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Vowels and their effect

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I'm currently doing alot of reading/research about the use of vowels in singing.

I was wondering if anyone knew a study that starts from really basic and understandable and builds up to quite deep stuff (so basicly I'm looking for a work that is scientific but written in a way that a novice as myself can still comprehend it :P)

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Greetings Elrathion;

I'm new at this TMV thing still trying to figure out the system. I have submitted one blog that was an expansion on Steven Fraser's description of formants. My blog is entitled "Life without passion is just another job" or at least tht's the title it wound up with. Check that out if you will, it may be a beginning of a reasonable explanation. Or, at least we get something started. Amongst other things, I try to make muddy things clear --- and often succeed. Give it a try. Raymond C. Miller ......musiker

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Hi Elrathion

Vowels are what humans communicated with before we could talk! You can learn much in conventional technique and you can learn a lot more in sound healing technique. I have a blog on Mastering tones which is about vowels, my whole course teaches around vowels and you can go to www.healingsounds.com to learn more about toning. Vowel sounds are the essence of our being and our voice. All teachers on TMV will cover vowels...you need to be a bit more specific or more open! love Hilary :cool:

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It's effect on the vocal tract, it's relationship with frequency, etc...

Elrathion: According to current vocal theory (first proposed by Fant in 1960,) Vowels and the vocal tract are directly related, and the relationship is causal. The shape of the vocal tract (in its various sections) has a direct effect on the vocal resonance aspects that we interpret as vowels.

Using the most simple model as a starting point, the vocal tract can be considered as a resonator which is closed at one end, the glottis, and open at the other end, the mouth. If the vocal tract were the same diameter for its entire length, it would show evenly-spaced resonances which are directly calculable based on the length of the vocal tract. The sound of such a voice would be just 1 vowel, somewhat similar to a schwa.

Fortunately, the vocal tract is not a consistent diameter. :-) With various 'humping' of the tongue, it can be divided into two sections, a part 'behind and below' the hump, including the pharynx and the back of the mouth, and a part 'in front' of the hump, in the front of the mouth. The height of the hump (as related to how close to the palate it goes) and the location of the hump (forward or back) combine together to create a wide variety of vocal tract configurations, each of which has a characteristic resonance profile.

When voice scientists discuss resonance, they use the word 'Formant' a lot. A formant is a place in the frequency spectrum where sound will be emphasized if it happens to be present at that frequency. According to the current theory of the perception of vowels, the lowest two formants of the voice are the ones which the listener's mind interprets as the vowel. The lower of these is termed 'F1', and the higher of the two, 'F2'.

Generally, the frequency of F1 is the result of the length and cross-section of the tract which is behind the hump, and the frequency of F2 is the result of the length and cross-section of the mouth part. As a refinement of this, the frequency positions of F1 and F2 will change if the cross-section of either, or both sections are adjusted (as in dropping the jaw, or expanding the pharynx), and also if the vertical position of the larynx in the throat is changed. Finally, lip position can influence the length of the entire vocal tract, the length of the mouth section, and thereby affect the frequency position of the formants. Its a very configurable situation.

The formants are present all the time, whether there is sound to be reinforced/attenuated (softened) or not. They become highly influential on the resonance characteristics of the voice when phonation is happening. So, lets continue, and add phonation to our discussion.

Phonation introduces quasi-periodic air pressure waves (sound) into the vocal tract. When frequencies present in the phonated tone align well with formants, those frequencies are emphasized. When frequencies do not align well with the formants, they are attenuated.

So, the vowel perceived is the result of two things happening at the same time: the harmonic content of the phonated tone passing through the vocal tract, called by voice scientists and phoneticians the 'source' and 2) the various sizes of the sections of the vocal tract, called the 'filter'. The resulting theory is called 'The source-filter theory' of vowel production.


With those basics in mind, lets consider nasality. Nasality is perceived when the nasal passages are opened at the back by the lowering of the soft palate. This movement acoustically couples the nasal passages with the other parts of the vocal tract, and changes the frequency locations F1 and F2. Also, a 'null' point is created in the frequency response spectrum of the voice, so that any sound occuring at that frequency will be completely removed. We interpret this combination (moved F1, F2 and the null point) as a 'nasalized' version of the vowel which would ordinarily result from same the tongue, lip and jaw positions, but with the soft palate high.

If you are interested in further reading on the source-filter theory of vowels, here is a link to some excellent materials on the website of TMV-er Joe Wolfe.


Some of the items contained there will be the same concepts mentioned above, but in slightly more 'techie-speak', but very accessible because of the graphs and charts. Follow some of the links to the more basic and advanced materials as well. Very much worth reading.

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Steve, that was a great write-up. Thanks. Elrathion, I'd like to share a bit, too. As people, we sometimes get so used to our lives that we take a lot for granted. Here's one:

We can whisper -- entirely without phonating at all -- and still communicate clearly the vowel sounds to other people. And that's because, as Steven said, listeners interpret the formant 'shape' of the vocal tract 'filter' instead of paying attention to the speaker's voice or phonation. Try it: A E I O U . . . W-O-W! The turbulent jet of air escaping through our vocal folds swirls around like a chaotic river of water down in our throat and produces a broadband hissing sound. If it were a truly level, uniform hissing, it could be called "white noise" because it would have equal amplitudes of every frequency mixed up in it. Sort of a straight horizontal line on a graph of decibels vs. frequency.

That way -- without the vocal tract (do you have a guillotine handy?) -- there would be a uniform rushing sound and no vowels at all.

But when we sew the vocal tract back on, then its acoustic characteristics affect the broadband hissing. In some regions of the vocal tract, there are cavities or open volumes that tend to resonate a bit, and there are tight spots where sound has relative difficulty getting through, which together lift and lower the horizontal line a bit here and there. The term "formant" derives from the "form" of this filter-characteristic curve, and the peaks -- some of them fairly narrow and others comparatively broad -- have been named "the formants" (though in fact the formant curve is rather complex, at best). So, when we say "OOH" -- as in the first vowel sound in "WOW" -- the comparatively cylindrical shape inside your mouth and the extension of your lips creates a pretty smooth formant curve with a fairly sharp single peak, if you do it just right. In fact, a phonated "OO" is about as close as a human can get to a pure (sine wave) tone -- especially if you tune to your 'sweet spot' . . for me, around a flatted B4. When you see this on an oscilloscope, you'll be amazed how much it can look like and sound like a sine-wave generator.

But as you open your lips and your mouth for the "AH" sound, the formant curve becomes much more rippled, introducing more formant peaks (F1, F2, F3 . . . ) that allow other frequencies out into the room. The difference is what we hear as "OO-AH-OO."

This is a lot of fun to play around with! Re-learning your formants, that you used to use as a kid to make sounds like airplanes and trucks and things.

Barbershop singers are especially attuned (pardon the pun) to formants, because they've learned they can't create ringing chords without a lot of attention to each quartet member producing just the right formant curve. Each phonates on his own fundamental pitch, and then uses the vowel shaping to augment or attenuate the harmonic partials that make up their own individual compound tone.

Of course your original question was regarding the "use" of vowels in singing, and that is another entire book! : )


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Steve, that was great. Thanks. I have been more involved in vowel manipulation in the last year with my students and discovering that its a great way to impact the overtones to get darker texture with twangy laryngeal configuration in the head voice. Im growing to appreciate the significance. I found that by cupping my lips and not exposing my teeth in a splattier formant, resulted in a darker... some would say, chesty'r color.

What a great discussion.

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: ) Thanks, but I actually need a little more information from you on your original question first. You started with the statement that you're "currently doing a lot of reading/research about the use of vowels in singing" and you were "wondering if anyone knew a study that starts from really basic and understandable and builds up to quite deep stuff."

I feel like Steve and I have gone about it backwards somehow. We tried to share some info on "the vocal tract's effect on vowels" when you actually asked if anyone knew about "the vowels effect on the vocal tract." So help me get started to be sure we're off on the right tract . . . er . . . track, that is.

A vowel is a sound used in constructing a sound-based language. Long before there was any writing of any kind, we -- and the birds, and cats and coyotes -- learned to communicate by touch and smell and sounds. Long after the sounds became a real language, we invented text -- a word that comes from the sound of tapping two stones together, as in making an arrowhead or chipping "X" into a granite slab.

Since a vowel is a sound, it has no real effect on the vocal tract at all -- that I can think of. Nor does a vowel have an effect on frequency, which was part of your question statement to Steve. On the contrary, frequencies and the vocal tract are what MAKES vowel sounds, so that's why we started down that path.

I need to get a better grip on what you are looking for, before I try writing the book. : )

For something basic, you might take a look at the NEXTEP "CHORALGUIDE" Website at <www.choralguide.net> and download the free "Science Looks at Singing" seminar. It was developed for delivery to our annual Maine Music Educators Association conference, and it starts with some pretty basic principles. After that, let's get back together and have a go at it.

There's much to discuss, and all of it is fun.


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Yes guys...as you know I use vowel tones for teaching because I have come through the route of performance singing before I studied toning and sound healing and have now returned to integrate both for others. Pete is spot on..the vowel does not actually have a pronunciation or phonation there are 5 major vowel sounds we have universally communicated with irrespective of words and cultural pronunciation! Using these properly develops the voice because the voice is an expression of our being. Singing is an emotional experience and a self developing one. The vowels are the key and THE SOUND of the vowel is a resonance from inside the body that is brought through the vocal tract. The pitch/frequency on the vowel can be phonated lower and higher, however the specific vowel sound is not a pitch. love Hilary :cool: Fun ay? Lets just tone with each other it's a much better way to communicate!! :lol:

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AHHHHH Hilary, what an idea! OHHHH so good! OOOOO it feels so fine! : )

But let's remember that each of us was raised with a different language. Our foremothers and their sturdy men set forth out of Africa many years ago, and each new family, in each new place, developed its own version of the spoken language of humans. There aren't just five vowel sounds -- even here in this adopted but far away home of English (sic). In school, we're taught "A, E, I O and U are the vowels" but then we're told "and sometimes Y," but in Belgium and in Nashville, these "English" vowels don't fly.

The most general rule seems to be that "vowel" sounds are the ones we can draw out over a longer period of time, while consonants are the sounds we need to trip over with our tongue. EXCEPT . . . for the "voiced" consonants . . . like "MMMMM" or "NNNNNN." The whole thing is silly!

Singing began LONG before we developed a language, with its nouns (names) and verbs and all those other technical details that make it so hard to communicate with one another. We just intuitively sing; even during our most exquisite moments of pleasure or agony . . . words fail us. The reason we're taught "there are five vowels" is that many technical details (rules) of spelling are based on being able to see -- not hear -- those five little logo pictures. And spelling is not language.

If I were an Italian opera singer, I would study Italian pronunciation; the rules for singing in Italian simply don't work for singing German. "Tosca" vs. "Fidelio" That's why we've invented an International Phonetic Alphabet, with little logos that many of us have never seen before in our lives. And even the IPA is neither perfect nor complete. But it's better than "26 letters," when in fact my own granddaughter in Sweden uses the vowels "Å, Ä and Ö" every day that she talks with her friends and her mom. And in Greece, where you are!? Oh, my! What are those unrecognizable little marks? Which ones are vowels?

When we sing, we can have lots of different motives. The primal scream (now, what vowel sound is that!?). The soft, luscious word "love." The knife-edged word "hate." The mellow sounds of "amore." Expressions of feeling that we want to deliver. Sometimes the words of others -- singing off sheet music. Sometimes one's own, inexplicable expressions -- cooing in our newborn baby's ear. When we sing -- at that very, often spontaneous, moment -- we want to deliver a message to someone that is perfectly interpreted. If people are paying to come to our concert, then we need to deliver what they paid to hear. If we are sitting on the edge of our bed, crying in the dark over a recent divorce, the audience is God and our own soul.

So, when Olivier (aka Elrathion) is looking for answers, especially at the precious mid-20s moment in life's journey where he stands today, he's seeking some pretty general truths about vowels that will help him express his innermost feelings. As you've said many times, "listening" is the answer.


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Steven, what was the name of the theoryyou mentioned before where the vowel shaping is said to set up the correct amount of support/air flow?

Centre: The non-linear source-filter theory. Its a refinement of the one (from Fant, 1960) that I describe in my post earlier in this thread.

The idea of the refinement is to describe how the resonances in the vocal tract (not just the vowel, but also the epilaryngeal resonance of the singers formant) may affect phonation. Its the subject of some debate and active research among vocologists right now. Prof Ingo Titze and Donald Miller have been directly involved, as have others.


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And actually, Ingo has recorded his presentation on this non-linear interaction at:


It's an audio-visual slide show with him explaining both Fant's initial "simplified" source/filter theory (where the vocal folds act like a trumpeter's lips and the vocal tract acts like a trumpet, except without any interaction between the lips and the trumpet) and the more mathematically complex non-linear consideration, which takes into account the obvious interaction between the two. Any bugler will tell you that it's difficult to buzz your lips anywhere else than at one of the bugle's resonant (formant) peaks. And that flippy non-linear instabilities can be felt on your lips when you do try this. The formants sort of become the "sweet spots" for the phonation frequency, making everything 'ring' together.

Would that our soft, wet, musculated tongue and vocal tract were so easy to model as a trumpet! : )


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Very good explanation Pete. :)

That's the same principles that Complete Vocal Technique(CVT) is build upon, inspired by the visions of EVTS!

Taken from another post I posted on this forum

" According to the latest CVT studies the voice is very similiar to a horn. You have the lips (vocal folds), the mouthpiece/compression chamber (the different modes defined by how much "metallic" sound there is and twang) and then the shape of the horn (vocal tract).

The different modes are made by specific narrowing of the epilaryngeal area. The more it narrows the more "metallic" the sound becomes just like changing the mouthpiece/compression chamber on a horn.

When there is a right balance between the vocal folds, narrowing of the epilaryngeal area and the vocal tract then you are in "the center" of the specific mode. Singers experience this when the notes feels "free" to produce.

This is why there are different rules in every mode to avoid imbalance (acoustic overload - sound waves also bounce back). Ex. in Overdrive(which is a full metallic mode) in the high part of the voice you can only use the vowels EH and OH, the volume has to be loud and the picth limit is male high C (for males). Other rules apply to the other 3 modes to avoid an imbalance which will make the vocal folds vibrate in a wrong way which will activate the undesired contrictors and the voice is no longer "free" (out of center of the mode). :) "

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Hi Pete & Martin...yes but the "sounds" of the vowels are universal BEFORE LANGUAGE...how they are spelled in the languages of today are irrelevant. Y for example is probably ee it certainly is in Greek but the Greeks still have the 5 major vowel sounds. In Indian music from the little I have studied..whilst there are many variations including their 22 note scale, the vowels have the same sound. I am with Martin on EH in high voice and teach that. EE is even higher. OH has a cap as does Ah and UUH. You can variate them to make bridge transitions but the "true vowel" sounds are actually physiologically connected and should be sounded from the place they reside in! The problem is you guys all want it to be technical and complicated and actually it's simple!:lol:H My voice is better than ever and I'm getting older!:rolleyes:

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Yeah, well . . . I'm getting older too! ;-)

Not to argue with you, Hilary . . . but my understanding of vowels is a bit broader. In the Oxford English dictionary they define "vowel" as "a sound produced by the vocal cords*" (* this is an older printing, before the now-proper use of "folds"). What I think they mean is any sound we can phonate for a protracted or sustained time, as contrasted with a consonant which is . . . well . . . all else. When we say "FFF" we don't use our vocal folds, and so there is no 'pitch' identified. Same with "T" and "K."

So, technically, I even see an "M" is a vowel sound, although we call it a "voiced consonant" instead. We can pitch an "M" but not an "X."

My Greek isn't as polished as yours must be, but the big island near Spetse called "Hydra" has no "EE" vowel in it, but rather an "Ö" almost as in "her." English has more than 56 separate vowels in it, but in later years, when text was invented, a lot of these were condensed so they could be living within our limit of "26 text characters." In singing, we use them all -- and then some. The "Dictionary of Vocal Terminology" holds that a vowel is "a sustained phonation or sound produced by an undulating movement of the vocal folds, whose vibratory pattern is amplified because of adjustments made by the cavities of the mouth." I guess that excludes "M." : )

I only am explaining this so that I'm fully understood when I said "There aren't just five vowel sounds." There certainly are five "Roman" text characters that we English-taught children are told "are the vowels," but the variety of sounds is -- literally -- infinite.

I hope this doesn't break our friendship, :(


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she said major vowel sounds, not 5 vowel sounds though :>

If you discuss vowels btw it would be of great help if you would add words to it so I know that I'm gettin it right (I know 5 languages so it can get a bit confusing at times to get what vowel you're talking about).

I'm also interested in vowel modifcations, could you get into that too?

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Hey! Glad you're still there. Seems like we were drifting off track here, but sure, because singing is almost entirely vowel sounds (except of course "contemporary a cappella" where we use all kinds of explosive consonants to emulate the sounds of a percussion section and an electric bass guitar at the same time (see www.casa.org>).

First of all, what's most important about the subject is that -- if we take vowel sounds as what they seem to be defined -- we humans can produce an incredible complete range of vowel sounds. We humans have been walking this earth making these sounds for like 100,000 to 1,000,000 years or more, and long ago began to use these sounds to communicate emotions and later actions and objects (not necessarily in that order, as they say). Probably nouns (nomen, name, nomenclature) came first so that we could ask another person to bring something to somewhere, but that's just an educated guess. Then verbs, and so on. Language evolved, and is ever evolving.

But the key is that we make these vowel sounds by creating a sound -- usually by phonating with the lips of our vocal folds (a buzz like a Whoopee cushion down in our throat) -- and then letting that sound reach out through our open mouth and on into someone else's ears, and the variety -- no -- that's the wrong word -- the "continuum" or range of sounds we can produce is simply amazing!

When we talk about the letters, or more correctly "the text characters" A, E, I, O, and U, we are specifically restricting ourselves to little drawings that are used to stand for a variety of vowel sounds when used in a text (written) statement. But these five characters do NOT stand for five vowel sounds, or even five "major" vowel sounds.

A "major" vowel sound is . . . the sound you intended to make in order to communicate the meaning you intended. The text character "A" in "father" can be a sound of great sweeping pleasure -- the sound you make when you communicate "Yes! I like that!" The same text character (but NOT the same vowel) "A" in "hat" conveys an entirely different meaning -- the sound you make when you are unpleasantly startled. And these intended meanings are universal, not simply in English or Roman. Even in Thailand or China, where the character "A" is never seen, these two vowel sounds convey the same meanings.

A vowel sound is a sound, not a drawing or an engraving into granite slabs.

Only by making a sound in our throat and adjusting (not really 'amplifying' -- at least not in loudness) that sound with our vocal filter ('tract') can we offer a vowel sound. And there is literally no limit to the number of ways we can adjust our vocal tract. There may be limits at the extremes, but still an infinite range of nuances between them that we can create when we need to.

When I was in the U.S. Navy, we were flying in a really unique airplane -- the SP-2H "Neptune" -- with two huge radial piston propeller engines AND two extra General Electric jet engines that we used for takeoff and emergency situations. It made the most amazing sounds as it ran up its engines, both types, and came at you -- "up Doppler" -- down the runway, a roar as it went past, and the diminishing "down Doppler" sounds from each engine type separately as it lifted off the runway. When it landed, and slowed with propeller thrust reversal, and coasted to a taxiway, its huge drum brakes would emit this haunting moan.

Why do I tell you this? Because it was such a haunting memory that several of us worked at making a cassette recording of the sounds, years later, with nothing but a microphone and our personal vocal blessings. And it worked!

This forum is titled "Vowels and their effect." The effect of vowels is to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. The effect of vowels is to express great caring, and love. And yes, fear.

More another day,


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  • 3 weeks later...

HI guys....still friends Pete! :lol:

If we are talking VOWEL SOUNDS......language is irrelevant. The noise of your plane Pete is the prime example here on how SOUND affects you.

I have travelled quite a bit of the world and have been able to converse with people with no language proficiency simply through the RESONANCE of VOWEL SOUNDS.

That is my point, it needs no technical explanation because it is immaterial.

40% of the English Language is made up of Greek words ( badly pronounced and meanings altered).

EE in Greece has a number of written ways e.g. I, Y, ae - are 3. There is also dialect on the islands and this can confuse the language as it does all over the world.

If you read Latin much of it is actually Greek.

English can actually be traced from Sanskrit - India....... too!

Language developed much later after people migrated as the world developed.

We connect through VOWEL SOUNDS not how we see a vowel written down or in a dictionary. Dictionaries are a relatively modern invention and change with the times. Stephen Fry is a great proponant on the English Language, it's evolution and dictionaries. American English is another language.

We SING as a full human voice THROUGH VOWEL SOUNDS and I even teach the consonant pronunciation on the resonant energy of the vowel sounds.

It is not a brain teaser it is a whole body experience and that is what singing is. ;)

By the way.....voice healing is done ONLY with Vowels and these have to be at their purest sound and tone! Another post another day..but if you want to know the effects of vowels, then include all the voice healers on this site not just the commercial and scientific members. :lol:

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The point about vowels you make here is rather bad Hilary. If you argue that 40% of the

English words originate somewhere from the Greek language, then I will tell you simply that the Greek of today isn't the Greek of old and that the Greek of Old came to be by influence of many languages prior to that.

(saying then that the greek words are simply pronounced badly, would make all Greek be pronounced badly too, cse they pronounce it different then the languages that preceed it.)

There are deffinatly alot of different ways vowels are pronounced, and some vowels are more ideal then others for a given place in the register, and also give a different outcome in the quality of the sound. That was more the direction of answers I was looking for then "what emotion the vowel envoces or how does it heal you"...

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Hi Elrathion...the point I make is THE SOUND of the vowel not the pronunciation of it. The sound relates directly to body areas and resonates in those areas when the sound is pure. Therefore when you sing them if you are sounding them with the resonance in your own body then you have the true vowel sound. I am making a video which I will post later this month. You can't discuss a SOUND you have to hear and feel it. You can discuss frequencies , but the sound is more than a frequency. At the moment we measure in frequencies but we have a long way to go to measure a whole sound.

If you want lots of different pronunciations then yes go through every language of the earth and you will get them, disect them how you want to I will stand by my statement that there are common vowel SOUNDS that do not change irrespective of language and pronunciation. :lol:

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I'd like you to elaborate on your point, because I don't get it. What do you mean that sound relates to body areas? And the places this sound resonates? I guess you don't mean this in a scientific way but in a feeling way?

How are there different vowel sounds? There are 5 according to you, I don't fully get that...

What I mean is, I speak Dutch. Some book will say, a vowel i will take you to a sound that has a half metalic quality. But that i can be pronounced in so many ways, that if I just use the vowel i in my language, it can have different outcomes. Even if I take the vowel from the book in English, they might use an Brittish English vowel, instead of the American one, which will further lead to confusion.

I speak several languages (about 5), so singing vowels can sometimes be confusing for me depending on the language I'm singing in. It's not that I want those different pronuncations, they are just there.

Furthermore, how people pronunciate vowels can define them as an artist (look to Britney, I'm not a fan, but the way she pronounces vowels makes her unique).

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