The Beach Boys – Masters Of Harmony
The Beach Boys are known best for their sun-shiny pop tunes, covering subjects ranging from surfing all over the country to love songs fantasizing about the future. I acquired their “Sounds of Summer” compilation in the summer of 2017, and I thoroughly enjoy each of its thirty tracks upon every listen, including right now as I'm writing this article.
You saw the title, so I'll cut right to the point. The Beach Boys' discography is plastered in vocal harmonies that bring much of the charm that Brian Wilson & his crew are known for. I would like to spend some time today talking about how I've been learning to use vocal harmonies in my own recordings, and providing examples for how these techniques are used the best with analogies to Beach Boys tunes that you've probably heard.
The Floating Melody
I believe there are two ways in which harmonies are used best. There are probably actual terms for them, but for the sake of transferring my thoughts into words, I'll be calling these the “floating melody” and the “distinct melody”. I'm not a master of the English language, but I can articulate what I mean.
In the Beach Boys' “Surfer Girl” when the first verse kicks in, there are three or four different parts singing the lyrics at different pitches, building solid chord tones right out the gate. It just so happens that this song's melody is the highest in pitch of these vocal parts, so you could say the melody floats atop the mix as per my silly analogy. Generally when multiple parts are singing the same exact words, our ears tend to gravitate towards the part that is highest in pitch. In this case, since the melody is in fact at the top of the vocal mix, we are able to decipher the melody clearly while still enjoying the full sound of the underlying harmonies.
I can attest to this being a good strategy with a personal anecdote from when I didn't abide by this technique. My song “Mainstream Media” from my self-titled LP starts off with a melody, but then I layered harmonies onto it that were singing along & all above it in pitch. This caused the melody to be obfuscated by the chords of the song, which ultimately makes the song less memorable than it could've been. If you want multiple parts singing the same words at the same time as the melody, use the melody's pitch as a cap for how high they can be.
The Distinct Melody
Correctly employing the “Floating Melody” strategy will indeed make the melody distinct. But there are other ways to use harmony that steer clear of the melody.
The harmonies of the Beach Boys' “Good Timin'”, for example, are all noticeably above the melody during the verses. But said harmonies are singing “ooo”s instead of the lyrics. The melody is doing something completely different from the harmonies that accompany it, so there's nothing for it to unintentionally hide behind in the mix.
This is probably my favorite type of harmony to record for myself. Listen to “Candy Corn Nothings” from my upcoming second album if you so choose; I layered three vocal harmony tracks over the two melody tracks, but likewise to the Beach Boys' “Good Timin'”, these parts don't clash with or obfuscate each other.
Something Like That
I'm just articulating what I've learned about vocal harmony through the medium of a band that has perfected it. If you aspire to record your own music and implement harmonies, I do recommend considering the strategies I've mentioned here. Whether floating or otherwise distinct, using harmony effectively will only enhance your melody.
Also, go listen to some Beach Boys; good stuff. ;P