Singing vowels correctly can be the difference between nailing a performance and losing an audience’s attention completely.
It’s no secret that an audience is likely to tune out if they can’t understand the lyrics in a song. Words convey meaning and sentiment and are critical to engaging listeners.
When you delve a little deeper, you’ll find that it’s the vowel sounds in words that convey the heart and emotion of a song. While consonants provide the shape and structure, the beauty and richness of a song is achieved through vowel sounds. They’re the point where you sustain the sound of a word and produce the beautiful tone that’s pleasing to a listener’s ear.
Yet achieving that tone doesn’t always come easily.
Thanks to modern technology, we’ve learnt that many of the physical aspects of a singer’s voice need to work together to properly articulate vowels.
There’s the shape of the vocal tract, which determines how the air enters the mouth from the throat, along with the tongue and where it sits and its shape in the mouth. The jaw, lips and back of the mouth also play a part.
At some point, all singers need to revise their understanding of vowels, how they’re formed and possibly fix unhelpful habits they’ve adopted along the way.
And the first step is to identify the type. At a basic level, there are two types: a front vowel and a back vowel.
Front & Back Vowels
Front vowels are formed by placing the tongue just behind the back of the bottom teeth and forming it in an arched shape towards the front of the mouth. Examples of front vowels include ee and ih in words like three and we and fits and kiss.
On the other hand, with back vowels the tongue lies on the bottom of the mouth, with the tip gently positioned behind the bottom teeth. The back sides of the tongue touch the top molars. Back vowels include oh sounds, as in not and got, as well as ah sounds, like spa and calm.
You won’t be surprised to learn that practice is the key! Exercises that drill position and shape are a great place to start, before moving onto songs. It’s about getting used to the correct placement of your tongue and shaping your lips correctly.
For beginners, a handy front vowel exercise is the repetition of ‘three fits three fits three’.
For back vowels, try ‘goose boot goose boot goose’.
Exercises can be fun (even a bit silly) and as singers progress I like to give them complex names of Australian towns, like Boggabilla or simply made-up words such as Chookachilla or Manalava to recite. Rhyming suburbs are also a personal favourite:
• Turramurra and Tamarama
• Randwick and Redfern
• Belmore and Belfield
The aim of exercises is to make correct shaping and positioning second nature. It’s also about loosening, relaxing and stretching the lips, tongue and jaw. Any tension or stiffness can inhibit the smooth transition between vowels.
Like hitting the sweet spot on a tennis racket, there’s also a sweet spot to aim for when singing vowels. Known as a formant, it’s the optimal sound you can achieve when you combine correct articulation with good breathing, posture and flow of air.
Getting vowels spot-on might seem technically tricky, but dedicated practice is the key. And the results speak…or rather, sing for themselves!
Have you worked on your vowel sounds lately?