Guest Post by Jeremiah Sibley of BSharpTricks.com
I am going to try to give you a methodical way to hear and write out harmony. There is however, no method that can help you unless you are willing to give writing out vocals a try and to try and try again.
The more you teach or hear vocal parts, the easier that they will become to recognize from simply hearing a song.
When I first started writing out vocals I was awful at it, but I kept trying!
You must also be able to somewhat sing to write out vocal parts. You do not have to be a star soloist, though. Anyone who has ever heard Kirk Franklin try to sing knows that he is nowhere near the best soloist of his group, but even that is well enough for him to write out parts for others to sing.
You will need some type of clipboard, a pencil with a good eraser, and a stereo that is portable enough to fit comfortably on the piano and that has an adjustable EQ.
If the CD controls on your stereo are “touchy” you may want to convert the song to an Mp3 file and use your computer to stop and start and adjust the EQ. You do not violate any copyright laws when you make a copy, as you are allowed one “working copy” per original copy that you own.
You may find it easier to use a keyboard rather than an acoustic piano as they have the ability to tune to the track. If once you get started, you find that the track is not in tune with the keyboard, then make sure your keyboard/piano is tuned to A=440. That is the typical tuning of the musical world and most keyboards will have a way to adjust this. If your keyboard is in tune, and the stereo player are good quality but they still don’t match, then try tuning the keyboard up to A=442. That is an alternate tuning that some groups may be using especially if they use live brass and strings.
A Methodical Approach
1. Type out the words to the song on a computer and quadruple space between each line.
I usually use 12 font bold, Times New Roman.
When you type out the words don’t follow the words in the cover, but actually listen to the recording and follow the actual performance format. If they change keys or do anything different vocally, then put the same words twice so that you can write out the higher or different vocals.
We are not going to write out the rhythm but notes only and we will place the notes over the corresponding words. If a word has several notes over it, then we separate the notes with hyphens (-) to show that they are on the same word.
We will put soprano on top, altos in the middle, and tenors on bottom. That is high ladies’ voices, lower ladies’ voices, and high mens’ voices respectively.
It is also helpful to have a basic knowledge of the typical ranges sung by each part.
Some gospel groups go higher, and if your choir can hit it that’s great! Most of us will be spending time lowering songs a key or two.
On most choir songs, the sopranos are on lead, the altos on the first harmony part (the “alto part”), and the tenors are on the second harmony part (the “tenor part).
“Lead” is the melody of the song that everybody hears when they listen to the song, even nonmusical people. If you are having trouble hearing lead, and have a “non-musical” spouse or friend, then have them listen to the song and sing it to you. Nine times out of ten they will try to sing lead.
Fred Hammond used to put out quite a few songs where the Altos are actually on lead and the newer Hillsong stuff is often that way as well with the sopranos singing the “tenor” part flipped high above the altos and the tenors actually singing the “alto part.” Many all ladies groups such as Point of Grace and even the mixed group Avalon will also arrange their songs this way.
If you are writing a typical country gospel group they will usually have a lower male voice singing lead down low with the alto and tenor singing their part as normal above him. They’ve taken the soprano part, put it an octave (12 notes) lower and let a man sing it.
In our small, country church we have no sopranos so this is how we sing all our praise songs even the non-country material.
2. Start with the sopranos, assuming that they are the ones on lead.
Start with just a few words.
The sopranos are usually the easiest to hear because they are the highest. If you are not a true soprano, then you may have to sing in falsetto to hit it but listen and sing it along with them.
Then find the notes on the keyboard in front of you and write them above the corresponding words. Remember to put hyphens between notes that go with one song and be sure to write the soprano part high enough that you still have room to write the other two parts underneath.
Now, go on to the next few words or phrases and write out the entire soprano line of that part of the song. In other words, if you are writing out the chorus, then write out the soprano part for the entire chorus.
3. Now go to the harmony part that you are the most comfortable with.
If you are a guy, then you will probably find it easier to hear the tenor part next. If you are an alto, then you will probably be able to pick out that part best. Regardless, whichever harmony part that you can sing the easiest, go to that part next.
For me that is the tenors, so when I write out a song, I always write out the sopranos, then the tenors, then the altos.
Listen to the first few words are phrases, sing along with them, and then find those notes on the keyboard and write the corresponding notes over the words. Working a few phrases at a time, go on and finish that part of the song’s tenor part.
4. Now go to the remaining harmony part.
Here is where it gets tricky.
When I first started doing this, I had a hard time hearing the alto part, so I learned some tricks to help you out.
The easiest way is, of course, to get someone who is naturally this part to listen and sing it for you. As my wife is an alto, I’ve “wimped out” and got her to sing the alto part more than once!
Try to hear the singers on the tape singing the part. If you cannot find the starting note, then look at the soprano and tenor part and realize that the alto part will complete the chord. In other words, if I’m in the key of “C,” and the sopranos are on a “G” and the tenors are on a “C,” then there’s a good chance that the altos are starting on an “E” because that would complete the C major chord (C,E,G). It might be a minor chord so that the altos are singing an “Eb.”
There’s nothing wrong with playing a note along with the tape and seeing if it clashes. The major/minor rule, which we will discuss in a moment, can also be a tremendous help here. If you already have a lead sheet to the song, then compare the soprano and tenor parts with the chord that is being played, and see if the alto part completes that chord.
If playing is your strength, then write out the lead sheet first and check to see if the vocals that you are writing out clash with the chords that you have written.
By the way, this also works in reverse if you are better at writing out vocals than lead sheets. If the sopranos, altos, and tenors are singing (C,E,G) respectively and the bass line is “G,” then the chord is most likely going to be a “C/G.”
After you find the alto line, then go through and complete the chorus, either by listening and finding the notes, or by completing the chords.
5. Play the parts together along with the track.
Do they sound good with the original recording?
Then chances are that you got them right, or at least a passable variation. If they clash, then go back and listen more carefully to that part that doesn’t sound right. If everything is good then go to the next part of the song repeating steps 2-5 by beginning with the sopranos, etc… .
Eventually you will learn your group’s ranges. If the song is a little beyond the top of your group’s range, then don’t be afraid to lower everything.
Let’s say that you would like everything to be 2 notes lower. Take one of your extra copies and rewrite the vocals this time lowering every individual note by 2 notes. They are now written out two keys lower!
Be sure to lower the lead sheet as well for your musicians, and it’s a good idea to write “original key” on the first sheets so that when you file it, you can tell the copies apart.
Also keep in mind that not all parts of every song will be in three part harmony.
Many times a section of the song will be in unison. Just simply write the notes of the unison part over the words and then see how high or how low they are to see which vocal parts will sing them. If the unison line gets pretty high, for example, then it would probably be best to only allow the ladies to sing the unison part.
Listen to the tape and see if you can tell if it has both men and ladies singing. If the unison part is high, and guys are singing then there’s a good chance that they are singing the same notes an octave lower (12 notes).
Sometimes you will run into a fairly complex song where each part is singing different syllables, phrases, or rhythms. In this case it is better to treat each part as a different line and then put them together after you teach them.
The Major Minor Rule
The Major/Minor rule is probably the single most helpful concept to understand when writing out vocal parts. Here it is:
A major chord will often alternate with a minor chord two notes to the right of it and vice versa.
For example, if I was playing a C major chord, I can alternate it with the minor chord two notes to the right, that is a D minor chord. Conversely, if I was playing a D minor chord, then I can alternate it with the major chord two notes to the left, that is a C major chord. C major and D minor have the special major/minor relationship.
A careful glance over songs that you are very familiar with and have vocals too, will reveal the frequent use of this concept. When a person claims to be able to naturally “hear the alto part,” or “hear the tenor part,” what they really have learned to do is to hear this concept and sing it without writing it down.
When There Is No Musical Track
If I am writing out a song that I only have in my head, then I follow a simple process:
- Write or find a lead sheet to it. Whatever parts I invent, I do not want them to clash with the music.
- I then write out the lead line – usually soprano – to the song.
- I then begin to fill in the harmony parts by using the chords off the lead sheet and the major/minor rule.
In the vast majority of cases these simple steps are all that you have to do to write out your own parts!
Jeremiah Sibley is an accomplished musician with a love for Jazz who is passionate about teaching, both music and the Word of God. He pastors The Jesus Church in Castroville, TX where he lives with his wife and two beautiful daughters. Jeremiah is a graduate of Jackson College of Ministries where he studied under Dedie Cooley. He is also the founder and lead instructor of BSharpTricks.com.