your own definition of what makes a harmony "good".

There comes a time in every aspiring singer's life when you successfully create harmony for the first time. The hair stands up on the back of your neck and flutters of goosebumps run down your arms. It's in that very moment that you begin to define what makes harmony "good" to YOU.

Harmony Helper is here to provide you with that moment. Get ready.