Backing vocals - tips, tricks and techniques

by Bill on August 1, 2009

If you’re writing and arranging for a band, don’t miss out on the chance to include backing vocals. They can add depth, richness and interest to your sounds.

But how should you go about arranging your music for backing vocalists? If you’re working on shortish songs you should be able to do it without writing anything down - making things much easier if your backing singers (or you) can’t read music. You may, however, have to teach backing vocalists their exact lines and get them to practise working in harmony with the lead singer. Here are some general bits of advice:

  • Good backing vocalists may be able to come up with their own lines. If they have a really good musical sense and feel for the music, it can be a good idea to let them do this. Even if you’re set on imposing your own melodies on backing singers, at least listen to their advice about what works and what doesn’t. If you’re asking them to sing a line that doesn’t ‘feel’ right, or - worse - a line that is hard to sing, you’re not going to get the best results.
  • Rehearse your lead vocalist with the backing singers, especially if he or she is relatively inexperienced and hasn’t share vocals before. Anyone who is not a practised singer can be really put off - and, indeed, quite freaked out - by the experience of someone else simultaneously singing the same tune a third or a fifth up the scale.
  • Make sure all your vocalists – including the lead – really listen to each other. It sounds simple, but it’s all too easy to become absorbed in your own part (this can be especially problematic for lead singers, see above). Remind everyone that their parts, though vital, are just that: components of the whole piece of music. If just one stands out more than it should, it will affect all the others and you won’t get a balanced sound. If your singers are not listening to each other, it will show: you risk losing the balance of timing, rhythm and tuning and, more obviously to an audience, you won’t get any satisfaction from the experience. To make good music you need a good team.
  • When writing for backing vocalists, a little music theory goes a long way. ‘Learn some theory’ is a pretty regular refrain on Jamcast, and this is another of those instances where a little knowledge really does make a difference. When you’re putting together harmonies for backing singers, it’s very useful to have an understanding of intervals: they’re the musical measurements that musicians are using when they talk about singing ‘a third above’ or ‘a fourth below’ a particular line. The Wikipedia article on intervals is good for the basic (and more advanced) theory; if you need a sense of how different intervals sound when sung, check our post of interval examples.
  • Simple harmonies are the obvious choice when writing for backing vocalists – they sound impressive and add richness and interesting layers to the vocal sound (the music of Queen is a perfect example of harmonically simple, tight backing vocals well used - think of songs like Radio Ga-Ga and Bohemian Rhapsody). Singing in thirds is always a winner, but if you’re feeling adventurous don’t be afraid to try more unusual intervals like sixths and sevenths. Octaves are not always the obvious choice but can give you a really striking sound, especially if you combine male and female voices.
  • Backing singers can be used to sustain the tune, rather than merely add to it. For example, they could take over the chorus while the lead singer improvises over the top (listen to songs like Uncle Walter by Ben Folds Five). Just because they do less prominent singing than the lead vocalist, it doesn’t mean backing vocalists have less skill – backing singers are often more versatile, so make the most of their abilities.
  • Instead of blending voices using harmonies, why not maximise the contrast between them? You could do this by writing a completely different line for your backing singers, independent of the lead in both lyrics and tune [BF Underground; …). Using both male and female voices can also produce a striking contrast. Many artists pick backing singers of the opposite sex (Leonard Cohen, The Postal Service); often they have very distinct parts, too.
  • If your backing singers are new to the job, get them to practise as much as possible. A good exercise is for them to take a song they know well and improvise their own harmonies. If they can’t do this by ear, then do it mathematically (use a keyboard, any maybe the Piano World chord tool). identify the key, remind yourselves of the scale and then just give some intervals a try. They won’t all sound great, but the best thing about improvisation is experimenting until you find something that does. You don’t have to choose complicated intervals, either – even singing in octaves helps you get used to not singing the lead line.

Any questions or other suggestions you happen to have, feel free to post a comment!

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