Vocals Like Horns?

Are vocals the same as horns?

You’ve probably heard me mention that all these voicings that we’ve talked about for horns can also work for a vocal group. My two main instruments are piano and voice so I have a lot of experience with singing in all kinds of groups.

I must say that I’ve never been a choral director for a big choir. If I’ve worked with a lots of voices, it was overdubbing in the studio. My experience comes from working with smaller groups from 2 to 9 singers in soft and loud settings.

With the knowledge you have writing for horns, the critical thing to keep in mind for voices is that a singer needs to hear their note or musical phrase before they sing it. They need to get it into their head, as they say, unlike a horn player who has the luxury of fingering the note on their instrument. Most good horn players will hear their notes as they play them, but still have the fingering to fall back on.

I would say 90% of the time when you write, or do a head arrangement, your voicings will be in block or closed harmony. It’s the easiest to hear in popular styles like Rock, Country, R&b, and jazz.

If you’re going to do a jazz vocal arrangement or any style of any complexity, I would suggest writing it out first, otherwise you’ll be wasting time rehearsing, just trying to figure out the right notes. By writing it out you’ll be able to more effectively incorporate the techniques we’ve talked about, having better voice leading with your passing chords, and a better arrangement overall.

Polychords are another element I like to use in jazz to voice the vocal harmonies. Remember the top half of a polychord is a triad which is very easy to tune up for your vocalist. For example, if the chord is C13(#11) equals, D major over C7. The singers sing the D major triad over the band playing the C13(#11) chord which will sound rich and contemporary… and very cool.

Don’t forget that unison and octaves sound good, not everything needs to be harmonized especially with the more singers you have. 3 to 5 singers in unison can sound big and fat and it's easier to learn and tune up. The same goes for octaves. 

The nice thing about unison and octaves is that they can keep your arrangement for getting too dense if your going for a more transparent sound or have a lot of other elements in you arrangement. 90%, if not all of the Supremes (Motown girl group) backup vocals were unison. Their vocals still had an ensemble sound with both girls on the same note. Unison was all they really needed when they had strings and horns adding to the mix.

Don't forget with a lot of singers you can break your vocalist up into 2 groups. We've all heard that a lot.

In a live setting most vocal harmonies in popular styles can be handled with 3 parts even when the chord is 4 or 5 parts.  If you have a large group with 6 singers and want a fat vocal sound, you can double the parts putting 2 singers on a part, just like you would do in the studio. With 4 singers try doubling them up on 2 part harmony.

In a nut shell, write parts that will be relatively easy for your vocalist to hear/learn. Make it easy on your singers and you’ll get a better performances.

If you have experience with writing for singers and would like to add to the conversation, please do.
Leave it in the comment section below.

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