Do It Yourself Harmony

A melody is a series of intervals between musical tones, strung across time. Harmony is two or more musical tones sounding at the same time. Some combinations of tones resonate pleasantly together, and we describe the resulting chord as “sweet” or “euphonious.” Other combinations of notes strike the ear less pleasantly, and we describe the chord as “sour” or “dissonant.” A third type of chord is somewhere in between—the chord is not sour, but we experience the sound as “sad” (minor chords) or somehow “unfinished” (open chords, suspended chords, etc.) All three types of chord are “correct,” i.e. effective, in one or another musical context.

It is embarrassment, rather than inability, which makes singers hesitate to harmonize. In this class, there are no set parts, no “wrong” notes, and therefore no cause to be embarrassed. Anyone who can sing a tune can learn to harmonize with other singers.

I lead student singers gently from  the simplest drone accompaniments to the creation of their own moving harmony lines. The workshop starts with participants doing a one-syllable drone background to the lead line on a Scots-American hymn tune.  Next step is a sea shanty with a call and (unison) response.  When everyone is familiar with the shanty tune, I explain how to work out moving harmony parts:  “Start by hanging on to the first note of the response line. When that note ‘sounds funny’ against the melody, try going up or down until the note you are singing sounds right.  Hang on to your second note until it sounds ‘off’.  Return to your original note.  Add more notes to your part (go further up or down) as you hear them.”

The remainder of the workshop—minutes, hours, or days—is spent singing folk songs with simple verse structure, easy-to-sing tunes, and repetitive choruses. I have taught this workshop at Arrow Rock, Big Muddy, and Warrenville folk festivals, at Stringalong Weekend, and the Goderich, Ontario Celtic College.