Bluegrass Harmony



When more than one note is played at the same time frequencies either agree in a level of harmony or create a level of tension.  In the western world of music we have established by feel that a simple chord is created using the 1  3 &  5 notes (the triad) starting with the chord name as 1.  

                         1  3  5
The D major chord has  D F# A.  To alter that in any way you must rename it. 
For example... 
Add the flatted seventh note to D F# A it will be D F# A + C which is named D7.
Add the regular 7th note of the scale it will be D F# A + C# which is named Dmaj7.
Flatten the third note and major becomes minor.  etc...

BLUEGRASS HARMONY 3-Part Predictable

The predictable Bluegrass approach of harmony singing is for there to be three singers each singing a note in the triad.  A tradition stack is: Melody is in the middle with one harmony on the next triad note above and one harmony on the next triad note below. When the melody is not on the triad note, the harmonies can follow and go off triad notes or stay on their triad notes. This choice is called arranging, the art of the craft. Harmony staying on triad notes allows the non-triad melody note to stand out and create colour. Harmonies moving off the triad notes create style and genre.  For example Bluegass often uses a 6 note in the baritone, and a flat 7 instead of a major 7 in chord construction. 

Part 1: Melody | The main vocal part as crafted by the songwriter or arranged by the lead singer.

Choosing A Melody: Have intention behind from whom you learn the melody and lyrics. Establish the chord progression. Transpose the song as necessary to the best key for the lead singer.  Choose how you want to present the melody and do not do anything unpredictable in the choruses. As a lead singer you can fly free in verses when no one else is singing with you, but you are the solid foundation in the chorus. The other two harmonies must follow and obey your every move, so stay strong and predictable.

Preparing Harmony Lines:  Everyone...Listen to the melody, learn it, sing it clearly.  Understand how much range it uses and where it sits in your body.  Is it very low? Is it very high?  If you are going to sing harmony you must know your ability to sing above or below the melody.  If you are the melody singer know the melody solidly enough that you do not lose your way. (Get bucked off your part :) Identify where the melody sits in the triads (the 1 3 & 5 of each chord) and outside of the chord as it moves around.  The melody will very often use notes from the chord but is created using many notes of the key’s scale.   
More scale notes used = more complicated.  Be solid in the timing as with the tune and lyrics.

Part 2:  TENOR | The closest harmony note above melody

The second part is crafted by establishing the next note in the triad above the melody as the melody and chords progress. In Bluegrass we call this the Tenor line.  A melody note may, for example, be on the 3, so the next harmony note above would be the 5.   As skills develop harmonies can add 4, 6, 7, 9 etc... 

Tenor an octave lower it is called Low Tenor, still the Tenor Line now just placed below Baritone.

Part 3:  BARITONE | The closest harmony note below the melody

The next harmony note below the melody is called the Baritone line in Bluegrass.  A note from the melody may, for example, be on the 3, so the next harmony note below would be the 1 of the chord. If you sing the As skills, develop harmonies can add 4, 6, 7, 9 etc...

Baritone an octave higher it is called High Baritone. Still the Baritone line, now just placed above Tenor.

With Tenor on the 5, Melody on the 3, Baritone on the 1 you have a triad in three part harmony singing.  And it moves.  Stay on your part, think harmony notes in a relationship with a melody and a chord structure that move.  If you hit a note that is not yours it creates a doubling which means you are singing someone else’s note.

If you sing the Baritone an octave higher, above the Tenor, it is called the High Baritone. If you sing the Tenor an octave lower, below the Baritone, you have Low Tenor. Singing Tenor and Low Tenor at the same time is doubling. Bass create their own part, doubling another part for short periods while presenting a unique concept like hitting the roots of the chord progression or creating a counter melody.  

The stronger a singer is at recognizing, hearing and holding a part in this manner, the better the opportunity for all of the chord notes to be created. And thick, rich, resonating, pure 3 part harmony will be felt.  Use the melody as the anchor and create the chords in vocal harmony.  

Hold on to your part, let instruments guide you.  There are many ways to address melody and chord notes that fall out of the 1 3 5... they make it colourful.