Learning to Listen: Harmonies | Easy Ear Training

Music is amazing in the way that something which initially sounds simple can actually be extremely complex when you dive into the sound and actively listen. I recently wrote about learning to to listen to the melody beyond the lyrics and I’m going to expand on that now by discussing harmonies.

An example of a very basic song would be a simple tune such as “Hot Crossed Buns” which is just a melody. If you find yourself writing or listening to a basic song which is just a melody, you will probably think to yourself “Okay, this isn’t bad, but it seems like it could be better”.

You could in theory do many different things to improve that simple melody, but one of the easiest things to do would be to add harmonies.

What are Harmonies?

What are harmonies? Merriam-Webster defines harmonies as: “the combination of different musical notes played or sung at the same time to produce a pleasing sound.”

In other words, harmonies are notes played at the same time to create chordal structures with the intent of making music more interesting and better sounding to the ear.

Listening to Harmonies

Let’s take a look at some ways you can add harmonies.

In “Sweet Dreams” by Eurythmics, the harmony part comes in at around 23 seconds and you can hear how it really adds to the main vocal part:

When trying to listen and pick out the harmony it helps to ask yourself specific questions. For example:

  • Is the harmony part higher or lower?
  • How does each harmony pitch change in regards to the melody?

In the case of “Sweet Dreams” the harmony part is a major third above each melody note. I figured that out by listening to the melody and comparing it to the harmony line. I learned to sing each part and then worked out the notes on a piano.

If you have a piano or another instrument you can figure out the melody first and then try to match the pitches in the harmony. This might make it easier because you have more of a reference for what notes you are playing than when you’re just singing and trying to figure it out purely through vocal techniques like solfa.

Melody vs. Harmony

Another example that’s easy to sing along to (or hard not to sing along to) is “Africa” by Toto

The harmony comes in during the chorus. The chorus leads off with just the melody “It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you” then a second part joins in with “There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do”.

This particular song is interesting because the melody and harmony appear to swap when the second part is added. We might instinctively hear it this way because the second (lower) part is more melodically complex and seems to sound stronger.

So the first part “It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you” is the melody. Then the second voice comes in a perfect fifth lower as the melody with “There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do” and this second voice stays singing the melody for the rest of the chorus while the first voice becomes the harmony part.

So if you’re wanting to sing the harmony in this particular song if you sing the notes to the opening line of the chorus for each phrase then you’ve actually figured out the harmony part because the first part simply repeats the same notes in each phrase.

This is open to interpretation though. Feel free to leave a comment on our Facebook page about which part you think is the harmony or the melody.

Duet Harmony

The most common and most effective time to use harmonies is in duets. In fact, when most people think about duets, harmony is just assumed. While you can have songs where both voices sing the same notes (or maybe just an octave apart like in “Little Talks” by Of Monsters and Men, I’d go as far to say that almost every time you have a duet there’s going to be harmony going on.

Since duets are such a large sub-section of harmony I will cover them more in depth at a later time.

A Cappella Harmony

A prime genre of music for including harmonies is a cappella music. Think: barbershop, choral, and pop group a cappella.

For example Pentatonix’s “Run To You”:

The very first note of the song is unison – but after that it immediately becomes a 5-part harmony. Figuring out harmonies where three or more voices are used becomes a lot more difficult!

First off, it really helps if each voice of the harmony is a different person/instrument so you can zero in on the timbre and try to identify each note. Another method would be to first figure out the melody, and then move one part up (or down) and continue learning all the parts, using basically the same approach as we did for the first example above.

→ Read more about “harmonic awareness” in a cappella music

Harmonies can be a lot of fun and can really help take a song to another level. Learning to listen to and hear harmonies can really help expand your musical abilities.

By working through the examples here you should start becoming more aware of when harmonies are being used and have a few tricks to help you figure them out. Remember: the more you practice hearing harmonies the faster you’ll be able to figure them out!

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