Working With Words: Vowels

Vowels. Vowels. Vowels.

When I’m not talking about ribs, I’m talking about vowels. They are the second most important aspect of delivering top-notch vocals. Why? Because vowels ARE vocalizing. At least, in terms of using your vocal cords. Test it out yourself…

Make the sound of a T (with no accompanying vowel). Now make the sound of an S. Now the sound of an M. Where do all of these consonant sounds generate? In your mouth, right?

Now make the sound Ah. And the sound EE, and Uh. Where do those sounds originate? In your throat. In your vocal cords. Really, when we talk about vocalizing, we’re talking about vowels.

But how do we turn the sound from our vocal cords into different vowels? We change the shape of our vocal tracts. By doing that, different frequencies within the sound are either canceled out or amplified, thus creating different vowel sounds. Seems incredible doesn’t it? But so much of what the body does is pretty amazing.

Check out the following images and sound clips (from www.exploratorium.edu) to illustrate the process of creating vowels.

This first audio clip is the sound of a duck call:

Now, check these out:

The image on the left depicts the shape your throat takes on to make the sound AH. When the duck call sound above is played through a column with the same shape, it also makes a sound resembling an AH. Play the audio clip to hear it.
The image on the left depicts the shape your throat takes on to make the sound EE. When the duck call is played through a column with the same shape, it also makes a sound resembling an EE. Play the audio clip to hear it.

 

The image on the left depicts the shape your throat takes on to make the sound EH. When the duck call is played through a column with the same shape, it also makes a sound resembling an EH. Play the audio clip to hear it.

 

The image on the left depicts the shape your throat takes on to make the sound OH. When the duck call is played through a column with the same shape, it also makes a sound resembling an OH. Play the audio clip to hear it.

 

The image on the left depicts the shape your throat takes on to make the sound OOH. When the duck call is played through a column with the same shape, it also makes a sound resembling an OOH. Play the audio clip to hear it.

Pretty amazing, eh? When it’s not a little creepy-sounding, that is.

Why am I sharing this with you?

Partly because it’s cool to see how our bodies work. But there’s a practical application here as well. The key to a smooth, rich execution of singing lies in having a tension-free, unobstructed flow of air. The vocal track needs to be as open and relaxed as possible while making any sound.

Look over the images above and note to yourself the different shapes our throats take on. The EE, for example, is the smallest opening in the mouth but opens up further down the throat. OOH is the opposite, more open in the mouth and more closed off in the throat.

So, how do you create the most open and relaxed possible vocal tract while making vowels that require closing certain areas of your throat? Two ways.

1. Use background vowels.

A background vowel is the vowel that you add just a hint of behind another vowel to open it up.

For example, if you’re holding a word with an EE vowel sound, you can open up that sound by adding a hint of EH behind it (you’ve probably heard some pop singers sing something that sounds like “may” instead of “me”).

You can also try adding a background vowel of IH (as in kid) to an EE sound.

OOH is another sound that can become pinched, so it helps to add the background vowel OH, which drops the tongue a bit making a larger opening in the mouth.

These three are the most common background vowels used. But you can experiment on your own and see what works for you. Change your pronunciation slightly to assess whether it improves your delivery or not.

2. Choose the words you’ll hang on by their vowels.

When you’re cognizant of what’s happening in your mouth when you produce vowels you’ll make better choices while developing a new song.

Want to change up a melody and show off your skills? Save your vocal ornaments for the words with nice open vowels, like AH and EH.

Want to sing that “whoa, whoa, whoa” an octave higher? You might want to change it to “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” a much more open sound (it is, after all, your rendition of a song. Never be afraid to make it truly yours).

I’ll be talking more about vowels in future posts, because I talk about them all the time. In the meantime, here’s a companion video you might find useful: 

Let me know if these suggestions worked for you, or if you have additional background vowels to suggest. Thanks for reading!