- A lot of your favorite RNB and dance tunes have killer background vocals that you might not have noticed on your first listen.
Just check out the harmonies in the chorus of Ariana Grande's "Thank U, Next."
♪ Thank u, next ♪ ♪ Next ♪ ♪ Thank u ♪ In this episode, we're going to dive into the world of background vocals, and I'm even gonna break down how I write vocals for my own music.
♪ Ah, ah, ah ♪ I have been a musician pretty much my whole life, but I never intended to be a professional musician.
And by that, I mean I never thought that I could even really afford to have a music career and have that be the thing that I do for my job.
(people laughing) Music was always a constant in my life.
It's interesting to me now.
I wouldn't have assumed that I would become an RnB singer.
And I think a big part of that is going to Oberlin, which is where my music career really started.
I was asked to perform in an RnB showcase, and I sang a couple of Kehlani songs.
I was a huge Kehlani fan.
And "No scrubs," which I still perform at almost all my shows.
(laughs) ♪ Hanging out the passenger side ♪ And I think that experience really opened my eyes because I was able to see that I could be an artist and I could be an artist in this field without having the music experience that I was taught I needed to have.
This next song is called "Green Tea Ice Cream."
One of my songs that has backing vocals that I love is "Green Tea Ice Cream."
The sounds that I came up with just felt like they belonged there.
And I didn't want another instrument to play that part, so I made my voice the instrument to play the part.
♪ By the sea ♪ ♪ Sweatshirts sweatpants ♪ ♪ White noise blue jeans ♪ Vocal layering has been a musical tradition of cultures around the globe for thousands of years.
Prehistoric hunters in Africa and Asia are known to have used polyphonic singing, which is where individual vocalists sing unique phrases and notes together.
In ancient Greece, a chorus was a group of singers that would describe the action of a play through song.
And during the Middle Ages, organum described one or more voices accompanying a main melody chant.
Today, backing vocals are an essential part of popular music and are used to give tracks energy and depth.
Background vocals in genres like RnB often include two or more layers of the same note in unison in order to give the vocals a fuller effect.
This is often referred to as doubling.
You can hear this in the verse of "What You Did," where the second half of each line is doubled.
♪ And I know you know ♪ ♪ I've been holding guard for so long, so long ♪ And in rap music, lyricists often use doubled vocals to highlight keywords at the end of each phrase.
♪ Focus on the picture in front of me ♪ ♪ You as clear as DVD on digital TV screens ♪ Vocal lyrics in the chorus or hook often include harmonies.
Unlike unison vocals, harmonies use two or more notes simultaneously.
♪ Call me when you want ♪ ♪ Call me when you need ♪ ♪ Call me in the morning ♪ ♪ I'll be on the way ♪ RnB artists will sometimes use three-part harmonies to give the vocals the fullness of a whole cord.
♪ One wants fool's love ♪ ♪ That kind of messy love ♪ Sometimes I think something like a voice is a lot softer than something like a brass instrument or even a full quartet if I think that's something beautiful.
There's just something so vulnerable about using your own voice.
And I also think that it keeps the track very light and ethereal while still adding depth to it and making it feel full.
So here's an example of a two-part harmony.
♪ Ooh, whoa ♪ And then this is an example of a three-part harmony.
♪ Ah, ah ♪ There is one line in the background vocal like the one that I just sang that I want to stick out more than the rest of the background vocal.
So I wanna make sure that that line stays consistent so that I can lower the rest of the background vocals if that's what I need to do.
So that's just all part of texture and balance.
♪ Ooh, whoa ♪ ♪ Ah, ah ♪ That brings us to ad libs, short for ad libitum, which generally means with freedom in Latin.
This is where the lead singer improvises a melody, usually over the course of the song.
For example, in "He Wasn't Man Enough," Toni Braxton is improvising new lyrics on top of the original melody.
♪ Do you know about us back then?
♪ ♪ Calling me all along ♪ ♪ Do you know I dumped your husband ♪ ♪ Begging me ♪ The ad libs are clearly the lead vocal and not the background.
However, these days, ad libs also refer to the improvised lines added to hip hop tracks after the main vocals are recorded.
♪ With my Timbs on ♪ ♪ How many championships ♪ ♪ What, six rings on ♪ This is to compliment the lead vocal and even create a countermelody.
The last background vocal we have for this section is an ad lib which is my favorite.
♪ Ooh, whoa ♪ Ah, so good.
Singers often add call and response to repeated choruses in order to give the section more variety and emotional energy.
♪ Like how can I ♪ ♪ How do I manage expectations ♪ So in this part of the song, you can hear one of the main uses of call and response.
And the way that I used it in the song is to finish the sentence.
So the sentence means one thing when it's just the lead vocals, but then when it's the background vocals, it's kind of a finished thought.
When I perform "Green Tea Ice Cream" live, I feel like it's so apparent how important the background vocals are because I don't always have the chance to perform it with other singers.
So that is one of my songs that if I have the chance, I always perform it with background vocalists.
Backing vocalists are singers that provide background harmonies or a countermelody to the lead singer.
Before the invention of tape recording in the 20th century, it was impossible for the lead singer to perform their own harmonies or double their vocals in a live performance.
♪ Sirens in the dark ♪ Those little moments are the moments that I come up with first.
You know, like the little- ♪ Ooh ♪ - riffs come first and then those long background vocals and harmonies that kind of tie the parts together come second for me because those are more instrumental, and those kind of make me consider the direction of the song more than just this moment.
I want this moment to shine.
♪ Sweatshirts sweatpants ♪ ♪ White noise blue jeans ♪ ♪ Writing letters to old friends ♪ ♪ Black cats and tender moments ♪ All the background vocals in this song have an effect in the mixing process.
But right now they're just raw, so it's gonna sound a little bit differently than it would sound once the song is fully produced.
In the pop music realm, there are often teams of people working on individual tracks or albums.
Vocal producers are in charge of coaching the recording artists as well as arranging, editing, processing, and mixing each take to perfection.
Many songwriters and singers are capable of doing this job on their own, but talented industry favorite Kuk Harrell has made a name for himself by creating the background and leading vocal magic on hits songs featuring stars like Rihanna, Beyonce, and Justin Bieber.
Something I love about background vocals is that you get to say things that you didn't necessarily get to stay in the lead vocals, whether that's just because it doesn't fit as well with the song or it doesn't rhyme, maybe, or it doesn't fit the theme as well, or it's just like a little secret for the people that are really listening well, or maybe what you were saying was a little bit vulnerable and you don't wanna put it front and center.
So I love RnB because I love how RnB vocals are like normal line, like- ♪ You wronged me ♪ - and then the background vocals are like- ♪ I threw you things in the backyard ♪ That is the kind of background vocals that I was growing up on.
So like Beyonce did that, Kelly Rowland.
They're the queens of that kind of shade and Jazmine Sullivan, you know.
Even the vocal riffs, the way that you riff, I feel like you can tell someone off with a vocal riff, and I have.
Thanks for watching.
But before you go, we wanna hear from you.
What's your favorite track with beautiful background vocals?
Record a video of yourself responding to this question and send it to us using the link in the description, and you might just see yourself in our next episode.