Why does bluegrass/country harmony sound so unique?
December 2, 2018 7:28 PM   Subscribe

I am a Hungarian/Romanian who married an American from the South. Why do the harmonies in bluegrass and country music sound so beautiful and so different from anything else I have known? What is it about the way they are structured and sung that makes them unlike other music?
posted by Comrade Doll to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
Are there any specific songs that stand out for you in this regard? Might help guide the answers.

My guess is that it's because of the emphasis on close harmonies. I took a few bluegrass harmony classes and even though I was already good at picking out harmony by ear, I learned to get as close as possible to the lead singer's note (while staying within the chord).
posted by bunderful at 8:25 PM on December 2 [8 favorites]


The high and lonesome sound in bluegrass vocals often involves a gapped scale for the melody (e.g. common use of greater than full steps) and a dissonant or modal tone in the highest voice in the vocal stack.
posted by Candleman at 8:54 PM on December 2 [7 favorites]


Close harmonies is a big element, yeah. The sound and timbre of two voices tracking a melody and its paired harmony tightly is one of my favorite things about a lot of this music, lots of singing of thirds and fourths moving around in tandem in a way that's really lovely.

There's also where the melody and harmony go, and in what register; in bluegrass in particular there's a common "high lonesome" vocal feel where male singers will get up into higher tenor ranges, especially with the vocal harmony on top of the melody. That has a distinct reaching, keening feel to it that's different from a lot of the harmonies that show up in other kinds of pop music.

The arrangement of instruments behind it also contributes; bluegrass and folky country tend to have a more spartan mix overall, with more percussive string instruments and (short of bands that mix in fiddle or even accordion) not much in the way of long sustained notes coming out of the backing instrumental. So when you draw out long vocal notes, and harmonies, they really occupy the whole of that part of the sound and can ring out more than in a fuller, wall-of-sound kind of mix. Most pop music will have electric guitars or synths filling in some of that space.

I'd also love to see some of the songs you have in mind for this kind of thing; one thing I'd say from my perspective is that while there's a lot of country music that shares some of these properties with bluegrass, there's also a lot of e.g. contemporary pop country where it's not so much the case and the vocal arrangements and instrumentation are more closely related to mainstream pop than to folk country traditions.
posted by cortex at 8:56 PM on December 2 [5 favorites]


(And some of it is not just a harmony voice but multiple; stacking up three or four part close harmony can be a part of what sounds so distinctive in that high lonesome tenor sound, allowing for a richer tonality including as Candleman notes some more complex harmonic elements like major and minor seventh tones or suspended notes.)
posted by cortex at 8:58 PM on December 2 [3 favorites]


I had read once that BG harmonies were based on fourths rather than fifths, but I just did some googling and can't find any support for it. One thing I did come across is that they'll lead with the fifth with harmonies on I and III either above or below.
posted by rhizome at 9:38 PM on December 2


Although I am not the person who asked the question I'd like to give an example - I'd be very interested in a breakdown on the harmonies on the chorus of Two Coats by Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys.
posted by komara at 9:40 PM on December 2 [1 favorite]


Bluegrass in particular is famous for demanding a very high level of technical execution—performers and audiences are not happy with “approximate” playing. One consequence of this is that vocalists in bluegrass and adjacent genres are simply, on average, a lot more in tune than musicians in some other genres. As mentioned, there’s also a strong tradition of singing in close harmony, and part of doing this well is the subtle pitch adjustments away from equal temperament that make the chords really “ring.” Another factor in the unique sound of bluegrass, old-time, and traditional country vocal harmonies is that singers traditionally gather around a single microphone, which I think affects both the recorded or amplified sound and the performance. Not a full explanation for what you hear—but maybe a few more pieces of the puzzle.

I’m going to drop a couple of recommendations in here for lovers of chill-inducing folky vocal harmony. Try out The Staves (who are English, but they fit anyway), The Secret Sisters, and The Milk Carton Kids.
posted by musicinmybrain at 10:40 PM on December 2 [9 favorites]


BG harmonies are usually all one chord: 3,1,5 typically, whereas choral music, including barbership, traditionally has more contrast amongst voices and a wider range, often an octave or a few octaves. Hence BG being "close" harmony. BG was traditionally sung by family groups and the close harmony and similarity of the voices gives it that sound, imho anyway. Unrelated BG singers will usually try to make their voices fairly similar. There aren't traditional choir-like soprano or bass parts in the same song for the most part, most males sing tenor etc.

Now there are lots of more complex arrangements, especially in Irish trad music which is less hidebound than BG, but the root was family groups mostly and the style holds. Even mixed gender groups tend to try to blend voices and not contrast them as much as a choir would.

I've sung both and much prefer close harmonies.
posted by fshgrl at 1:04 AM on December 3


The Mountain Minor/G modal tuning is fairly distinctive, when it is used.
This eliminates the third of the G chord and produces a G sus 4 chord. By eliminating the third of the chord, you cannot tell if it is a major or minor chord and gives it a modal sound.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:33 AM on December 3


BG was traditionally sung by family groups and the close harmony and similarity of the voices gives it that sound

This is called blood harmony. The Cocaine and Rhinestones podcast talks about blood harmony in the Louvin Brothers episode (warning: kinda dark).

Just to throw everything at this in terms of bluegrass/country characteristics: Bluegrass and country singers often - though not always - have a nasal sound to their voices. I can do this in addition to the open sound in choral and "serious" music - I'm better at doing it than explaining but in choral singing the soft palate is lifted and the jaw is quite open and fluid - lots of face movement to keep the vowels open and the consonants clear. When I'm trying to get a nasal bluegrass sound I open my mouth far less, the soft palate stays mostly in place and the jaw is barely open and rather stiff.

In smaller groups I'm able to really tune to other voices, blend and match vowels and get my pitch *just* right. As I sing I often feel like I'm listening with my whole body and I know my harmonies are locked in when my head buzzes. In a choir my focus is on the director, the sheet music, and blending with the other singers on my part - it's completely different and I never get the head buzzing sensation.

You might be interested in this wikipedia entry which covers bluegrass roots and subgenres. The article has issues but is probably a decent jumping-off point for further research.

Throwing out some random ideas for listening (and heartily seconding the Secret Sisters):

The Carter Family
Gillian Welch
Soundtrack from the movie 'Oh Brother Where Art Thou'
And the Cocaine and Rhinestones podcast which digs into the stories behind various country singers and particular songs.


Another musical rabbit hole with its own fascinating harmonies is shaped note singing.
posted by bunderful at 5:42 AM on December 3 [8 favorites]


musicinmybrain: As mentioned, there’s also a strong tradition of singing in close harmony, and part of doing this well is the subtle pitch adjustments away from equal temperament that make the chords really “ring.” Another factor in the unique sound of bluegrass, old-time, and traditional country vocal harmonies is that singers traditionally gather around a single microphone, which I think affects both the recorded or amplified sound and the performance.

It's also a style of singing with little to no vibrato, so there are fewer (perhaps zero) beats in sustained chords. Close physical proximity makes this sort of micro tuning much easier. As bunderful notes, when you're right next to somebody singing harmony with you, it's easier to "lock in" because there's a physical sensation from harmonics that you don't typically get in mixed choral singing (and definitely don't get when everybody has their own mics and monitors).

bunderful: In a choir my focus is on the director, the sheet music, and blending with the other singers on my part - it's completely different and I never get the head buzzing sensation.

In my college choir we had both a standard sectional arrangement and matched groupings. In the latter, the singers in each section were sorted by timbre (from darkest/heaviest to brightest/lightest, roughly) and then placed in mixed quartets. This was mostly used for a cappella arrangements because that level of fine tuning sounds weird if it's not matched in the accompaniment. Imagine sixty people singing in Just Intonation, and an organ or piano tuned to Equal Temperament. It's not great.
posted by fedward at 7:44 AM on December 3 [3 favorites]


BTW you should see if you get the same feeling from the Beatles' "Yes It Is." Here's how they recorded the vocals:
John, Paul and George first had to get the harmonies down and rehearse them, which they did with the help of producer George Martin. "They always experimented with close harmony singing," Martin explains, "all I did was change the odd note." It appears that many odd notes were changed in this arrangement because these harmonies lifted and dove in ways that no other Beatles harmonies had done.

Many unnumbered attempts at the harmonies were tried until they finally arrived at what was deemed to be acceptable. What made it especially cumbersome is that John, Paul and George insisted on hovering around a single microphone and perform these newly-learned harmonies live.
posted by fedward at 8:00 AM on December 3 [2 favorites]


As mentioned, there’s also a strong tradition of singing in close harmony, and part of doing this well is the subtle pitch adjustments away from equal temperament that make the chords really “ring.” Another factor in the unique sound of bluegrass, old-time, and traditional country vocal harmonies is that singers traditionally gather around a single microphone, which I think affects both the recorded or amplified sound and the performance. Not a full explanation for what you hear—but maybe a few more pieces of the puzzle.

A good illustration of how the close harmony gets built in the way musicinmybrain mentions above is the Johnson Mountain Boys' version of Get Down on Your Knees and Pray, where you can hear each individual voice as they come in and start to stack notes in the harmony.

Doyle Lawson comes out of a shape note singing tradition:

As for vocals, I grew up around quartet singing with my Dad singing in an acappella quartet most all of my childhood. They sang shape-note music. Dad taught me some basic methods of shape notes and I can read enough to find a good song. I'm not too fast with it but it serves my purpose. The arrangements come from a combination of things, but I always try to leave me some room for creativity, but not to the point of change beyond recognition.

So there are definitely bluegrass harmonies that are heavily influenced by the shape note singing tradition.

A good a capella illustration of this would be Lawson's version of John the Revelator.

He's also a good example of a nasal singer who employs a falsetto in vocal harmonies, which is another emblematic feature of bluegrass vocals (and the falsetto is also obviously present in the Get Down on Your Knees and Pray version I linked to).
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 8:03 AM on December 3 [3 favorites]


After thinking about this some more, I realized that two senses of close are in play here. In the harmonic sense, "close" means that there are small intervals between each of the individual pitches being sung (the notes would be tightly grouped on a staff, or easily played with one hand on a piano). In the physical sense, the performance practice of bluegrass means standing close together, often sharing a microphone. That physical closeness facilitates the sort of group harmony singing that produces, uh, harmonic overtones (again with two senses of the same word) that are pleasing to the ear.

How do harmonic overtones work? From that Wikipedia article:
Most acoustic instruments emit complex tones containing many individual partials (component simple tones or sinusoidal waves), but the untrained human ear typically does not perceive those partials as separate phenomena. Rather, a musical note is perceived as one sound, the quality or timbre of that sound being a result of the relative strengths of the individual partials.
The human voice works the same way. When you sing a note, your vocal chords produce not just the first harmonic (the note you're conscious of singing) but a number of overtones that vary from person to person. In harmony singing two or three people sing two or three notes; when their pitches are precise enough the harmonic overtones already present in each of their voices reinforce each other and become more prominent. Normally harmonic overtones are neither loud nor distinct enough to be noticeable. The "close" singing here (in both senses) increases the chance of physics doing its thing with the harmonics, and because the singers can both hear and feel the effect of that harmonic reinforcement, there's a literal feedback loop that encourages the fine tuning that draws out those harmonic overtones.
posted by fedward at 9:52 AM on December 3 [7 favorites]


Country and bluegrass both make extensive use of the grace note. This may be part of the answer you're looking for.
posted by Dr. Wu at 11:29 AM on December 3 [1 favorite]


Everyone has already talked about harmonies in bluegrass/old time music, but I thought I'd add one more point: the vocalists in Bluegrass and Old Time tend to really LEAN into open fourths and fifths. The uncomfortableness/emptiness of an open fourth or fifth isn't a bug, it's a feature! For example: Distant Land to Roam (slyt). You can hear them lean into the open intervals in the chorus. It's one of my favorite things about bluegrass music.
posted by Elly Vortex at 3:35 PM on December 3 [3 favorites]


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