This article delves into the basics of vowels: what they are, what makes them and how we influence their characteristics.
The formation of vowels is an area common to all singers, and in many ways influences the listener's experience of the voice. There are a multitude of approaches taken by singers to making vowels: some based on grunts, groans, wails, screams and sighs; some based on spoken language; some based on concepts of 'Bel Canto', chanting, 'toning' and just about everything in between these. Even 'overtone singing' can be described in terms of vowels.
What is a Vowel?
For the purposes of this discussion, vowels are two things: a) spoken or sung sounds (not written letters), and impressions in the mind of the singer and the listener - caused by experiences of the sound through the sense of hearing. By shaping (producing) vowels in a particular way, the singer influences the experience of the listener, and creates a communications connection person-to-person.
So, What is a Sung Vowel?
As a general, non-technical description: A sung vowel is a sustained sound, sung with the mouth and throat open enough so at least some of the sound comes out of the mouth. The particulars of the vowel sound depend on the shape and dimensions of the vocal tract, which is usually considered to be the spaces from just above the vocal bands to the outside of the mouth. Sometimes voice scientists include the part of the trachea below the larynx to the point where it branches in two sections to go to the lungs, but for out purposes today we will not include that section.
What Makes Differing Vowels?
A key principle is worth mentioning now: Anytime the vocal tract changes shape or dimension, it produces a more or less different vowel, depending on what has been changed by the person.
The vocal tract aspects that, when changed, have an effect on vowels (more-or-less in order of importance in the singer's technique) are:
- the position of the tongue
- the position of the soft palate
- the vertical opening of the jaw
- the shape of the lip opening
- the height of the larynx in the throat
- the diameter of the pharynx
Resonances and Vowels
By way of explanation - To modern language and voice scientists, the perception (on the part of the listener) of a vowel is the result of a combination of resonances in the voice, especially the lowest two resonances. The six items mentioned above, when combined, cause these two resonances to have specific frequencies. Any vocal sound components that fall near these two frequencies will be emphasized in the overall spectrum of sound energy.
The sense of hearing of the listener 'decodes' the overall sound into a conscious experience, and (according to current psychological theory) the mind interprets the relative intensity of the sound components as a vowel.
What Does This All Mean?
All this relates to singing in that we can make very many different kinds of vowel sounds. By changing the positioning of any of the vocal tract components listed above, even if only slightly, for the pronunciation of a syllable or word, we change the way they are perceived, and, by extension, the quality of the connection that we have as singers with our listeners.
This essay was first published September 10, 2009 on The Modern Vocalist.com the Internet's #1 community for vocal professionals, voice health practitioners and pro-audio companies worldwide since November 2008.