The popularity of backing vocals soared in the 1950s and 60s with an explosion of groups who brought vocal harmonies to the forefront of pop music. Sometimes these harmonies sing ‘ooh’s and ‘ah’s, and other times they support the lyrics and sing the same words as the lead vocal. Other well-used lyrical harmony techniques include singing in a canon, unison and call and response.
The Beatles helped bring 3-part harmony into the mainstream by combining this vocal technique with their guitar-driven sound. A 3-part harmony traditionally has the middle part carrying the melody, with a higher part and lower part harmonising on either side above and below the lead vocal.
Girl groups of the 1960s such as The Ronettes and The Supremes also performed three-part harmonies, but had a drastically different overall sound than The Beatles. This was due to their music having more orchestral instruments and a much softer vocal delivery in pop and Motown styles.
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A career as a backing vocalist can prove to be a good decision for singers, as it opens many doors for collaborative opportunities. Often, backing vocalists are hired by artists and groups to support live performances as well as studio recordings. The Rolling Stones performed their own backing vocals in traditional ways through the mid 60s on key moments and in the choruses to support their rugged rock ‘n’ roll sound. By the late 60s however, they decided to bring in specialist backing singers to join the band for this. Merry Clayton, an established backing singer famously performed a vocal harmony with Mick Jagger on ‘Gimme Shelter’ in 1969. She had previously worked as Ray Charles’ backing singer, as well as collaborating with The Supremes and Elvis Presley.
Many singers like to perform their own vocal harmony parts on a record, particularly when multi-tracking to thicken up the vocals at key moments of a song. In a recording studio environment, it is extremely important to be precise; BVs need to be perfectly in time and are often heavily edited even when the performance is great in the recording session. Popular production techniques specific to recording vocal harmonies include double-tracking, double-track octaves and correctly grouping blocks of harmonies. An excellent guide to getting the best from your backing vocals in the recording studio is well worth checking out via Sound On Sound magazine.
Practicing Backing Vocals
PlayScore 2 can be used as a way of learning and practicing your backing vocals, whatever the style and situation. Taking your printed music, PlayScore 2 can playback your score, letting you interact with settings such as volume, tempo, loop sections, and change stave instrument sounds. Whether you’re creating vocal lines or want to ad-lib harmony to a piece, PlayScore 2 can be a useful addition for backing singers.