What is a Schwa?

Learning About the Most Common Vowel Sound in the English Language

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Photo © Katrina Schmidt

Whether a soloist or a choral member, one word tends to pop up more than others: schwa. The term is foreign to most beginners and confusing to those who have not had the term explained to them. Here is all you need to know to understand what the term schwa means and when to use it.

Definition

Schwa is a phonetic or diction term for the vowel sound heard in “could,” and the most common sound heard in the English language.

Confusingly, the schwa sound is not represented by any one spelling; ‘ou,’ ‘e,’ ‘i,’ ‘o,’ ‘u,’ ‘er,’ ‘en,’ and ‘el,’ all represent the schwa sound. In the International Phonetic Alphabet, where every sound is given a symbol, the schwa is represented by ‘ə.’

The Schwa is Often Mispronounced

Schwa sounds tend to be mispronounced when singing. For instance, the second vowel sound in the word “heaven” is the schwa sound heard in “could.” Singers sometimes substitute the vowel sound, ‘ɛ’ as in “fed.” Few people pronounce the second syllable as ‘ɛ’ in spoken English, which makes it that much harder for the listener to understand the text.

How do I Know When to Use the Schwa?

For a beginner, figuring out when to sing the schwa may be tricky. Three steps can help. First, become aware of the schwa. Say it, read texts aloud, and listen for it. Second, listen to famous choirs, classical singers, and Broadway stars for help with your specific text.

Be leery of pop stars, because many mispronounce text. Thirdly, become aware of the most common misuses of the schwa. In two the three syllable words ending in -er, -ness, -le, -en, -el, -on, -ort, -est, -em, -ed (when singing), -or, and so on. Below are some examples.

Words That Use the Schwa in the Last Syllable

Heaven, seven, Kevin, manner, mother, father, sister, brother, character, common, comfort, angel, forest, sofa, people, Jerusalem, pardoned, wilderness, desert, exalted, mountain, crooked, revealed, together, spoken, favor.

Why Do People Sing the Last Syllable in Words Incorrectly?

The schwa is a short sound when spoken, and it may feel unnatural holding the schwa out as you do when singing. Longer notes also generally tell the singer which syllable receives the stress or emphasis, but not always. When the last word in a song is “exalted,” the longest tone is most likely held on the unstressed second syllable. Lack of experience holding out the schwa and unstressed syllables in spoken English, may lead a beginner to simply change the vowel sound to the sound it would be if the syllable was emphasized. Instead of singing the schwa for the second syllable in “exalted,” a singer might open it up to an ‘ɛ’ sound, which you hear in the word “fed.”

Exceptions

Sometimes your chorus master or voice teacher may ask you to sing something normally pronounced with a schwa as something else. Often the decision is made in order to help the chorus or soloist sing over an orchestra or in a large room. The schwa sound simply does not carry in a hall as well, because it is produced farther back in the mouth than more forward vowels that tend to be the alternative. Switching out the vowel may make your voice carry better, but also makes the text harder to understand.

With practice, the schwa can easily be heard over an orchestra and in a large hall. However, sometimes you or your chorus may not have the time to learn how.

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Schmidt, Katrina. "What is a Schwa?" ThoughtCo, Mar. 31, 2016, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-schwa-2994277. Schmidt, Katrina. (2016, March 31). What is a Schwa? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-schwa-2994277 Schmidt, Katrina. "What is a Schwa?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-schwa-2994277 (accessed November 22, 2017).