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How To Develop An Ear For Harmony?


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I want to be able to add simple harmonies on the fly without having to work them out on paper, but I have absolutely no ear for them. In fact, they often put me off the melody when I'm singing. Any ideas on how I could improve this situation?

 

Richard

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I want to be able to add simple harmonies on the fly without having to work them out on paper, but I have absolutely no ear for them. In fact, they often put me off the melody when I'm singing. Any ideas on how I could improve this situation?

 

Richard

 

Several methods:

1. Join a choir as soon as your voice breaks, and sing tenor or bass. Do this regularly for several years. (If you're female but not alto, this doesn't work.)

2. Learn a few guitar chords, or obtain an autoharp, and follow the chord symbols while singing all the songs you know. Do this regularly for several years.

 

OR...

 

the quick, simple method ...

 

3. Get an Anglo!

 

Cheers,

John

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I want to be able to add simple harmonies on the fly without having to work them out on paper, but I have absolutely no ear for them.

 

Then I'd say you need to work them out on paper first, however much it hurts. If things go well, you won't be dependent on the paper for ever.

 

Otherwise your only option is to keep experimenting until you find something that sounds good. Sixths under the melody often work.

 

Best of all, combine both approaches!

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In the 1960s, when stereo recording was just becoming available, many recording engineers did not know how to use it correctly, and consequently you could use the "balance" knob on the record player to choose between Simon and Garfunkel, or Peter and Gordon, or Don and Phil, or John and Paul. You get the picture. One was always singing the melody, and the other was singing something else. Listen to it. Sing along with it. Learn it. Imitate it. Incorporate it.

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For me harmony usually means vocal harmony, but it should be possible to improvise a vocal harmony and then transfer it to the concertina. So how did I learn to improvise vocal harmony? Well, it's a staple of English folk song, and it's a typical thing to join in choruses with improvised harmony. How I learned to do it was by singing along in the car, mostly. being on my own I wassn't self-conscious about singing bum notes. Folk songs are, obviously, good for this but there are other songs. I found anything by the Beatles very good to improvise to.

 

Chris

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Learning the three chord trick is, to me, the absolutely easiest way to learn basic harmony. Try reading Roger Digby's booklet on that subject (you can get it free at www.concertina.com ), learn those three chords for a simple key like G, and build from there. In addition to playing the chords, you can deconstruct them and then play single or dual harmony notes taken from them, or experiment with various permutations of them (inversions etc.). Once comfortable with that, you can add more complex chords with time...or you can do what legions of folk and rock musicians before you have done....stick with those three chords.

 

Cheers,

Dan

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I'm not planning anything more complicated than the three chord trick. I know most tunes are going to start and finish on the tonic. It's just knowing when to change to the subdominant and dominant in between that causes me problems! I want to develop a feel for this so I can do it by ear.

 

Richard

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It can be hard to sing one thing and play another but it's OK playing the melody plus harmony - this is less likely to put you off. As someone else hinted, it does depend a lot on the system you play. The lay out of your instrument will lend itself to certain types of semi-automatic harmony - playing in thirds, for example. For certain types of song, you can play a kind of drone under the melody for some short passages, playing the fundamental or fifth of the relevant chord. But essentially its about experimenting and listening.

 

Chas

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I'm not planning anything more complicated than the three chord trick. I know most tunes are going to start and finish on the tonic. It's just knowing when to change to the subdominant and dominant in between that causes me problems! I want to develop a feel for this so I can do it by ear.

Sounds like you have the basic knowledge you need, Richard, it's just a question of listening carefully and experimenting. The subdominant triad contains the tonic, so you can plug away at the tonic as your harmony note until you hear it needs to move down to the leading note: that will tell you where to move to the dominant. In C, if F fits, then you're on the subdominant.

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Great question Richard... and such wonderful answers.

 

As for me, I’m convinced that I began learning my intuitive sense of harmony from singing 2nd alto in a four part (SSAA) children’s chorus. I sang with the Chicago Children’s choir from 7 to 19 years old. The 2nd Alto is the bottom part. When my voice changed I joined the bass section. So, for all that time I was hearing our music from the point of view of the bass line that usually defines the harmony.

 

So many of us have suggested singing as a good way to understand music and I can’t agree more. Not just for understanding chords and harmony but for so many other aspects of music like phrasing, articulation, dynamics, emotions, etc.

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OR...

 

the quick, simple method ...

 

3. Get an Anglo!

 

I'll second that. One of the beauties of a concertina is that it is relatively easy to add harmonies.

 

You could always try a mouth organ of course - but you can't sing and play at the same time :P

 

Not that I always can with my anglo <_<

 

Geoff

Edited by Tootler
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OK, I'd suggest this. Sorry if it's a bit obvious. Learn the basic 3 chord trick in C, or if there's another key that's particularly easy on the Crane use that. Do simple oompah bass and 2 note chord and get comfortable with them so they don't take too much thought, practice plonking between C, G and F smoothly. Then learn a basic melody reliably and put the two together...

 

You'll find lots of times your first guess works, even though sometimes you produce some interesting Jazzy sounds, but you then have to choose the best ones and learn the nicest sequence. Experiment and practice, get comfortable with that one, then just grow it. Do a few more, spend time experimenting; then one day you'll hit a tune that needs a D chord as well; learn D then, well, you might as well try playing in G, mightn't you? And so on.

 

Later you can start deciding which bass note you prefer and adding more notes to the chord if needed, but that will just come when you are ready I think.

 

I don't think there's a trick, it's just practice; cut out as many variables as possible to begin with. I still practice new tunes hands separately first, so that's nothing to be embarrassed at there.

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I want to be able to add simple harmonies on the fly without having to work them out on paper, but I have absolutely no ear for them. In fact, they often put me off the melody when I'm singing. Any ideas on how I could improve this situation?

 

Richard

 

Several methods:

1. Join a choir as soon as your voice breaks, and sing tenor or bass. Do this regularly for several years. (If you're female but not alto, this doesn't work.)

Great method! Worked for me, and for Jody Kruskal too. I grew up making up and singing bass parts to songs on the radio (which didn't have much bass of its own).

 

An advantage of singing harmony is that you don't have to know what note you're singing, nor worry about fingering the right buttons, etc. Just hear it and out it comes!

2. Learn a few guitar chords, or obtain an autoharp, and follow the chord symbols while singing all the songs you know. Do this regularly for several years.

Also a great method. I learned about 6 or so guitar chords in college and strummed away to everything. Someone said The Beatles are good practice, but watch out! They pull some funny chords often.

 

Nothing beats an AUtoharp for quick chord testing, but you do have to look and hit the right button <_<

OR...

the quick, simple method ...

3. Get an Anglo!

Cheers,

John

Anglo is fine for playing in 3rds and 6ths, basic campfire harmony. But to hold the same note, drone bass, or chord while changing the melody note, a Duet or EC is better. In fact, I consider the Duets superior since you can think about harmony notes and chords without worrying that the melody will reverse the bellows on you, or suddenly require the fingers that were holding the chord on an ENglish.

 

Rich (Frogspawn), your avatar shows a Crane Duet. Is that the box you're working with?

--Mike K.

Edited by ragtimer
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OK, I'd suggest this. Sorry if it's a bit obvious. Learn the basic 3 chord trick in C, or if there's another key that's particularly easy on the Crane use that. Do simple oompah bass and 2 note chord and get comfortable with them so they don't take too much thought, practice plonking between C, G and F smoothly. Then learn a basic melody reliably and put the two together...

 

You'll find lots of times your first guess works, even though sometimes you produce some interesting Jazzy sounds, but you then have to choose the best ones and learn the nicest sequence. Experiment and practice, get comfortable with that one, then just grow it. Do a few more, spend time experimenting; then one day you'll hit a tune that needs a D chord as well; learn D then, well, you might as well try playing in G, mightn't you? And so on.

 

Later you can start deciding which bass note you prefer and adding more notes to the chord if needed, but that will just come when you are ready I think.

 

I don't think there's a trick, it's just practice; cut out as many variables as possible to begin with. I still practice new tunes hands separately first, so that's nothing to be embarrassed at there.

 

Dirge

 

A magic formula would be a bonus, but a confirmation of the obvious is still appreciated! I skipped C and went straight to learning G as this is the key habitually used in my local environment which is pretty much standardised on the Lewes Arms (Sussex, England) tune book.

 

I am currently using simple two-finger oom-pah chords (G, D, C) consisting of the first and fifth, which is pretty simple on the Crane given the layout. Conversely, I won't be attempting Dominant 7th chords.

 

Richard

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Anglo is fine for playing in 3rds and 6ths, basic campfire harmony. But to hold the same note, drone bass, or chord while changing the melody note, a Duet or EC is better. In fact, I consider the Duets superior since you can think about harmony notes and chords without worrying that the melody will reverse the bellows on you, or suddenly require the fingers that were holding the chord on an ENglish.

 

Rich (Frogspawn), your avatar shows a Crane Duet. Is that the box you're working with?

--Mike K.

 

Mike

 

This is basically why I went from Anglo to Duet. The 'tina pictured is my very own. I would like to use bass drones but they're quite loud and overwhelm the melody. I need to experiment with using them on their own.

 

Richard

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