Sam in Israel writes:

I wondered if you could help me understand the traditional bluegrass vocal harmony intervals. From what I’ve read on the net, most vocal arrangements follow the 1-3-5 of the chord.


Sam,

That’s right — whatever chord is *active at the time*. Whichever of those three is the melody note, the two harmony parts, tenor and baritone, cover the other two notes, for a 3-part chord.

Most melody notes are one of the three notes of the chord that’s the same “chord name” as the chord you’re playing when you sing that melody note. On the “main” words, that is, the words which are on main beats, long notes, etc. that is typically the case. On the quicker, between-beats words, many are outside the chord you’re playing, but still in the scale of the key you’re in. The harmony principle stays the same: Melody is surrounded by: 1. The nearest chord tone *above* the melody (“tenor” part), and 2. The nearest chord tone *below* the melody (“baritone” part).

Examples:

1. The last note of any song in G is a G, sung over a G chord. So tenor is B, baritone is D. Top to bottom, the harmony is 3, 1, 5 (one each of the main 3 notes that make a major G chord).

2. On a “between main beats” note (“by’s” in “baby’s” in Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms), that’s an “A” note if you’re in the key of G. Using available notes from the major scale in the key of G, the nearest chord tone above is a C and below, it’s an E. These 3 actually make an Am chord, not played for accompaniment, as it last so briefly. You’d still be playing a G, but the notes to be in harmony with the A note are logical choices based on where the tenor and baritone parts go for the *main*notes.

I’ve come across another post that said that in old-timey country music, vocal harmonies follow the 1-3-5 of the songs key regardless of what specific chord the song is playing.

Wrong. This “sounds” like the correct info above, so I’m guessing that source may have heard the correct info and garbled it.

Also from listening, I hear a lot of fourth intervals in bluegrass duets and some occasional sixths that weren’t described in the material I found on the web.

In duet harmonies, some tenor singers like to pick unusual intervals, just for the uniqueness of it, and sometimes a hair-raising effect. That can happen in trio harmonies too, which can work as long as the three notes sung sound good together. That would mean a chord missing one of the 1, 3, and 5, but including a “partial” note which is essentially an ornament to the basic chord, such as a 6th.

Any assistance you could give me would be gratefully accepted.

That’s as clear as I know how to explain it! Hope it helps. A more complete explanation of bluegrass harmony can be found in the appendices of my Bluegrass Songbook (Music Sales pub.), available in 
the Store
on DrBanjo.com.

Pete