A backup singer, also known as a harmony singer or backing vocalist, is a singer who vocally complements the lead singer with her own singing. They are most commonly recognized for their live performances, where they are most visible, but also do work in the recording studio. Backup singing is not just a stepping stone to becoming a lead vocalist, but a hard-to-master trade in itself, with specially required skills.
The function of a backup singer is to provide depth and warmth to a song or melody by performing vocals that support or complement those of the lead singer. They may sing a chorus, repeated word or phrase, or harmony line. Sometimes the backup singer will be given particular notes to sing for a song, and other times will be asked simply to ad lib harmonies to go with the lead vocals. In all cases, however, an important part of the backup singer's job is to stay securely out of the spotlight, and make the lead vocalist look better without drawing attention to him.
When people refer to backup singers, they generally mean those whose entire musical role during a recording or performance is backup vocal work. These types of backup singers are most commonly seen singing with praise/worship leaders and solo artists. Other types of backup singers, however, do exist. In rock groups, for example, it is very common for the guitarist or bassist to also sing backup vocals. In pop and R&B singing groups, it is customary for members to take turns singing both lead and backing vocals on different tracks.
Though both men and women work as professional backup singers, female backup singers are more common. When recording with a band or artist, like session musicians, they often appear uncredited on the record. When on tour, backup singers are usually considered a part of the wider band. As there is usually more than one backup singer, they often wear matching or coordinated outfits. Most commonly, they stand together with lined up microphones off towards the side and to the back of the stage.
Backup singers are usually professionally trained and have taken years of vocal and other music lessons to master their trade. As a result, one of the primary benefits of backup singers to recording artists is their general skill, ease with performance, and ability to both read music and readily keep time with the main performer. There is also something to be said for having participants in a recording or live performance with no responsibility other than providing the harmonies which are so often very important to filling out a song.
SignificanceThough this is not normal, many successful solo recording artists got their start as vocalists through backup singing. As a result, though it is unrealistic, many aspiring vocalists now attempt to become backup singers in the hopes of being "discovered." Backup singers, and particularly their relationships with lead singers, have captured the public's imagination in other ways.