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Are some people born to hear harmony?

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kez1986
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Like perfect pitch, are some people born to hear and sing harmony. From the first time I ever heard a song, I always heard and sang the melody. I was passionately into the lyrics and thought this came through (wrongly) before I learnt vocal technique and harmonies.

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Are some people born to hear harmony or does everyone have to work as hard as me? From the first time I ever heard a song I always heard the melody and didn't even consider anything else was going on.

kez1986: As a practical matter, there is no way for one person to know what the experience of music is like to another person. However, I think the differences there may be are not so much about hearing as they about awareness.

For example... in a crowded, noisy room, you can focus your attention on the soft words spoken by someone near you, even though the ambient sound is much louder. With sight, a person can take a detailed look at an item, or extend their awareness to include shapes in peripheral vision.

Harmony awareness comes with practice. If you'd like to develop your harmony awareness, get yourself a harmony instrument, and play it. :-) A great place to start is with an autoharp (press a button... strum a cord), though the accordion, bandoneon, hurdy-gurdy and even the harmonica will work with no prior practice or skill.

If you are up to a little work, the guitar is an excellent instrument for harmony. Learn to play the progressions for a song. When you sing... there will be a melody too. If you are just playing... well, its harmony to your ears :-)

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Thanks Steven. I can sing harmony but it was a lot of hard work. Some people are born with perfect pitch and I was wondering if this was a similar case with harmonies. I knew from my earliest memories that I had a nice tone and had relatively good pitch . I knew that singing was what I was destined to do. I didn't think I had to do anything else except open my mouth and sing the melody. Mentally, I was so passionate about the lyrics of a song, I thought that everybody else could feel this. Learning harmonies and vocal techique was something that I had to learn later. Kerri

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:) Hi Kez

Well like you I am a melody singer primarily. However when you develop your voice and hearing you an soon move into hearing and producing harmonies with ease. My best friend harmonises with me immediately where as I might need a little more time to get the harmony. However I often automatically harmonise with other singers especially if I really like the song and can hear things they are not singing or if it is in a key I wouldn't like to sing the melody in.

It is about clarity of hearing and no mind clutter when you listen to the music. A few years ago I never thought I could sing harmony, now I do it with a great deal of ease. Confidence to try and practise is the key I think plus learning to push out noise distraction! :lol: H

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I think that listening to a lot of music in your early years and singing by taking vocals off the records or CDs aurally improves your hearing. In a repetition increases understanding format, if you keep on singing to CDs at an early age, you simply improve your pitch and your harmonic abilities. You have to be able to hear them passively in your mind's ear as well as to actively sing them.

If you haven't had the luxury of being able to do this in your early years as I have, you should start catching up on it and start listening more in a passive sense and an active sense as well. Finally, if you don't play a guitar or piano, learn Harmony in vertical sense where you learn chords and what available chord tones and non chord tension notes are available over a certain chord and then start to practice voice leading as music moves horizontally form left to right.

If you want to become a harmony expert as I have, you must know what notes are available over which chords and also learn to flow the melody using correct melodic and harmonic voice leading.

Feel free to contact me at jazprod@aol.com for any ear training, harmony and vocal technique issues. In addition to teaching Private and Group Vocal Workshops, I also teach Ear Training, Harmony and Songwrting workshops that might be beneficial to you.

Contact me with questions at jazprod@aol.com

Warmest Regards,

Jimi Zimmardi

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Matt is right on! Harmony is ultra-simple math -- way less confusing than balancing a checkbook or figuring a tip.

TMV member, and my close friend, Ray Miller has sung in Barbershop since . . . well . . . since he was in Marine Corps basic training preparing to sail for Iwo Jima in 1945. He's been an officer in the SPEBSQSA (now called the Barbershop Harmony Society) where they specialize -- and I mean SPECIALIZE -- in singing harmony. No instruments -- just voice.

Ray has been cogitating on a book (I have a draft right here) on the subject of "The Architecture of Harmony," which of course resonates with the analogy that Jimi offers of building up the chords. As a psychology major (which he studied to understand more about the perception of harmony), Ray studies the "harmonic" (which simply means "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, . . . ") structure of chords and how we are accustomed to using them. Here in the USA, with largely a "western" influence and habit of music, we sense and we use slightly different chords from how our pal Sangeeta might use them, or her neighbors to the north, but in any case, we feel good when we hear them.

First of all, when a sound as complex as the human voice is produced, the disturbances it makes in the air -- the "waveforms" -- are more than just a single "pitch." For example, a bass singing a low "A" makes 110 of these disturbances per second, but the characteristics of what sound he's making -- let's say an "AH" -- and let's say "in an angry part of the song" -- actually produces a compound tone that can be represented mathematically as a series of plain tones, each playing harmonically above the 110. So he's producing a loud sound at 110, a weaker one at 220, another at 330 and then -- because he's angry -- another strong one at 440 times per second . . . and so on.

Each of these pitches together make up a chord of sorts, even just while he's holding that one note.

If another singer joins him, we will feel most comfortable if what she sings "fits" mathematically into the pattern he's producing. In four-part harmony, each voice fits if it's going to produce a harmonic chord. That job is up to the composer, but it's also up to each singer because an angry "AH" is discernibly different from a loving "AH" and so produces different strengths at 220, 330 and 440.

One way to think of a chord is like a wind chime. Each chime rings at a different pitch, and produces its own harmonics, but no matter which chime rings first or next, the sound is simply lovely. Good melodies are built upon the architecture of the harmony in the song, so in some ways the melody notes are often like the wind chimes -- strung out in a measure or two (a phrase) but still "belonging" and "fitting" into the chord and its harmonics. Bach used these strung out chords, or "arpeggios" to literally create chords in his Prelude in C (BWV 846) that opens his "Well-Tempered Clavier" series, based on the then-new idea of "equal" tuning invented by Andreas Werckmeister in 1691. Even though equal temperament is not very pure, we've grown so used to it that we hardly can tell when it goes wrong.

Ray is studying particularly the "progression" of chords: not just "do we like this chord?" but also "where does this chord want to go to next?" One familiar piece of this question is "why do we always feel better if the symphony we're hearing ends -- 40 minutes later -- in the same "key" or set of chords that started it 40 minutes ago?"

Another aspect of chords is the "feeling" or psychological set-up a particular chord creates in the person who hears it. The pianists who used to play along with silent black-and-white movies were artists at this -- using major and minor and higher and lower chords and melodies to make us thrill just as the devil arrived, or chill when the north wind blew, or know that the hero and the girl were going to fall in love. All with simple harmony!

Because harmony -- literally -- is as simple as "one, two, three," the sounds it makes are deeply felt by our subconscious. When they don't fit, it's like a gear in a transmission that has one tooth too many, or one tooth too few. It gnashes! Sometimes even crashes! Pure barbershoppers cringe when they hear a perfectly-tuned piano, because equal temperament can only rarely make pure harmony.

So, yes: do what Steven and Robert and Jimi are suggesting and play around with an instrument to get a sense of what makes your hair curl and what lulls you to sleep, and after a while you'll feel really good about it. ;-)

And have fun!

Pete

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Everyone here has added relevance. Harmonics are indeed mathematical ratios as discovered and brought to us from here in Greece by the great mathematician PYTHAGORAS ( Pronounced PEE-THA-GORAS).

He discovered the monochord, the partials, the golden ratio and the music of the spheres!:lol:

Harmony is the frequency partial/interval between musical notes. A scale is an array of chosen frequencies and a musical interval is the gap seperating two notes on a scale. Western music uses the 8 note scale/octave CDEFGABC known as the "diatonic" scale - the white keys on a piano. The black keys have a different relationship and are linked to the white keys as the "chromatic" scale. As long as the frequency ratio between notes is 2:1 the interval will be an octave. Hence "C" an octave above middle C will always be vibrating twice as fast and have twice the frequency of middle C. So harmonics are related to each other mathematically. For example the first and second harmonics of middle "C" (C&G) create a ratio of 2/3. This interval is called the FIFTH because "G" is the 5th note of the scale in relation to C.

e.g. Middle C at frequency 256hz - if we divide the frequency of the first harmonic C (512hz) by the frequency of the second harmonic G (768hz) this gives us the ratio of 2/3. To find the 5th above the fundamental note we multiply its frequency by 3/2. (512hz x 3/2 gives us 768Hz).

The 5th interval is referred to as the "perfect 5th" because it has a harmonic relationship with the fundamental tone. When the note C is sounded, G will also be produced as the second harmonic. The inetrval of the 5th in healing is compared to the parent-child relationship.

There is a whole harmonic series which continues on until infinity and beyond the range of human hearing. The original scale devised by Pythagoras only had 5 notes (Pentatonic scale) and the ratios were slightly different.

When singing harmony in western music, it is these partials that you must master. Usually harmony is sung in the 3rd ( C/E) the 5th (C/G) or the octave above/below. Occasionally other partials are used but this is rarer.

So to recap on my input so far, first hearing has to be addressed and the sound needs to be heard in the head before the voice can produce it.

Secondly knowing the ratios of the scale..the intervals of the 3rd/5th and octave will also assist you.

Last but by no means least......listen to music, sing with it and instead of singing the melody try to harmonise and practice...listen to yourself, record yourself whatever you need to do to build your confidence and sing. If you can play the harmony with the melody you can also learn to sing the harmony as another melody.

See my blog on my profile page about singing harmony, I demonstrate it there and I also cover harmony in my TRUE VOICE COURSE.

The intervals used for healing are another chapter! :P

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  • 4 weeks later...
  • 3 years later...

Ever since I opened my mouth to talk when I was little I have been able to sing on pitch and and sing harmony without thinking about it. I do think practice when young has a huge impact, however I am an exception to that, so yes we do exist! I have always been able to sing harmony with anyone singing something, and it just comes automatically to me. I couldn't try to explain it to you. Many of my friends call me the "harmony queen" and have asked how I do it. My response is always "I just do". The best way I can explain it is this: When I'm singing harmony to a song I just know what the next harmonic note will be, I don't have to think about it and I can do it to a song I'm just hearing. For me it's like hearing the melody of a new song, you pick it up very quickly and you don't think about matching the pitch you hear, you just do it! It's one of those you either have it or you don't things really. With lots of practice and dedication you can develop your ear for it though, and I agree it's just simple math when you get down to it, but applying that principle without already having the ear for relative pitch is a hard thing. Stick with it and you'll persevere!

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Despite this being an old thread I'll chime in too...by the way, cool answer meg, interesting...

I am pretty gifted musically, I grew up in a musical family, learned a lot of it very young, yadayadayada.

BUT, I could explain harmony to anyone if I took the time to sit down and prepare a nice presentation on it. So no I am not born with it, but I can tell you all that, if you are not good with harmony now, it's easy to learn. It's not rocket science. It's basically a formula that you can expand on.

I like what Matt said about it being basic logical math. That's very true. It's really just a matter of staying in the right mode (scale), keeping fairly consistent intervals (unless you're really good at it and feel daring enough to move it around), and a couple random rules that have to do with the aesthetic...some combos don't sound right, so you eliminate them (unless you're doing avant garde music :cool:)

It's all math/theory, and you have a fairly small number of possible combinations, you just pick what sounds best. There's nothing magical floating unicorny about it.

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Ever since I opened my mouth to talk when I was little I have been able to sing on pitch and and sing harmony without thinking about it. I do think practice when young has a huge impact, however I am an exception to that, so yes we do exist! I have always been able to sing harmony with anyone singing something, and it just comes automatically to me. I couldn't try to explain it to you. Many of my friends call me the "harmony queen" and have asked how I do it. My response is always "I just do". The best way I can explain it is this: When I'm singing harmony to a song I just know what the next harmonic note will be, I don't have to think about it and I can do it to a song I'm just hearing. For me it's like hearing the melody of a new song, you pick it up very quickly and you don't think about matching the pitch you hear, you just do it! It's one of those you either have it or you don't things really. With lots of practice and dedication you can develop your ear for it though, and I agree it's just simple math when you get down to it, but applying that principle without already having the ear for relative pitch is a hard thing. Stick with it and you'll persevere!

I'm in a similar boat, at least with my voice (compared to my other instrument guitar) I can improvise during a song and ALWAYS be on key. Even right now, I could come up with multiple harmonies for songs if a person were to just randomly name one, with no preparation. An example I like to use is

At around 3:40, Kip sings the "need" in a different harmony compared to the original. One of the top comments used to be about that part and something along the lines of "takes a true talent/showing his amazing musicianship" etc, and I had always assumed that it was a rather simple/easy thing to do. That's when I first realized that not everybody can just sing on pitch (barring trying to sing a really technically demanding passage and losing support etc). I also am always surprised when a person can't hear that a note in a solo etc made that part off key, it's always seemed so obvious to me... except I always hear that the vocals on the early Metallica albums were off key and I could never notice. But then I actually realized if I sung along to a track, I was singing it slightly "off" from the original, meaining I was most likely subcinsciously singing it in key.

I think I really just developed almost perfect relative pitch from just listening to so much music in general as I was growing up, and really being obsessed with music and bands, and obsessing over guitar parts etc.

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