Background and Harmony Vocals


In the last few installments, we’ve discussed the practical role of instruments in the contemporary worship ensemble. So far we’ve discussed keyboard, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, and drums. This month we’ll conclude by talking about background and harmony vocals. 

Here are some suggestions for music directors and volunteers:

Don’t sing the exact same thing as other vocalists. Unless your worship team involves a choir, it is atypical to have two singers performing the exact same part. The reason for this rule of thumb is because unison and octave intervals are very difficult to perform perfectly in time and in tune, so they are generally avoided in contemporary and commercial styles.
Start with something simple. Singing a third above or below the melody is usually a good place to begin. This is the easiest type of harmony for less experienced singers to hear, and it is the most common sound recorded in contemporary and commercial music styles. If thirds above or below are going well, the next step would be to add a voice a third above or below these parts (resulting generally in triads). If you’re writing these parts out or working them out at the piano, some exceptions to parallel thirds or triads will have to be made when necessary to accommodate the chord written in the accompaniment or lead sheet.
Don’t wing it. If you don’t regularly (successfully) improvise harmony vocals in public performance, don’t do it. Just because you try singing soprano harmonies in the car when rocking to Def Leppard doesn’t mean you’re ready for the stage or a worship service. Professional musicians prepare parts during rehearsal and sing them the same way in each performance. It is best for you to do the same.
Not everyone is a singer (yet). We realize you’ve been working hard on those rhythm guitar parts and feel like you’re ready to take on something new, but you may not be ready to sing in public yet. Good singing doesn’t just mean phonating the correct pitch. You also have to learn to sing with good breath support, flexibility, characteristic tone and stylistic diction. If you really want to contribute as a vocalist on your worship team, invest time and/or money in your new interest and take some lessons. Being a good singer takes more than you think, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn.
Don’t push. I hear this mistake fairly frequently in local worship teams and cover bands. Unfortunately, it sounds bad. Beginning to intermediate singers hear vocalists on recordings singing with an “edgy” or “raspy” tone and try to emulate it in their own performance. This timbre — known in some circles as glottal compression — is an advanced technique. 
Executed improperly, the pitch tends to fall quite flat and/or can be quite destructive to the voice. Some voice teachers argue that there is a healthy way to execute glottal compression, while others believe it is unhealthy no matter the practice. Either way, you need to learn to sing with a standard fundamental technique first so that you have a reference point as you begin to develop your own style. Another reason to study with a voice teacher.
If you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear from you! You can contact me at any time via email at