Eight ways to write effective backing vocals

Backing vocals are easily overlooked in the production process. After all, the lead vocal was hard enough to record and mix, why would you want to record a bunch of more vocal parts? Backing vocals are not always the best choice for a song or a production, but often they can add substance and reinforcement to the song’s message. They can also make a production sound more polished and professional (a single vocals line on its own can sometimes sound lonely or underproduced).

When you want to use backing vocals, there are actually more options than simply telling the singer to perform the lead melody with different notes…

In sync

This is the simplest way to write backing vocals. When the backing vocals are in sync with the lead vocal, the timing is the same and the effect is of harmony reinforcement. Use a backing vocal separated by a third or a sixth to bring out a colourful harmony (the bridge is often a good place for this). Use backing vocals separated by a fourth or fifth to add grounding and stability (the chorus is often a good place for this).

Out of sync

This is a bit more involved, and how you go about it depends very much on the nature of the song. When backing vocals are out of sync with the lead vocal, they ‘break out’ and are heard as a separate part with its own phrasing. There are many ways of approaching backing vocals like this. One of my favourites is to identify some key words in the lead vocal and stretch them out over several beats – either before or after the word appears in the lead vocal.

Non-word vocalisation

Another approach is to use non-word vocalisation (such as ‘ah’ or ‘ooh’) as part of the instrumentation. This can be very effective in bridging the textural/tonal divide between the lead vocal and the backing tracks (ever had a song sound like karaoke? This is the fix!). Long sustained notes can function like a pad – especially with several harmony parts layered. It’s like a  vocal pad or choir pad found on many workstation keyboards and synthesisers, but made from the voice of your singer! Short staccato notes can be effective in reinforcing a rhythmic aspect of the song. Be careful though – less experienced singers can have real difficulty with hitting the right intonation at the very start of each note.

Parallel motion

When writing a backing vocal to sit behind a lead vocal, the obvious way to contour the phrase is to follow the melody. When the lead vocal rises, the backing vocal rises. When the lead vocal falls, the backing vocal falls. This can be useful for reinforcing the shape of the melody, and is often useful in the chorus of a song.

Unlinked motion

Unlinked motion is a bit more interesting – this is where the backing vocal breaks away from the main melody and presents its own melody. This can be as simple as a slight modification of the main melody to add interest and melodic variety, or it can be as complex as a completely new melody (even with different lyrics and rhythms!).

Opposite Motion

An interesting hybrid of parallel motion and unlinked motion is opposite motion. This is where a backing vocal ‘mirrors’ the lead vocal. When the lead vocal rises, the backing vocal falls. When the lead vocal falls, the backing vocal rises. The effect can be ear-catching, but is difficult to pull off for long passages. It’s not always easy to find suitable notes for the harmony that retain the mirrored shape of the melody and also hit notes that support the overall harmonic structure of the music. Additionally, this approach can sometimes be constrained by the range of your singer. Despite these difficulties, opposite motion can be effective in small sections – even single motifs.

Intermittent emphasis

Backing vocals don’t have to be sounding for the same length time as the main vocal. In some situations, it’s appropriate for the backing vocals to come in occasionally for certain words or phrases. This allows you to emphasise some parts of the main vocal over others. This approach is particularly effective for long verses or complex choruses, where it’s easy for the listener to get lost. The backing vocals add some delineation and ‘punctuation’ to help make the song easier for the listener to understand. Of course, it’s also useful for reinforcing particular words or phrases in the song that have emotional significance.

Call and response

This is a really good way of adding interest and energy to a vocal part with a lot of gaps in between phrases. The simplest way to do this is to have the backing vocals fill the gap with an echo of the main vocal part. Bonus points for using a different melody and different (but relevant) words. Using different words can also give you an opportunity to expand on the lyrical themes and add meaning. Don’t fill in all the gaps, but do it in a way that supports the overall contour of the song (such as adding them to the second and last choruses).

Just two more quick ideas:

  1. Don’t forget to combine these different approaches. These are all techniques available to you. You should choose when it is appropriate to use them. Some songs won’t require any backing vocals. Some songs are best served by only using one of the techniques above. Some songs will require a combination of these techniques in order to bring the best out of them. Always remember to support the lyrical content and the contour of the song.
  2. These tips don’t only work for voices – they also work for instrumental parts too! Even if you’re composing music without words, you can probably find use for these techniques. For example, you might emphasise a techno lead synth with a second harmony part underneath it for the most intense section of the song. Or you might have a guitar solo being echoed and harmonised by a supporting keyboard part.

With these techniques in mind, try out some new ideas on your next song and see how they go. Some ideas might work, others might not. Either way – you’ll learn something new!

-Kim.

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