Can some people only hear harmonies?
August 26, 2011 10:10 PM   Subscribe

My friend never seems able to sing melodies but always accidentally harmonises. Is this as rare as I think it is?

A friend of mine, who definitely has a good ear for music, claims to be a bad singer. The strange thing is that whenever I hear him singing, he always seems to be harmonising perfectly. I'm a musician and teacher, so have heard a lot of people who struggle to be able to vocalise what they hear but this is the first time that I have come across this. I have a feeling that it may be something to do with lacking confidence in his own voice, but the range or key doesn't actually seem to be an issue. Has anyone else come across this?
posted by joboe to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Confidence. I know 'cause I do it too. (what? I'm a drummer, dammit)
posted by mannequito at 10:20 PM on August 26, 2011

If you haven't been trained, you can't usually hit the correct pitch unaccompanied, but its a lot easier for people to correctly judge relative pitch.
posted by empath at 10:24 PM on August 26, 2011

Thanks for input so far, I knew that I would have missed out some stuff that I should have been clearer about!

Mannequito - Do you mean that harmonising means that you tend to have a choice of relatively fewer notes and can therefore keep it within the range that you are comfortable singing in? Before I began teaching, I hated my voice but would often just not sing particular notes. Never thought about singing other notes instead...

Empath - The majority of times that I've heard him singing, have been along with recordings or along with me, so he does have a clear melody as a guide at the time.
posted by joboe at 10:30 PM on August 26, 2011

My wife, who correctly claims she cannot carry a tune, still occasionally manages to harmonize along with the radio. She doesn't really know she's doing it, but rather, is attempting to sing the melody. I've never managed to determine how well she can hear pitches, but she really cannot reproduce a pitch with any consistency. So while she sometimes manages to track a melody and produce a harmony, more often than not, she's just way off. Yeah, it's made me wonder about the circuitry that controls the vocal cords.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:36 PM on August 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I do this because of confidence issues too, but I front and call it an exclusive remix.
posted by june made him a gemini at 10:44 PM on August 26, 2011 [7 favorites]

I think I hear harmonies better. I'm often momentarily confused when I hear other people sing songs I know because they're singing the melody and I've apparently encoded the harmony in my memory.
posted by doublehappy at 10:47 PM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I do this. Not sure I can articulate why or how (and granted, the only singing I really ever do is in the car with the radio on), but somehow harmonizing just comes more naturally. It isn't that I'm unaware that I'm harmonizing or that I can't 'hear' the actual melody; in my mind it's more like, well, if I attempt to sing along to the melody I have the very concrete yardstick of the actual singer there to highlight how "off" I am, but when I sing in harmony I feel like I've got more leeway because I'm the only one doing it.

Plus, it's just fun to do. In many aspects of life I like the idea of participating in something without being the central focus; I guess it's in keeping with that that I've always thought it would be fun to sing back-up to somebody.
posted by DingoMutt at 10:59 PM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's what empath said. When singing solo you have no other pitches to "measure" yourself against. Some people need those other notes to use as yardsticks (or tonesticks, if you will).

If someone is singing an A, say, they have a base guideline to work against and it is easier for them to internally "hear" where a harmonising note lies in relation to it. When they sing alone they have to move from the A to that other note, leaving the A behind: it disappears before they can try for the next note.

Think of it this way. When singing along with someone else, the second note is an object suspended within reach above a springboard. When they stand on the springboard it's easy to judge the distance precisely, reach up and grab the object. When the object is suspended beyond the end of the springboard they have to leap off it and commit themselves to judging the distance correctly. They're far more likely to flounder and miss in that situation.

I apologise for that rather clumsily contrived analogy. :-)
posted by Decani at 2:56 AM on August 27, 2011

Second para: I should have said "If someone else is singing an A, the first person has a base guideline..." etc.
posted by Decani at 2:57 AM on August 27, 2011

I've always attributed my tendency to sing harmonies to a combination of my vocal range (alto when most popular songs are written for soprano/tenor ranges) and my music training (both the alto voice and the trombone tend to get harmonies rather than either melodies or bass line). I also tend to hear the middle parts of a complex musical composition best, possibly as a result of training and possibly related to my quirks of hearing.
posted by thatdawnperson at 6:02 AM on August 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

As a bad singer, I do harmonies a lot because my range sucks. thatdawnperson's got it.
posted by anildash at 6:34 AM on August 27, 2011

Come on, now! Having a different range than a singer you admire doesn't mean your range sucks, it's just lower or higher.

Singing harmony well isn't always an obvious art, so you 'bad singers' should be proud when you can do it.

Also, I suspect that part of this 'problem' is that you PREFER singing harmonies, because it's extremely satisfying to sing in harmony with another human being, even if it is a recording.
posted by TheRedArmy at 9:00 AM on August 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had a friend in college who would TRY to sing along with a simple, well-known melody (like a christmas carol, say), and was ALWAYS a third off (which most of the time produced very nice harmonies). She literally couldn't hear that she was on the wrong note.

I always wondered if it had to do with, like, how notes resonate in our own heads? I wondered if what she produced inside her head just sounded a third off what it sounded to the rest of us? I dunno. She was sure she was producing the "right" note and could hear quite clearly that her note matched the other person's note. And she could tell (correctly) if two other people were singing the same note. If she started and I matched HER note, she'd say, "No, you're too low." So I thought the problem must be in how she heard or interpreted her own voice.

But mostly she didn't like to sing in public because she'd been mocked for YEARS for "singing wrong." Which was too bad.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:50 AM on August 27, 2011

Your friend sounds like me. I like the non-lead vocal parts because the interesting part to me isn't the melody. I like the "shape" the harmony parts make better than the (often) boring and familiar-even-if-the-song-is-new melody line. I like listening for the chords I make between my voice and the melody/instruments. Especially if there are unexpected complicated chords or slightly dissonant tones in the harmony. So I'll sing one of the other vocal parts but listen to the melody. I do that so much that I find I need to consciously concentrate on hearing how the melody line goes if I want to know. It's not that I can't sing the melody, I just don't naturally, unless I specifically want to for some reason.

Sometimes I'll switch, and sing the melody while I'm listening to the other parts, for variety. It's not quite as fun, though.
posted by ctmf at 7:53 PM on August 27, 2011

Well, if you're singing a song, there's only one correct melody note at a time. But there are lots of correct harmony notes, so there's more leeway in what sounds "right". I've seen this too--especially with people who are musicians, but don't identify as singers.

I sing reasonably well, and I can consistently start an a capella song in, say, A minor instead of a random different key every time (though this wasn't always the case). But I can't really harmonize. I think this is a mental block, since I've been able to harmonize when I feel really comfortable with the other singer, or when I've had a couple of drinks. Oddly, I can play violin harmonies with a singer, which is supposed to be harder than singing a harmony.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 10:48 AM on August 28, 2011

« Older Make me a gentleman!   |   Who took this picture of Ingrid Bergman Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.