Backing & Harmony Singers

backing singers, harmony singers

Backing Singers provide harmonies and vocals that complement the melody line performed by a Lead Singer. Used in many forms of music including Rock, Pop, MOR, Soul, the backing singer has played an integral role in song production.

There are many types of backline vocalists ranging from the band member who sings a bit to dedicated Session Singers who are employed by major touring artists and recording studios.  A good backing singer should be experienced in harmonizing and keeping in time with both the lead vocalist and fellow backing vocalists, sight reading is preferable but not essential whilst the ability to ‘hear’ yourself, identify and sing the correct notes plus learn songs quickly is!

The term ‘Backing’ denotes that the singer remains in the background, both in live performance and when mixing a recording. The backing vocals on a song can consist of anything from repeating a word, passage or chorus of the song to providing a continuing harmony in time with the lead vocalist.

Whats the difference between a Backing Vocalist and a Harmony Singer

Both provide backing for a lead singer, or vocals for effect on instrumentals. However, a harmony singer is naturally adept at ‘hearing’ harmony lines over and around the music. They can vocally reproduce what they hear to create a harmony vocal line without requiing written sheet music, or direction from the songwriter or producer although they may be requested to produce a harmony or backing line that has been specifically written rather than one they may naturally hear.

There are people who are unable to ‘hear’ the harmony and find it difficult to pitch their notes when another vocalist is accompanying, this is a problem that can be solved by most through ear training and pitching exercises, practice and experience.

In many cases, a backing singer is supplied with sheet music which they ‘sight read’ and sing the notes as directed. Both types of singer are commonly referred to as ‘Backing Singers’ or ‘Backing Vocalists’.

A singer who is versatile and vocally competent at both ‘singing by ear’ and ‘sight reading’ can be employed for many projects including music beds, advertising jingles, backing major artists etc., – studio time costs money and an artist who can go in and do the job quickly is prized!

What is a ‘Harmony’

The dictionary describes harmony as ‘Notes of music combined together in a pleasant sounding way’ but that doesn’t tell you what a singer should be doing to produce this!

For instance – if the chord played is a C and the lead singer is singing the root note ‘C’ the harmonies could be based around the 3rd note ‘E’ and 5th note ‘G’ of the chord at any point on the scale. This means the backing singer could be vocalising in a higher or lower octave than the lead vocalist depending on their voice type.

Grab a couple of friends and try it yourself. Each person singing one of the notes listed above – Ta Daaa – your singing in harmony! Yes, of course, there is more to it than that….. it’s advisable to learn music theory to understand the relationship between notes, chords, octaves and harmonics but basically, if the notes you are singing around the melody line sound good, fit the style of music and complement the lead vocals then you’re ok!

So what qualities does a backing singer need?

The ability to sing by ‘ear’ and/or read sheet music are both desirable qualities in any singer but especially for those who wish to pursue a career backing other vocalists and working as a session singer.

Good vocal control is essential, a backing singer must not try to ‘outsing’ the lead vocalist unless they have been directed to do so for a particular passage or effect!! Whilst most sound engineers and producers will adjust vocal volumes in the mix, it is important for singers who have strong voices to remember to back off the microphone a bit when providing backing for lead vocalists whose voices may not be as powerful.

All types and timbre of voice are employed, with the more popular singers travelling constantly between bookings or contracted full time to a production team. Ideally, the singer’s voice is required to be compatible or ‘gel’ with the other vocalists. Those with powerful or distinctive voices can still get work as a backing vocalist but may find it more advantageous to pursue a solo career. Some lead singers record their own backing and harmony vocals to songs, a good example of great blended backing and harmonies by a technically proficient solo vocalist is Annie Lennox, although impossible to reproduce multiple layered harmonies by one singer when performing live unless using a backing track, backing singers or vocal harmoniser.

Reliability and Consistency of performance is required from every singer, letting your audience or employer down will give you a bad reputation which will quickly spread and prevent you from finding quality employment.

Many vocalists start their careers as a backing singer or lead vocalist with a band as it also presents possibilities of being noticed by A & R!! An example of this is ‘Sam Brown’ who had a hit song in the 80s as a solo artist. Also read How to sing backup.

Finding Work as a Backing or Harmony Vocalist

Create a publicity pack! Include 3 of your best songs on the demo showing your vocal range. Include one ‘clean’ vocal track with you singing the melody line (the backing music should be as simple as possible and not ‘drown out’ your voice). The other tracks should contain examples of your backing and harmony singing abilities.

Buy music industry trade papers like The Stage NMEBandit Newsletter, or similar publications that run classified ads for singers wanted. You can even place an advert describing your abilities and offering your services.

Use the internet – many music websites offer a free classified ads section for singers, bands, musicians, music industry personnel. Take advantage of this by owning a website that highlights your talents and include the link in your advert.

Contact Recording Studios, Backing Track Suppliers to see if they hire freelance singers or employ ‘in house’.

Keep several Business Cards with you at all times. Don’t miss an opportunity, if a band, musician or producer approaches you at an open mic night, jam night, showcase etc., ask for their business card and give them yours!

Ask professional singing friends, musicians, voice teacher, performance coach for an introduction or recommendation to an agent or management company. Also, ask if they will allow you to do a few backing vocals at some of their gigs, you may not get paid but you will get seen by the venue, and/or agent who may offer you bookings.

Enter Talent Competitions and offer your singing services for Charity Shows to gain experience, gain exposure and meet other musicians and artists.

Opportunities are only limited to the competence and determination of the singer who can find work with bands or artists in pubs, clubs, cabaret, nightclubs, radio, television or by deputising for other singers and as a session singer.

Harmony & Backing Books
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This is just a small selection of books and audio books available. Visit our Books For Singers to see the full list which includes exercises, music theory, vocalises, sheet music, audition repertoire, and tuition books for singers of all standards and styles.

Harmony Vocals: The Essential Guide
by Mike Campbell, Tracee Lewis
Publisher: Musicians Institute
Vocal Sheet Music And CD

Learn to sing harmony like a pro! 18 real songs in a variety of styles. The CD includes 99 full demo tracks. Suitable for singers of all ages, covering basic ear training and sightsinging, harmony and theory from unison lines to four-part harmony, and essential stage and studio techniques, all pulled together into a user-friendly format. The companion CD includes 99 full-demo tracks, which allows you to listen, learn, and participate in singing harmonies. This book will make learning to sing harmonies a reality for even the most inexperienced vocalist.

Contents / Song list
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ABCs Of Harmony – Book & 4 CD
The ABC Of Harmony series is an all new series of harmony textbooks, with a simple and concise approach for all teachers and students. It is perfect for a systematic study of harmony for the general musician, as well as for requirements of the ABRSM, AMEB and other examining bodies.
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Basic Harmonic Progressions
A Self-Instruction Program
(Norton Programed Texts in Music Theory.)
by John L. Clough, Joyce Conley (Contributor)
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company

Written with the student in mind this book provides a strong emphasis on practical application of the rules of voice leading in 7 parts

1. PreDominant Chords: IV, II, II6
2. Prolongation of I
3. Other 5/3 and 6/3 functions 1 (prolongation of predominant harmony)
4. Other 5/3 and 6/3 functions 2 (IV, IV6, III, VII)
5. 6/4 Chords
6. 7th Chords (Other than V7)
7. Diatonic Modulation
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Deke Sharon: The Heart Of Vocal Harmony – Emotional Expression In Group Singing
A choral reference guide with a difference. While most choirs spend their rehearsal time focusing on notes, rhythms and precision, few discuss a song’s meaning and feeling, even though those elements are precisely what draws people to the music in the first place. Thousands of books have been written about choral technique, teaching people how to sing technically well. What sets The Heart Of Vocal Harmony apart is its focus on honest unified expression and the process of delivering an emotionally compelling performance. It delves into an underdeveloped Vocal topic the heart of the music and the process involved with expressing it. The Heart Of Vocal Harmony is not just for a cappella groups, it is also for Vocal harmony groups, ensembles, and choirs at all levels, with or without instruments. In addition to the process, the book features discussions with some of the biggest luminaries in Vocal harmony: composers, arrangers, directors, singers, and groups including Eric Whitacre, Pentatonix, the Manhattan Transfer, and more.
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Harmony and Voice Leading Vols 1&2
Edward Aldwell
Thomson Learning

A traditional music theory text for music majors in the required two-year long theory course. Based on the Shenkerian approach to music theory, Harmony and Voice Leading, Second Edition, provides a coherent point of view in teaching theory. Well chosen musical excerpts exemplify the theory under discussion, and all units have a generous quantity of exercises, more carefully graded in this edition to progress from easy to difficult. Workbooks provide additional drill and practice. The Second Edition features a one volume format so professors can more easily sequence their course when using the book. The workbooks continue in a two-volume format, each corresponding roughly to the first and second year of study.
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Theory of Harmony
Arnold Schonberg
University of California Press

This harmony text ranges over such diverse subjects as nature, artistic creativeness, culture, and aesthetic theories of the past. The author writes of his fascination with sound; on the idea that musical order may be manifested in many inconceivable ways; and questions the need of order in music. Ninety music examples are included.
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