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Topic: Why Do Vocal Harmonies Go On Top?

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  1. #1

    Why Do Vocal Harmonies Go On Top?

    Yesterday I was helping a friend produce a song demo, he came in with some vocal harmonies a third below the melody. I told him vocal harmonies should usually go on top but when he asked me why I didn't have a very good answer; I said it makes the vocals clearer instead of muddier.

    Of course instrumental harmony is always built down from the melody note; so can anybody explain why vocal harmony is approached differently?

    Also, can anybody recommend a good book that explains pop and jazz vocal harmony techniques? Thanks.

  2. #2
    Senior Member
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    Re: Why Do Vocal Harmonies Go On Top?

    Well, there may be a "technical" reason, but it was always my interpretation that it helped the lyrics "pop" out more. Think of a pop song, where the chorus needs to "lift" from the rest of song.

    Although, traditional hymns have the melody on top, with the harmony built below, so it's not a "rule". Just something that's been adapted and excepted generally speaking... at least in "popular" styles of music.

    Early Linda Ronstadt records were notorious for having her sing melody, with two guys voices voiced below her.

    Although I understand your "clearer/muddier" explanation, I think the style of song, the range of the melody, and the mood of the piece weighs heavier in making that decision.

  3. #3

    Re: Why Do Vocal Harmonies Go On Top?

    Here's a guess: you want the melody in the strongest range for each instrument. When you put your lead singer in their strongest range, there is room for a harmony on top in a weaker range.

    In orchestrations, one can put the melody at the top with a flute or piccolo in their strongest ranges. Maybe with two oboes, one would want the melody underneath, as the oboe gets stronger in its mid range than at the top of its range.

    In a string section, the violin cuts through more strongly than viola or cello, so violin gets the melody at the top of the stack. Same with trumpet in the brass section.

    I'm reading Adler right now, and this answer makes sense in the context of orchestration, based on what I've read so far.

    Great question!

    -JF

  4. #4

    Re: Why Do Vocal Harmonies Go On Top?

    I dunno s[]hit about the technical stuff[where the melody goes etc etc], but what I know is that once you are writing for vocals, it's best to adjust rest to instrumentation according to vocals as best as you can.

  5. #5

    Re: Why Do Vocal Harmonies Go On Top?

    The basic rule is that the top note in a chord always sounds like it's the melody. Duh.

    But there are extenuating circumstances. if one voice is mixed a lot louder, then of course it's going to sound like the melody. And if, say, a male voice is the melody in the verse, then it's more likely to keep sounding like the melody in the chorus if you add another voice above it.

    If the voices are equal, it's either going to sound like two voices in thirds or like the top line is the melody.

    And then there's the Beach Boys...

  6. #6

    Re: Why Do Vocal Harmonies Go On Top?

    The bottom line is always do what's best for the song. Whether that means putting vocal harmonies on top or bottom or even eliminating them altogether. There is absolutely no rule that they have to go on top and there are many examples of great vocal harmonies which are lower in pitch than the main vocal. Let your ears, not the rules, decide.

    fizbin

  7. #7
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    Re: Why Do Vocal Harmonies Go On Top?

    Quote Originally Posted by JonFairhurst
    I'm reading Adler right now, and this answer makes sense in the context of orchestration, based on what I've read so far.

    Great question!

    -JF

    There's your answer, Looper. Although your questions pertains directly to the study of harmony, I think it's answer lies in the study of arranging, and Adler is an excellent place to learn about how registral characteristics in part dictate what is heard as foreground/middleground/background. I'd never try to tell you not to go get a harmony book-although I can't remember the authors' of "Harmony and Voice Leading", in order to help with a recommendation-but it sounds like you've already got some strong musical insight. Afterall, you asked that question, and there's TONS of musicians out there who've never even THOUGHT of it.

    Samuel Adler. The Study of Orchestration. What are you waiting for??? Go!!!

    Thanks, JF, for reminding me that university was not a waste. I forget that sometimes.

    Belbin

  8. #8

    Re: Why Do Vocal Harmonies Go On Top?

    Quote Originally Posted by belbin
    Thanks, JF, for reminding me that university was not a waste. I forget that sometimes.
    Any time, Belbin.

    BTW, which university? My son will go to UBC in the fall as a math major, and the whole family is pretty stoked for him.

    -JF

  9. #9

    Re: Why Do Vocal Harmonies Go On Top?

    Quote Originally Posted by fizbin
    The bottom line is always do what's best for the song.
    fizbin
    I think there are better ways to explain this. Pop vocal harmonies usually go with the context of the underlying chords. So if your friend's line (3rd below) fits the harmonic context, then shifting up will be like 6th on top, which might be too high instead. Putting a 3rd above a melody might not work all the times, and they can sound wrong in certain harmonic contexts.

    Bottom line: analyze the harmonic content of the song before putting up vocal harmonies.

  10. #10

    Re: Why Do Vocal Harmonies Go On Top?

    Thanks for the responses. I think as Jon pointed out it may indeed be related to vocal ranges and where the voice is strongest.

    Belbin, I agree the Adler book is very good (for orchestration) but I haven't found anything in it to explain the the quirks of vocal harmony. I also have "Arranging for Large Jazz Ensemble" but again harmony notes are always "dropped" below the melody.

    Certainly somebody has written down the "rules" of vocal harmony/arranging in a similar text. After all, you should know the "rules" before going and breaking most of them.

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