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May 22, 2011

Just to clarify, the kind of harmony I am writing about in this entry is musical harmony.

Here is a definition: The combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce sounds and chord progressions having a pleasing effect.

Before I go any further into this post I want to point out that I am not an expert on music theory. Quite the opposite, really. If I look at a simple note-by-note melody line, and it’s in the treble clef, after some pauses and consideration, I can figure out the notes, and play those notes (rather slowly and in not necessarily the right rhythm) on a piano. I can also read some of the bass clef, but I have a harder time. I resort to the crippling mnemonic device.. “every good boy does fine” for the treble cleff, and “good boys do fine always” for the bass clef.

(Guitar strings are more fun to remember: EADGBE.. “Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good Bye Eddie!)

The reason I say these supposed memory stimulators are crippling is that it would be much more practical to just learn what and where the notes are, instead of having to rely on silly and gender-biased phrases. I have had to deal with this problem while learning where the notes are. The every good boy stuff keeps cluttering my mind when I am trying to learn the notes. QUITE frustrating!!

Since I know very little about music theory, I cannot really explain what I hear and write about in terms of music theory. I cannot tell you why harmonies work or how the chords are structured in each song. In other words, I don’t know the mechanics of harmony.

I am writing this entry from the perspective of a lover of music, who feels greatly moved by uplifting harmonies.

Certain genres of music are especially built around harmonies. Barbershop quartets, gospel groups, a capella ensembles (a capella songs are sung without any musical background), doo-wop groups from the 1950’s and ’60s, and fantastic harmonies in early rock music – The Beach Boys come to mind.

There are also harmonies – a great number of them – to be found in classical music. Both in instrumental music, and choral arrangements and performances. Choral groups.. large choirs.. you’ve no doubt seen them on TV or heard them during the holidays. Two examples of large choral groups are the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Harlem Boys Choir. The most well-known classical piece which focuses on vocal harmonies is Handel’s “Messiah.” The most famous part of that epic is the Hallelujah Chorus. “King of Kings.. Forever..Forever.. and Lord of Lords.. Hallelujah Hallelujah..”

I must confess that I don’t listen to classical music much at all, nor do I listen to barbershop quartets, gospel, or even The Beach Boys. I do listen to soul music sometimes. There are harmonies to be found in soul, too. Many Motown groups featured a lead singer, and highly skilled backup singers as well. Such groups as Gladys Knight and The Pips, The Temptations, The Four Tops, and The Supremes applied harmonizing to great effect. Another great example of soulful harmony can be found in the music of Sam and Dave. I don’t think they were part of the Motown family, though. I believe they were Stax Records recording artists, but I could be wrong.

The main type of harmony that I am searching for, and have already found examples of is harmony within the rock music genre. I have found some songs with excellent vocal and musical harmony, but I need to find more. There is nothing like astounding and unexpected vocal harmonies in rock songs. These have a powerful effect on me and lift my heart, my spirits, my being.

One of the best examples I can think of, and has been in my head so much recently is the intro to “You Better Wait,” by Steve Perry, who sang for the band Journey for many years. Perry had much experience working with Journey and created harmonies their songs, such as “Lights.”

“You Better Wait” is sort of an evolution, what Journey would sound like and what kind of a song they would write were Steve Perry still in the band. I had heard that Perry had lost his voice from singing in such a high register for so long. I don’t know if that is true, but I do know that Journey has soldiered on with various replacement singers – the best of whom was a guy from the Philippines. I forget his name.

Perry released a solo album back in the ’80’s. I don’t know if he was still in Journey at the time. He released “For the Love of Strange Medicine” many years after his departure. Most of the album is not really worth mentioning, but the song “You Better Wait” is truly incredible. The other brilliant song on the album is “Donna Please,” which is wonderful, but does not employ the powerful vocal harmonies that are part of the intro of “You Better Wait.”

That song starts with Perry singing a few lines, with some soft ethereal keyboard music playing in the background. Then all that is heard is more keyboard music. All of a sudden, unexpectedly, for just a few seconds..a choir of angels!! WoW.. HARMONY!! BEAUTIFUL!! And then the band kicks in and song gets going.

The harmony line from the intro is not heard again until toward the end of the song. Let me assure you, the intro and the ending are magnificent, and the rest of the song is wonderful as well. Right now, this is my favorite example of vocal harmony used in rock music.

Van Halen also liked to use vocal harmonies in many songs. The original bass player for Van Halen, Michael Anthony, had a very high pitched voice, and would kick in with his backing vocals during choruses. Eddie Van Halen might have contributed some back up singing as well, but it was Michael Anthony who really added to the group’s vocal sound. Michael Anthony was eventually replaced on bass by Eddie’s son Wolfgang, and the band doesn’t sound right anymore, now that Anthony and his backing vocals are gone.

One Van Halen song that comes to mind is a rather raunchy tune entitled “Drop Dead Legs.” Michael, and probably Eddie, join in on the line, “When the night is through will I still be loving you?” Ok.. not exactly deep poetry or high culture, but I am commenting on the sound, not the words.

There are many examples of backup harmonies in Van Halen songs, such as “Runnin’ With the Devil,” “Dirty Movies,” “Jamie’s Cryin’,” “Summer Nights,” “5150,” “When It’s Love,” “Cabo Wabo,” and others. Seems to me, Van Halen really stands out.. no other hard rock band that I’ve heard has used vocal harmonies so often, and to such great effect. Except maybe Journey, which I mentioned earlier.

There are other hard rock and metal bands that have used vocal harmony too. The band Yes started their album “Big Generator” with the song “Rhythm of Love.” This track had almost Beach Boys-like intro. I loved it!


A side note.. even though I haven’t listened to The Beach Boys much in years, I did play their records often when I was a kid. And when I was very small, I listened to classical music as well. I think it is important to cultivate an appreciation and love of music in children.


Now back to the main body of this essay:

The grunge band Alice in Chains used harmony as well, but not to be uplifting. They went for dark intensity. The lead singer, the late Layne Stayley would sing lines along with the guitarist, Jerry Cantrell. They did so regularly, and this technique certainly did add intensity to their songs. Check out “Rooster,” and “Grind.” Alice in Chains sometimes recorded more mellow tunes, and there could be heard good, but strange vocal harmonies. Such songs are “No Excuses,” and “I Stay Away.” The music of Alice in Chains does not lift my heart, except perhaps “No Excuses,” which has a positive vibe, and is at least a little uplifting.

One metal band that quite surprised me was Lacuna Coil, a group from Italy. The first time I heard the song “Swamped,” I was pleasantly shocked. On that song, the female singer is belting out the vocal line, which is harmonizing with an strong metal riff played on the guitar. Later on while the male singer is doing his thing, the female singer will drop in with more vocals. Then at the end she repeats her vocalizing which she sang at the beginning, still accompanied by the grinding guitar. Great song!

Some classic rock bands also use excellent background vocals to create very pleasurable listening experiences. Two of these groups are Boston and REO Speedwagon. I’ve listened to so much classic rock that I don’t play music by these bands except once or twice a year, (I listened to Boston so much in the late ’80’s that I eventually got sick of them) but they are still good examples.

Bands not only use vocal harmonies to make their songs more interesting and powerful, but sometimes do so musically as well. This worked very well for Stryper. Their best album, in my opinion, is “Soldiers Under Command.” It is surprisingly fierce! Even the ballads. Two of the guys in Stryper were phenomenal guitarists. This is rare in the rock world. Usually there is one lead guitarist who is fantastic, and a rhythm guitarist who is solid, but not amazing. Stryper was different1

The lead guitarist, Oz Fox, would often be joined by Michael Sweet, who not only sang, but played not only rhythm but lead guitar astonishingly well. These two guys would harmonize their lead guitar lines on many of their songs.. their solos would intertwine, then one of the guys would drop back into playing rhythm guitar, then both of them would go back into a double guitar solo. I think Stryper’s musicianship was highly underrated.

Hmm.. other band worth mentioning..

One of my favorite bands, King’ X, not only has used a ton of instrumental harmony, but vocal harmony as well. Many of King’s X’s songs are quite heavy, but also very melodic. And in the midst of down-tuned guitars and bass lines perfomred on a 12 string bass guitar, you will hear lush, full vocals. Wonderful! Stellar! Many of King’s X songs have amazing harmonies.. such as “Goldilox,” “The Difference,” “Not Just for the Dead,” and “Picture.” King’ X is a mystery. I don’t know why they haven’t been so much more successful. They are criminally underrated.

One last example I want to share with you is a track by the multi-genre group, Fishbone. I don’t like the vast majority of their songs, but there is one that is truly outstanding. This song uses both intense and beautiful musical harmony, and vocal harmony as well. The tune is called “Sunless Saturday.” It starts with acoustic guitars, then the distorted guitars kick in, the singer starts in on the verse, then huge back up vocals and keyboard lines.. and the ending is especially beautiful. I don’t won’t write more about it. I want you to listen to the song and experience it! See if you can go on youtube and find Fishbone’s performance of this song on Saturday Night Live.

These have all been examples of harmony that can be found in rock music. The members of these bands really know their music theory! The songs are both powerful and uplifting.

I have listened to the songs I’ve mentioned many many times.. in some cases over a hundred times. I will continue to listen to them. But I want more rock with such uplifting background vocals and beautiful and transcendent instrumentation.

And I can’t find more!! I search and search on eMusic, but these styles of hard rock with backing vocals don’t seem to be in vogue anymore. I am guessing this kind of music is rather hard to create. The bandmates have to be really in sync with each other, and know enough theory to construct these harmonies. Most bands, I am guessing, can’t do this.. and perhaps others are just too lazy. Also, I think listeners are far less demanding these days. Most folks will listen to whatever is popular, regardless of how bad it is. More and more people have less and less taste. This sounds elitist, but I don’t care.

If I could play instruments much better, if I could understand and use a great deal more music theory, if I had an excellent singing voice, and if I had the knowledge and skill to record music on the computer, I would create songs with BIG HARMONIES myself.

But for now I shall enjoy and be inspired by the bands and songs I have mentioned in this entry, and keep trying to find songs I have not yet heard that will uplift my heart and spirit.

The search goes on.

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