It seems like there are some people who can harmonize to a melody and some people who cannot.  Some feel they can only sing the melody and struggle when they have to sing a harmony part.  Why is this?  They haven’t learned the skill of harmonizing.


There are great advantages to being able to harmonize even when your goal is to only sing melody or intend to sing only written arrangements.  Harmonizers will tune chords better and recognize when they are on a wrong note more easily.  It also makes one aware of the total sound and thus improve the balancing of their singing volume with that of other singers.  Plus, it’s a lot of fun.  So how can we develop this skill of harmonizing?


The foundation for harmonizing is to hear chords(Some people that only sing melody seems to hardly hear the other parts.)  So to develop an “ear’ for harmony sing a lot of harmony parts.  In this regard, learning the harmony parts to the barbershop “Barberpole Cat Songs” is a great start, as the harmonies are so straight forward.  Singing standard Tags will also help.

But as you sing a harmony part, you need to think about the whole group sound, the chord - as that will move you along in your harmonizing skill.  We always hear what we are singing the most so we need to focus on the whole chord rather than just our part.  This is not easy for some so keep at it.  Be patient with yourself as it is the key to harmonizing.  You may not think it possible at first, but you can direct your thought to what another singer is doing and follow his part as you are singing your own. 

Though an understand of chords and chord progressions is very helpful, it is not really essential.  Even more important is sensing whether a chord is major or minor or a barbershop seventh.

It will be particularly helpful if hearing the full chord sound is a problem, to learn different parts to the same song.  That will gives you a better feel for the chords involved.


Frequently people use a general rule for harmonizing.  “When you feel a new chord is implied, move up or down as little as possible”.  This works well for Tenors and some for Baris, but probably not as much for Basses, although it is sometimes useful for Basses too.

As you sense the chord changing, don’t be surprise if you find that you are on a tone that is common to both chords and so you should not move at all.  That’s not at all uncommon.  As a illustration, think a tenor line to “My Wild Irish Rose” which might go, Fa, So, So, Fa, Mi.  where the chord changes between both So’s but the note doesn’t.


Each part (specifically in barbershop) tends to have different patterns. Knowing these general patterns can be very helpful in harmonizing.  That’s where singing a lot of a particular part is so helpful.

    Basses - They tend to move in bigger jumps because so often they should be on the root of the chords.  That means that they frequently jump from “Do”(1) to “So”(5) or from “Do”(1) to “Fa”(4) as they are the most commonly used chords - The I (1) chord to the V (5) chord and the I (1) chord to the IV (4) chord.

Basses don’t always have to sing the roots of the chords and in fact as we said above, the chord may change but the note can remain the same or even follow the “as little as possible” rule.

    Tenors - The “as little as possible” rule works best for this part, frequently moving only in half or whole steps.  Sometimes they can follow a third above the melody.  Frequently the Tenor is on the 3rd or the 7th of the chord UNLESS the melody is on one of these notes.

The tenor is the part you would harmonize if your were only duetting with the melody so unless you have some other preference, start your harmonizing adventure with Tenor.

    Baris -  Baris frequently fill in what’s left of the chord.  They especially need to be aware of when the melody is sort of high or sort of low as their main task is to avoid the melody since their ranges are about the same..  When the melody is high, go for the lower choice.  When it’s low, go for the higher choice.  As with the Tenors, they frequently are on the 3rd or 7th of the chord.

In every case, the key is to concentrate on the whole group sound and think when the chord seems to want to move.  As we said, get lots of experience singing harmony.  It is probably best to concentrate on one part for a while and then move on to another part.  That will give you a better feel for the part.   Don’t feel you need to perfect one part though, before going on to another part as understanding what others are doing will help you in the specific part you are currently singing.  Any understanding of chords and chord progressions will help immensely but as we said above, that’s not essential.

Happy Singing!  . 

Music Ed Ted


P.S.  I would GREATLY appreciate any comments and confusions you found to this Topic.