What You Need to Know About Singing Vowels

On Singing Vowels Beautifully

vowel diagram
Image courtesy of Moxfyre via Wikimedia commons

We form vowels by adjusting the tongue, soft palate (or velum), jaw, and lips. All of these “articulators” influence the shape of the vocal tract, giving each vowel a distinct sound and color. Vowels are even more important in singing than consonants, and here is why.

Singing on the Vowel: In order to sing beautifully and project, 99 percent of singing should be on a vowel. It sounds simple enough, but some struggle to sing consonants quickly and at the same time make them understandable.

The key is to place consonants before the beat. Also helpful is the knowledge of what consonants might slip you up, for instance: s, r, and w. These and other consonants take up more time, but they should still be passed over as quickly as possible. The most common consonant singers spend too much time on is the American ‘r,’ which also introduces tension in the mouth, jaw, and tongue when held.

Pure Vowels: Vowels are, “pure,” when the articulators stay in one place during vowel execution. Pure vowels are particularly important in order to sing classical and choral music successfully, but they also play a role in popular music. They make all singing more lovely; though I am sure we have all heard an example of how singing the wrong pure vowel can make a singer sound stilted or insincere.

Pure vowels are particularly foreign to Americans. In fact, I have heard it said Americans sound like they are chewing gum because of the constant movement of their articulators.

Diphthongs and Triphthongs: Many vowels in the English language are actually two (diphthongs) or three (triphthongs) vowel sounds put together. In singing, everything is elongated, so the two or three vowels are treated separately. Just sing the first vowel the majority of the time and add the second and third vowels at the end.

In other words, the mouth should stay in one position for most of the word.

The nine diphthongs in the English language are: boy (ɔɪ), say (eɪ), my (ɑɪ), brown (ɑʊ), few (ju), fear (ɪə), mare (eə), cure (ʊə), and four (ɔə). The six triphthongs in the English language are all diphthongs with ‘r’ at the end, which is pronounced with a schwa sound not ‘rrr’: flower (ɑʊə), buyer (ɑɪə), lawyer (ɔɪə), layer (eɪə), and fewer (əʊə).

Long and Short Vowels: To alleviate any confusion, long and short vowels do not refer to length in the English language and are not helpful for singing. The long vowels sound like one of the five vowel names and are mostly diphthongs: fate (ei), meet (i), kite (ɑɪ), rose (oʊ), and cute (ju). The short vowels are all single vowel sounds: mat (æ), met (ɛ) mitt (ɪ), lot (ɒ), and shut (ʌ). In languages other than English, long and short vowels may refer to their duration and can be significant in how you sing them.

Terminology and The Vowel Diagram: Vowels are often referred to in vocal studios as forward, back, open, closed, rounded, or unrounded. It may sound confusing, but it all boils down to Daniel Jones and his vowel diagram. With the help of x-rays, Jones charted the tongue’s position during vowels.

The position of the high point of the tongue is back in “cool” (u) and forward in “treat” (i). The terms open and closed are a little more intuitive. Your jaw is wide open for “paw” (ɑ) and closed for “print” (I). Lips are rounded for back vowels as in “doe” and unrounded for forward vowels as in “deer.”

You will often hear choral conductors ask for a more closed vowel on unaccented syllables, so instead of singing the last syllable in “husband” by using the vowel (ɑ) as in father, as in hʌz-bɒnd, you would pronounce it with the schwa sound found in could (ə), hʌz-bənd. Singers also need to know back vowels are harder to project and sing in tune than forward vowels.

Vowel Modification: Pure vowels are best, but sometimes a modification is required. By slightly lowering or closing the jaw, rounding or unrounding the lips, or moving the tongue; your singing may free up.

Especially common is the practice of lowering the jaw on high notes.