Category Archives: singing
God, I’ve been so busy lately. Anyway…
Basics of Harmony! Ready? Go!
It’s actually quite simple.
Let’s say you’re singing a very, VERY simple melody. You’re playing a C chord on the piano in steady quarter-note pulses. And you’re singing a simple melody, that you want to practice harmonizing (say, along with your phone, after you record a voice memo or demo or whatever).
You’re playing C… you’re singing a C note, in this rhythm:
One and…. (rest on 2) and threeeeee…. (hold through 4)
Let’s say the lyrics are this… “thinking, of you…. thinking, of you”
The best way to harmonize this line is in THIRDS. What’s a 3rd? Well, it’s a distance between two notes. Often, the root note of a chord (such as C, in a C chord), up to E (in a C chord, that’s the 3rd).
So, you demo’d your simple song… and you sang “thinking, of you” in this rhythm: 1 + (2) + 3 (4).
Now you’re singing along to your idea… but this time, you’re singing an E note (above your original melody), with the same lyrics.
It’s literally that simple.
In ALL catchy music, vocals are most commonly harmonized by a 3rd (up from the original melody). You can also harmonize DOWN a 3rd (such as singing an A note while the lead vocal sings a C). This isn’t always a good choice, in a major key, because it creates minor harmony, or possibly a country thing (between the vocals and piano, you’re singing and playing a C6 chord, which is very oldschool country).
Less common are 5ths, because as you sing 5th harmony.. you create what is sometimes weird-sounding, called “parallel 5ths” (it’s a classical rule you don’t always want to break). Another good harmony is up a 6th. Or 4ths/suspensions.
I’ll try to find some audio examples of this on YouTube, for a future post… or an addition to this post.
Vocal harmony is friggin’ awesome.
Go listen to the cranberries “Dreams”, and “Linger”. And then Fleet Foxes “White Winter Hymnal”. And furthermore, anything Jacob Collier does on YouTube (that dude is out of this world insane…. I have no friggin’ idea what he’s harmonizing, most times I watch his videos). But, if you’re looking for pretty and simple— how about also checking out Band Of Horses’ “Marry Song”, or anything by the indie slowcore band Low.
Stay tuned for the next post… I’ll post audio examples and YouTube vids.
1. Get it done. Don’t make everything perfect.
Write all the time, and stop striving to reinvent the wheel. You’ll never write “In My Life” or “Fix You”. Neither will I. They’ve already been written. Just write. A lot. Daily. Slow and fast songs. Silly stupid songs. Serious ones. Get it done, and stop giving a damn what people think.
2. Get opinions from those you care about.
You made a 5-song digital EP? Awesome. Check in with friends. Send mp3s via email. “What do you think of the EP? Which song is your favorite? Am I onto something, here?”
Low-sung verses. Higher-sung choruses. Slow guitar strums with a fast beat. Or the opposite. Piano songs. Acoustic songs. Mix it up. Maybe a song entirely with bass guitar, sax, and drums (the band Morphine made a career of a similar sound).
4. Forget what you know.
Know a lot about music theory? Who cares? Forget about it, when you write. Detune your guitar into some weird altered tuning so you are forced to try new shapes with your fingers. Go into a sound in your keyboard that makes little sense. Don’t always run to the grand piano preset. Throw an effect pedal in between your keyboard and computer, and see what comes about. Experiment with a loop pedal. Take chances!
5. “I’m not as good as…”
Never compare yourself to others. Friends of mine are insanely talented. INSANELY. Their keyboard skills make me want to quit playing keys. Their singing voices are insanely trained. So what? I am not a trained singer, but I can sing, and harmonize. I can play basic piano stuff, but I cannot play difficult passages or songs. I can’t shred a blues solo, and my fingerpicking is capable, but nothing spectacular. Doesn’t matter. I focus on my strengths. Do the same for yourself.
6. Focus on the end result, the goal, the reason you do this.
Stop dissecting every step along the way when you’re writing and recording. “Too much string noise when my finger scraped the strings, there”… or “my voice cracked a little, in that part”…. “my harmony sounds a little weird, but ok…” Who cares?! Roll with it. Then listen to the song when it’s done, then make new decisions and choices. I wrote a song years ago. Recorded it in late 2014. It was cool, but I decided I hated it when listening to it again, last week. I changed the keyboard parts, and sped up the song while retaining the same key (thank you, computers). Now I love the song, and it’s infinitely better. Took two years to tweak it. Needed to give it a rest… listen, and then all the “here’s how I need to change it” brainstorming came out, within one listen of the song. I’ll release it soon… hopefully. End goal, right?
7. Be YOU.
Be yourself. Always. Stop singing like John Mayer or Ben Howard. Sing like YOU. I taught myself to sing listening to Green Day, Third Eye Blind, Ben Lee and Jimmy Eat World a lot in the late 90s. My voice is similar to theirs, and I love that. My songwriting style is similar, in some ways, too. It’s simple. It sounds like me. I can’t do Sigur Ros, and I can’t do Jason Mraz. I can’t do Bon Iver unless I’m playing with my vocal harmonizer pedal and lots of reverb. I fuck around, and roll with whatever sounds good to me. I love so many singers (and TONS of female singers, too) but I can’t do them. I can only do me.
8. Minimalist. Simplicity.
I saw an acoustic singer-songwriter a month ago. Too many fancy chords, rhythms, fancy-pants nonsense. His shit was forgettable. Then a few days later, I saw another dude. Lots of G and Cadd9 chords with a capo. His lyrics, delivery, and vibe of the song spoke to me way more intensely than the first guy.
Matthew Sweet wrote “Sick Of Myself” in 10 minutes. He thought it was a stupid song. Turned out to be one of his biggest hits, and he never regretted putting it on his 1995 album, “100% Fun.”
Jason Mraz… most of his really easy shit… A Beautiful Mess, I Won’t Give Up… SIMPLE AS HELL. And perfect. John Mayer’s “Gravity”? NO ONE CAN ARGUE HOW FUCKIN’ GREAT THAT SONG IS. Simple, and perfect. People like shit that they can just vibe to. They don’t need masturbatory musicianship. They want something that speaks to their souls. Make music like that, and change the world.
I can do shit solo. And often do. But I also come up with some great shit, working with people. Don’t be afraid to. It’s important.
10. Rest. Think. Watch TV. Read. Kill it, but chill, too.
Rest. Rest. Rest. REST. Stop working so hard. Hell, just yesterday, I killed it with my friend Mike. We tracked three new hip-hop songs to beats we threw together in a few hours. We shot a video session for YouTube. We shot video as he tracked vocals, so we can have material for YouTube. We ate food and talked about nutrition and working out. We took a break and hung out. But in 8 hours, we did a LOT, and killed it. Today, I plan on doing the same. But first, I needed four hours to chill, blog, and help all of YOU. Then I’m going to hit the studio hard and work on shit. It’s 5pm. I have til about midnight. I’ll get it all done, and I’ll take a break in between. Don’t forget to fucking REST. Seriously. Ok? Cool. Get to work. Or chill.
Have a tip to share? COMMENT!!! 🙂
Something that always bothers me about music in general is it seems to be divided up the middle: cool, and uncool music. Even in pop.
Cool (yesterday and today): Joy Division, Chvrches, Hozier, Dance Gavin Dance, Wilco, Alex G, Turnover, Wet
Uncool: John Mayer, Jason Mraz, Alex Goot (not Alex G), Ida, Twenty One Pilots, Billy Joel
In local scenes… you have the acoustic/folk singer-songwriter people, and the hipster/punk/DIY bands. I’m friends with people from both scenes, and always have been. Both are making listenable, cool music. But god forbid you’re on the opposing team, and you find yourself at one or the other shows. What would everyone think?!
I see this on social media all the time, too. It bugs me. A lot.
There’s a level of songcraft that artists who truly don’t give a damn and are really all about the music (and put in their 10,000 hours), always seem to strive for. And then there’s an (admittedly) lower level of songcraft, from artists who exist mostly to please their popular friends, in a scene. They might also enjoy music and the art of making it, but for these artists, it’s more about the immediacy and the lyrics carrying the music, and less about the total package.
Take for instance, local hero (at least to those of us in Philly), Alex G. Alex G is an artist whose music I don’t entirely enjoy, though I also don’t entirely dislike. By and large, it’s not that musically interesting or listenable. But it’s got that certain something and anyone who’s a huge fan of his can understand the appeal. He’s insanely popular. Insanely popular. He’s got 77,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. Seventy-seven thousand! It’s only going to grow.
On the flipside, let’s take Ida. A band I worship (and always will). The level of songcraft is much, much higher with this band. They released their first record in 1994. Their best record is 2000’s Will You Find Me (Tiger Style Records). Carefully-thought-out harmonies, interesting guitars and arrangements, and an avant-garde sensibility, shared with Alex G, who also has a huge avant-garde sensibility in his pop writing.
But… why does Ida only have 2,800-ish monthly listeners on Spotify, whereas Alex G has 77,000? Part of the reason is that Ida never has promoted themselves, nor has toured much. And they haven’t released any new music since 2008. But… the craft. My god, the craft.
Alex G records all of his music from his college dorm (or friends’ houses). And it’s lo-fi as FUCK. Ida records in professional studios, or sometimes at home, but again…. it’s a higher level of craft all around. Again, let’s compare.
Why is one cooler than the other? Why does one have thousands and thousands more listeners?
More importantly…. what do YOU do when you feel you’re making the best music you possibly can (and when you listen to it, you realize… “This is damn good!”) and like, no one… NO ONE CARES. You see all these mediocre bands from your town or city get all the press and all the shows… and not just press, but multiple press, weeks or months down the road…. and you read about bands you feel your music is better than… everywhere you look. What do you do? Do you refine your craft? Do you change your sound to become more lo-fi? Do you throw a little bit of “phony” in your genuine sound? Do you let the lyrics be 85% more important than the music, itself?
I feel this is an important discussion, and something so many artists are afraid to publicly discuss, or honestly admit to other artists, or themselves!
Seriously. We are all bombarded by new/current/hot music. In the indie world, people are all about Half Moon Run, Daughter, Grimes, and First Aid Kit. They’re all great. But you know what you need to listen to more of?
Beach Boys / Brian Wilson
any 50s balladry (Gene Vincent, Flamingos, anything doo-wop)
Ya know? Man, is that music good. I’ve been listening to a lot of it this past weekend. At the end of February, it’s 61 outside in the Philly suburbs. Holy shit, man. This music’s perfect for it.
Listen to this absolute mastery… vocal harmonies… the writing…
And listen to a modern girl (Lauren O’Connell, half of My Terrible Friend, with Nataly Dawn of Pomplamoose)… and her perfect spin on it:
So much to learn from all of this classic music. Man….. ya know? And I LOVE new shit… believe me… I’m always on the up and up when it comes to discovering new bands and introducing people to new, great shit… but please do not forget about where all the great songwriting started (in the 50s and 60s).
Listen to THIS, with headphones…. and FEEL this:
And feel THIS, too:
The other week, when I was tracking vocals for some of my new songs, I had some sort of an epiphany…. headphone placement, on my ears…. allow me to explain.
When you track vocals, you obviously are hearing the instrumental music in your headphones, and you’re more than likely hearing your live vocal mix, over top of the music… often, people prefer the instrumental music be about 15% quieter than their live vocal sound/mix.
What I’ve found, is that there are a few things that can be done, to get better takes:
1. Take one ear off. The actual sound of hearing yourself singing, without hearing it in headphones) is a beautiful thing. I find that my singing pitch is more stable than if I just had both ear cups on my head. You can see this demonstrated in my cover of Green Day’s “2000 Light Years Away”, in both the lead vocal, and the harmony vocal clips. I remember when I did this three years ago, I did only two vocal takes, live… the first, was with both ears. Didn’t work. I was off in places. Then I took the ear off, and I nailed the takes.
2. On the other hand, you can take the ear cup “half” off your ear…. which I think is a nice blend of clearly hearing the instrumental, your vocal mix, and your actual voice in the room…. which I think is helpful, too.
I do this, very slightly, in this Jon Auer (Posies) cover, from June 2014, with my piano student, Tyler Green:
3. Experiment with different placements of the cup over oneear (it doesn’t matter if it’s the right or left)…. you’ll be amazed at how well (or how badly) you can hear yourself, and the balance of the music. Don’t just assume you always have to have both ear cups on your head.
4. Leave both ears on, and have your instrumental mix at a reasonable volume…. but CRANK your vocal mix… this is also insanely effective, in maintaining good pitch (at least for me, depending on the singing style/range I’m using).
And hey, I would greatly appreciate if you took the time
to read this important thing, from my other blog, Underrated Music. Thanks!
This is probably my favorite piano-pop/drumless song of all-time. I did a substitute bass lesson for a 10-year old three years ago and he introduced me to the song (two years before anyone gave a damn about the band, who are now pop superstars). He’s like “Show me the bassline of the Gambler by Fun!” I was like “who?”
So let’s point out the things that immediately stand out:
1. There are no drums or percussion at all.
2. The song is either in 12/8 time, or (more likely) 6/8 time.
3. It begins with basic triad arpeggios (most in root position, some as inversions).
4. There are places in the song which leave “space” (verse 2), where there’s no piano arpeggio… just strings added to held piano chords (strings which remain through the rest of the song, and become the busiest when the piano chills out.
5. The song is extremely well-written, lyrically. It tells the story (at least from my understanding) of a lifelong love/marriage/family… and a man’s wife who is either very sick, or terminally ill. It moves along at the absolute perfect pace…
6. The melody phrases (vocal) are consistent throughout each verse, but with just enough “lift” to keep the song from becoming stagnant. Nate R. of fun. sure knows how to write melodies. I mean, this guy is seriously fucking top-notch. Every male singer should strive for vocal melodies this interesting. But I honestly think they just come to him…. in the same way very interesting vocal melodies often come to pop/indie female singer/songwriters (some that come to mind including A Fine Frenzy, Gregory and the Hawk, Ingrid Michaelson, etc). The melody is ALWAYS the thing that makes someone love a song FIRST (and forever). Always remember that.
7. In the 2nd verse, we hear a quarter-note triplet on the “collective hearts” line.
8. The lyrics have a lot of internal rhyme– rhymes in the MIDDLE of lines, not just at the end.
Slow down, we’ve got time left to be lazy
All the kids have bloomed from babies into flowers in our eyes
We’ve got fifty good years left to spend out in the garden
I don’t care to beg your pardon, we should live until we die
We were barely eighteen when we crossed collective hearts
It was cold, but it got warm when you barely crossed my eye
And then you turned, put out your hand, and you asked me to dance
I knew nothing of romance, but it was love at second sight
I swear when I grow up I won’t just buy you a rose
I will buy the flower shop, and you will never be lonely
For even if the sun stops waking up over the fields
I will not leave, I will not leave ’til it’s our time
So just take my hand, you know that I will never leave your side
It was the winter of ’86, all the fields had frozen over
So we moved to Arizona to save our only son
And now he’s turned into a man, though he thinks just like his mother
He believes we’re all just lovers, he sees hope in everyone
And even though she moved away, we always get calls from our daughter
She has eyes just like her father’s, they are blue when skies are gray
And just like him she never stops, never takes the day for granted
Works for everything that’s handed to her, never once complains
You think that I nearly lost you when the doctors tried to take you away
Like the night you took my hand beside the fire thirty years ago to this day,
You swore you’d be here ’til we decide that it’s our time
But it’s not time, you never quit in all your life
So just take my hand, you know that I will never leave your side
You’re the love of my life, you know that I will never leave your side
You come home from work, and you kiss me on the eye
You curse the dog, you say that I should never feed them what is ours
So we move out to the garden, look at everything we’ve grown
And the kids are coming home so I’ll set the table…. you can make the fire.
This is how timeless songs are written, ladies and gentlemen. Play this song for your loved one on Christmas Day, or whatever holiday you may celebrate (and of course, play it for them on their birthday).
P.S. I dedicate this lovely song to Hanna from Hungary (even though she never reads this blog as she is an incredible artist, but not a musician, she means the world to me, and makes me think of this song).
So I was listening to a lot of Fountains of Wayne recently… (not just Stacy’s Mom, which is a great song, but they’re a far better band than that novelty tune— dig into their Welcome Interstate Managers album, and find gems like “Hackensack”, “Valley Winter Song”, “Hey Julie”, “No Better Place”, and “Fire Island”)…
I noticed something when I hear Chris Collingwood’s vocal melodies… he’s oftentimes landing on the 3rd, melodically…. whenever there’s a chord change.
This is a smart thing to do, but don’t overuse it.
If you don’t know what the 3rd is… it’s basically the 3rd note of the scale, that the chord comes from. So if he’s strumming D, he’s singing an F# note (in D major, the notes are D E F# G A… etc). If he then changes to G, he might play around with a melody, and then land on the note B (or hold the note a little longer, which is equally effective). Then, he might change to a C major chord… and then another melody/phrase is sung, and the last note might be an E (again, C major scale is C D E F G…….)
I’ve mentioned in previous posts about melodies that it’s always wise to use the “safe” notes of the chord (the 1, the 3, and the 5)… you can move anywhere you want, but those are the most important notes that should play a big part in the melody, because those are the notes in whatever chord you play (and of course, minor chords have the flatted 3rd instead of the regular 3rd).
I’ve noticed this melodic technique in other bands (many, many others)… but I was studying Fountains of Wayne the other night and all of this stuff came to my attention (plus, I’m doing some prep for my upcoming songwriting/recording camp).
So yeah.. again… a smart thing to do, but don’t overuse it, because sometimes it sounds really weird (especially over a lot of consecutive major chord changes).
A week ago, I had my second major vocal cord surgery in five years, to fix a vocal cord hemorrhage on my right vocal fold. I’ve been silent for a week and have another week to go before I can speak. I won’t be able to sing at all for another several weeks following that.
I enjoy singing, A LOT. It is the one single thing I enjoy more than anything in life. I enjoy it more than movies, and I even enjoy it more than sex (not that I have that, that often….. would love to have it more, though). Bottom line…. singing is the ultimate form of expressing yourself. And I love to express myself through music, and singing.
Some of the songs I enjoy singing most are songs that seem to often be JUST out of reach for me, comfortably. These songs include:
Nada Surf “Beautiful Beat” and “See These Bones”
Miniature Tigers “Hot Venom”
Third Eye Blind “Jumper” (verses)
Velocity Girl “Same Old City” (and really, anything sung by females… which I love to sing along with more than most songs)
Spinto Band “Oh Mandy” (I just LOVE that chorus sung in falsetto… the verses are right in the head voice “break”, too)
And then there are songs that are often impossible for me to sing, since suffering from chronic voice issues which began February 2011…
The Shins “Kissing The Lipless” (and the entire Chutes Too Narrow record)
Band Of Horses (the entire Cease To Begin record)
James “Laid” (the ultimate test if I’m having a great voice day– singing that soaring falsetto chorus)
The point of this post? Sing in a comfortable range, when you write your vocal melodies for your songs. As a tenor, when my voice is in good shape, I’m able to comfortably sing up to A4 (which is the A above middle C), and play around with melodies around middle C (which is my absolute favorite range to sing in, and a range I feel my voice sounds best in). I can also dip into falsetto at will, doing all sorts of high, pretty sounds. When my voice is NOT in good shape (as it’s been for the 29 months prior to my recent surgery), I can barely comfortably sing even a middle C or the D right above it (D4). That’s pretty damn disheartening… really only having a singable range from like… D below middle C, to the D above middle C (that’s just one octave, and often a strained one when I get to middle C). Usually, when my voice is in bad shape, that’s all I can really sing. It’s tough to write songs with such few notes to choose from, too. Not a lot of available expression, there.
But, the lesson I learned is… you’ve got to sing in a comfortable range. If there are notes you can’t reach easily more than once, then avoid jumping up to them. Some days/weeks the human voice just DOES NOT DO WHAT WE WANT IT TO DO. Other days, it lets us move freely about, which brings me much joy, personally.
If you want it, you can gain more range (really, it’s not impossible). The voice is a miraculous (and delicate) instrument. Ultimately, to GAIN more range is something that takes a lot of time, and PERFECT singing/practicing technique. It’s not so much breath control, as a lot of people might tell you. That’s part of it, yes (and a big part)… but ultimately, it’s HEALTHY vocal cords, and warming up long enough so your voice can handle whatever you want to do, with zero strain or damage. So take the time to develop your most personal instrument, by doing correct (healthy) vocal warmups (DAILY… and BEFORE you start singing/working out melodies), and utilizing your range properly. Find a great voice teacher (either through Skype or locally), and take the proper steps if you wish to expand your notes/range. If you can’t… then continue to write in your comfortable range (and stay there as long as you need to).
What’s a comfortable range? It’s any note you can hold/hum/sing quietly, for at least ten seconds, without your voice breaking or quivering. For most tenors, this is from about A2 (A two octaves below middle C) to F4 (F above middle C). For me, prior to my surgery, it wasn’t near that low, or near that high (as mentioned above). I won’t even know what range I currently have for another week (which is scary)….
So yeah, just be safe…. we all can’t be Justin Vernons (Bon Iver), Jonsis (Sigur Ros), James Mercers (The Shins), or Ben Bridwells (Band of Horses). We have to work with what we have, and we have to be SMART about working it RIGHT, without putting any strain on our vocal cords.
Trust me, this is scary shit…. and prior to the surgery… not being able to sing even the easiest of pop/indie songs made me suicidal (I’m not kidding).
So if you love to sing, and if you’re a guy (female singers don’t run into these problems nearly as much as men, from my research), don’t be afraid to regularly schedule a strobe or flexible scope appointment with an ENT/Otolaryngologist…. and do the RIGHT warmups…. never, ever push your voice beyond what’s comfortable.
I’m hoping my voice will be ok so I can finally finish all these half-written songs I’ve been dying to finish for the past 3 years….