Using Glottal Strokes When Singing

What to Do When a Word Starts With a Vowel

Image courtesy of Arcadian via Wikimedia commons

Most English speakers naturally place a glottal stroke before any word starting with a vowel. Sometimes that should carry over to singing and other times not. Glottal strokes can cause vocal harm and sound unattractive, but they can also make sung words intelligible. Using glottal strokes can be tricky. But with training, they can be a vital diction tool.

Glottal Stroke: The glottal stroke, sometimes referred to as attack or stop, is physically the closing of the vocal cords, allowing pressure to build below them, and opening the cords with a little force.

If done too strongly, it can sound a bit like a froggy croak. With practice, the glottal stroke can be a very mild way to stop air flow and cause a separation between two words. I often refer to it as a slapping of the vocal cords. Of course, that is too forceful, but it is a good visualization and comparison to the physical act of creating a glottal stroke.

When to Use the Glottal Stroke: Glottal strokes are generally used when a word starts with a vowel. For instance, if you were to say “The air balloon” without any separation between, ‘the,’ and ‘air,’ then it will sound like “Their balloon,” which is even more apparent when singing. Even with an increase of volume on ‘air,’ the phrase is much clearer with a glottal stroke. However, when a word starting with a vowel begins a phrase, it is unnecessary and even unattractive to use a glottal. This is counter-intuitive for most English speakers and will take some practice to get used to.

When Not to Use a Glottal Stroke: Glottal strokes should be used as minimally as possible, because they stop air flow and hinder a beginner’s ability to create a legato line or a long connected string of notes. At times, you may even take out a well-placed glottal stroke to increase vocal beauty. Especially as a beginner, if the glottal stroke is too forceful and causes the voice to tire, a teacher may ask that they not be used at all.

Omitting them on a continual basis is not a permanent solution, but it does help a less experienced singer connect notes and sing through a long phrase easier.

Glottal Stroke Exercise: If you are uncertain on how to produce a glottal, speak or sing ‘ha.’ Notice the puff of air released on the ‘h.’ Now, speak or sing ‘ah.’ Notice the lack of air at the beginning of the syllable. Most English and German speakers will naturally begin the syllable ‘ah,’ with a glottal stroke. Becoming aware of its presence becomes as simple as comparing ‘ha’ to ‘ah.’ You may also listen to people speaking or singing English or German and note what happens before vowels. Listening to beginners may be more helpful in this case, because their glottal strokes can be more noticeable than those of advanced singers.

How to Mark a Glottal Stroke: In music, the glottal stroke is often notated with a forward slash (/) at the moment the glottal is used. For instance, an IPA transcription of “The air,” as it is sung would look like this: “ðə /ɛ ə.” I find the forward slash a particularly useful symbol even when I am not transcribing an entire text into IPA. For instance, in a song I might add a forward slash before air looking like this: “The /air.”  A simple slash mark between two words becomes a quick and easy visual reminder to use a glottal stroke.