Ohhh, how I love harmonies. This could be because I grew up in a church where singing four-part hymns was the norm every Sunday, so I learned how to sing the different parts from a pretty young age.
Or it could be because two of my earliest-owned record albums were Abba's Super Trouper and Jan and Dean's Ride the Wild Surf.
Or it could be because I came of age in the 80s, when harmonies were big (and hair was bigger). Tunes like Journey's "Any Way You Want It" were all over the radio. In case you've never seen the Sopranos finale, or any episode of Glee, I'll include below Journey's most well-known song. The harmonies don't even come in until the end, but when they do, I DARE you not to sing along.
Or it could just be because harmonies are AWESOME. They promote connection. People singing together.
I am definitely no Beatles scholar, but I do believe (and have never stopped believin') that one of the reasons their music is so lasting is not only because of the stellar songwriting, but because of the perfect symbiosis of melody and harmony. I think it's safe to say that pretty much any artist using harmonies in a song owes a debt to The Beatles.
For a COMPLETELY AWESOME (yes, I know I already said "awesome" once, in all caps) blog which includes videos from one person's top 10 list of best Beatles harmony songs, go here:
Perhaps because of the examples listed above, I've always been drawn to songs with big sounds. Big harmonies. I know there is a place for quiet, well-chosen harmonies, and I love those, too. ("Scarborough Fair" comes to mind).
But. In the 80s, it is true that I had big hair. (Photo perhaps forthcoming, upon request). And yes, I loved big harmonies.
My absolute favorite movie of the decade, which came out in 1984, was the critically-slammed Streets of Fire. It starred Diane Lane as a rock star who gets kidnapped by a motorcycle gang led by Willem Dafoe (I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP) and is rescued by a hunk played by Michael Pare and his tough-talking buddy played by Amy Madigan. There is a sledgehammer fight (TRUE). Her manager is Rick Moranis, from Ghostbusters (I SWEAR I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP!)
But all of that is unimportant. What IS important is the music. Jimmy Iovine produced five of the songs. There is an absolutely killer tune called "Sorcerer" in there, written than none other than Stevie Nicks. There is a Doo-Wop band, whose bus gets used as an escape vehicle (just go with me here), and they sing a capella onboard. Diane Lane's character is called Ellen Aim and she has a band called The Attackers (really a band made up of studio musicians at the time, and her movie singing voice is not really hers, but a conglomerate).
On repeat when I was young: the closing track, written by Jim Steinman (of Meat Loaf fame), "Tonight is What it Means to Be Young".
Side note: I forgot to mention that I also love Bach. I know one doesn't normally think of Bach when one thinks of harmonies, but for me, the counterpoint in his compositions sounds like harmony. Taking one voice and bringing it in a few bars later, underneath a new melody, to make a completely new sound with the two melodies intertwined--that is music to my ears. (So much so, in fact, that while I was in labor with my first child, all I played was Bach).
A fugue is NOT what happens at the end of the below song. I AM NOT COMPARING BACH TO AN 80s MOVIE, PEOPLE. Not really. But what does happen are counter melodies, stacked on top of each other.
YES, this video is cheesy. I mean, it was the 80s, you know? What can we say? The whole decade was made of cheese in one way or another. BUT. Whether or not it is your taste, it is an example of how a song starts in one place and ends in another. Small to big. Solo to way over-the-top harmonies. At the end, there are those counter-melodies all piling on top of each other, making new sounds. It's a lot. But it makes me happy. I can't help it.
If you've made it this far, why not go even a bit farther out of your comfort zone? I wrote a very long song to close one of my jazz albums, called "Simple Stories". The song is in three parts, and the end has, you guessed it, three counter-melodies. The vocalist, Luciana Souza, first sings backgrounds under the piano solo (that's me on piano). The horns are adding their own harmonies to the mix. The song then starts to wind down around 11:04 with Luciana, the musicians, and a children's choir singing the three melodies.
The opening melodic phrases in the piano evoke these lines (sung by the children's choir at the beginning of the album):
"When simple stories call
At doorways ripe for a fall
Will you open them wide to light?"
Hope you like it. And I hope you will. Open those doors.
PS: For Activity #4 I will be opening the songwriting door into a much less complex tune than my "Simple Stories" composition. One with quiet, simple harmonies. Just to wash all of that aqua net out of my hair.
I sat down to write a simple song, and was thinking about how useful these activities are for helping one think outside the box!