8 Reasons Every Singer Should Utilise Vowel Modification

8 Reasons Every Singer Should Utilise Vowel Modification

My favourite process for developing my student's foundation is to first develop fine motor control in each aspect of the voice - from diaphragmatic breathing, to twang, to balance between the TA and CT muscles and of course connecting chest and head voice into one fluid note. The second stage for singers ready to grow their voices beyond the basics is to introduce forward placement and vowel modification - I'll share with you 8 Reasons Every Singer Should Utilise Vowel Modification in a moment, but before we do so it's important to first understand what a "vowel" in singing really is, and most importantly, how to sing a vowel correctly.

Different methods will approach this with a slightly different pedagogy, but in the most basic sense, a "vowel" in singing refers to a resonant overtone which is created and facilitated by different sizes and shapes within the vocal tract, along with subtle changes in the balance between the two halves of the vocal mechanism - "concentric" contracted weight and "eccentric" contracted tension in the vocal folds created by use of the TA and CT muscles respectively.

  • Concentric contraction causes muscles to shorten
  • Eccentric contractions cause muscles to elongate

You might have noticed that singing certain words is easier than other words - even at the same pitch. This is because each vowel and word requires a specific overtone within the vocal tract, and speech sounds in general lack this vocal overtone - you might get lucky with the first word that naturally leans towards the right tongue shape and size within the vocal tract, but that second word that really brings out your speaking accent is almost impossible to sing because the tongue and mouth shape are all wrong, as is the size and shape of the vocal tract relative to your vocal formant and register overtone.

Clear as mud?

I know, it seems super complicated - but it's all much simpler than it seems.

In short, your 'base' vowel sound is created by two different orientations of your tongue;

  • Tongue down - AH/AA/OH vowels
  • Tongue up in the middle - AY/EE/OU vowels

Then secondary to these base tongue shapes, there is a size and shape within the vocal tract which facilitates each register overtone and a specific tonal 'modification' within the vowel which allows you to make the most efficient use of your resonance - this is also linked to weight and tension in the vocal tract using the two types of contraction we just discussed.

Now, you're probably thinking "but there's WAY more than six different sounds that I need to sing within each song" - but the truth is, words like Eye, Hard, Love, Part, Spark and Life are all formed with the SAME vowel overtone "AH" that starts with a concave tongue. Another example is words like Yeah, Hey, Pay, Late, Mate, Pet, Bet, Game and Save all sharing the same vowel overtone "AY" that starts with a raised tongue in the centre of the mouth.

Sure, there's subtle differences in how each of these sounds is articulated, but the base overtone is the same for each of these respective sound groupings.

Master Your Vowels

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How To Sing With Vowel Modification

Vowel Modification is a simple, but often confusing vocal technique - in part due to how it's taught and the secrecy with which second level techniques like modification, compression and even forward placement are shrouded in; but I'm here to show you just how EASY it is to modify your vowels.

Remember, "vowel" in singing isn't the same thing as a vowel that you use for speech in your speaking accent - for example, in my voice with an Aussie accent, our vowels are actually spoken with a higher tongue position than many other English accents and more as a diphthong were the vowel is really "two" vowels combined into one - A is "AYE" (A and EE together) and O is "OWE" (OH and WUH) together.

Keeping this in mind, you can probably draw your own conclusion as to why there's no singers out there with an extensive vocal range that sing with a highly colloquial Aussie accent - even our 'national treasure' singers like John Farnham, Jimmy Bares (well, he's Scottish), Billy Thorpe and Michael Hutchence part with their Australian pronunciation when singing - even if a touch of 'Occa slang and drawl creeps in here and there in the low and mid range. When Jimmy Barnes sings "Flame Trees", it's not sung literally like we would speak this phrase "Flayye-m tr-eeee-s", it's actually simplified as "Fl-EH-EE-m tr-EE-z" with a clear overtone on each vowel and downplayed pronunciation on each sound - the AY vowel modifying to an EH, and the EE vowel modifying to an IH.

This might sound foreign to you, but it's a pretty simple process when the voice is divided into four registers;

  • Chest/Chest Mix/Head Mix/Head

We then alter each vowel subtly through each register change;

  • AH/AA/OH - Hard/Hoard/Heard/Who'd
  • AY/EE/OU - Hey/Head/Hid/Heed

So the vowel at the centre of a word like "Yeah" would actually be sung closer to the word "Hey" in pure chest voice, slightly like "Head" in the first part of mix, "Hid" in the upper mix and then finally "Heed" as you release into full head voice.

Another example would be the vowel at the centre of the word "Sigh" being sung closer to "Hard" in pure chest voice, slightly like "Hoard" in the first part of mix, "Heard" in the upper mix and then finally "Who'd" in pure head voice.

Obviously these sounds are incredibly subtle and not broad pronunciations through each of your sounds - they really refer to the creation/blurring of each register overtone as you alter the shape of the vocal tract and balance weight and tension at the folds to allow the most efficient resonance.

You can also break it down rather clinically too when it comes to the physical size/shape of the tract;

  • Neutral/Wider/Becoming narrow/Narrowest

But you need to keep in mind that each vowel sound has it's own natural width within the vocal tract, and certain sounds/vowels need to be altered in different ways to achieve peak resonance - so I like to focus on creating the most resonant overtone in my student's voices.


Master Your Vowels

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8 Reasons Every Singer Should Utilise Vowel Modification

Alright - I've probably overloaded you enough with too much information to process in one sitting, so lets get down to business with 8 Reasons Every Singer Should Utilise Vowel Modification.

#1 - Vowel Modification Is Simply The Natural Form Of Your Voice

That's right, you're not really "modifying" your vowel, you're actually singing your vowel naturally instead of pronouncing each vowel with a heavy speech accent. Vowel Modification is simply the natural form of your resonance in it's most efficient form - keep that in mind when you sing; you don't need to "mangle" your vowel sound to make it sound better, you simply need to move away from speech pronunciation and let your vowel resonate in the most efficient way.

#2 - You Have To Do It

But what about your favourite singers who are "untrained"? What about them? Yep, in one way or another they're modifying their vowels without realising - even Freddie Mercury who was probably the world's greatest "untrained" singer alters the sound of each vowel as he ascends. In short, great singing requires efficient resonance and the right register overtones - and the best way to achieve this is to modify your vowels.

#3 - Vowel Modification Releases Strain and Tension

Do you find yourself yelling and shouting as you sing higher notes? That's because you're using an incorrect balance between the TA and CT muscles - do you remember discussing concentric and eccentric contraction at the start of this tutorial? Well, this is linked to vowel modification;

  • Thick and Short/Balanced/Becoming Thinner/Thin and Short

That subtle "Hoard" you move towards in the AH vowel, or the "Head" you move towards in the AY vowel actually occurs not only due to a slight spread and raising of the soft palate, but it also involves a shift in the coordination of your vocal folds from full weight to partial weight and partially the edge of your vocal folds - weight and tension come together in a balance to let you sing in "full voice" beyond just your chest voice.

#4 - It Sounds Incredible

Think your tone sucks? Modify your vowels. Remember, vowel modification is less about the 'sound' of your vowel and all about that register overtone - and that register overtone is the "best" sounding resonance you can possibly achieve with your instrument. Why would you play an acoustic guitar with a T-Shirt stuffed in the sound-hole? Well, this is essentially what you're doing if you do create height in the vocal tract while modifying your vowels.

#5 - Stamina (It's Efficient)

Running out of steam? Yep, that's because you're not modifying your vowels - there's just too much weight and not enough resonant space to sing efficiently; you're essentially pouring gas all over the road instead of letting it flow into your engine; or better yet, you're essentially screaming into a soft pillow instead of singing into a reflective, expansive space.

#6 - It's Healthy

Again let's use the "Tshirt In The Soundhole" analogy and then relate this to your extremely delicate vocal folds - you can hit those strings as HARD as you like but it's never going to sound right - you're just going to bust a string.

The more you push and yell, the longer you sing inefficiently the more you put your voice at risk of strain and permanent damage every time you sing. Modify those vowels to sing more efficiently and develop a healthier voice - you'll thank me in a few years when everyone around you has lost their voice but your singing is as strong as an Ox.

#7 - You Won't Know What To Do With All That Range

Seriously - I started off with less than an octave of range (about E2 to a pushed E3), but quite comfortably sing from D2 to B5 with ease now that I understand how to modify my vowels correctly for a more efficient use of my voice and better resonance. You seriously won't know WHAT to do with all of that range!

#8 - Singing Will Be Effortless

Isn't it just down right confusing when a voice coach tells you that singing "Feels Like Nothing"? Well, that's because the process of singing correctly really does lead to an effortless ability to sing well - doesn't that sound great to you? After so many years of struggling and straining, I really was SHOCKED when it all came together and it was so much less effort than I was expecting to sing with a powerful, expressive and extensive range.

How Does This Relate To The Four Vocal Fundamentals?

I often speak about The Four Vocal Fundamentals;

  • Height In The Vocal Tract
  • Forward Placement
  • Mixed Tonality
  • "All In One Flow"

You'll probably be surprised to learn that EVERY singing technique out there, every vocal concept, and every vocal method (well, the ones that actually work) are related directly to these four vocal basics.

Vowel modification, along with yawning, raising the soft palate and narrowing the vowel are ALL a proponent of Height In The Vocal Tract in the same way that Twang, Nay and Nyah exercises and Masque all relate directly to Forward Placement.

Better yet, instead of me constantly telling you just how COOL it is to finally be able to sing with such effortless freedom, power and range, let me show you - here's just a few quick examples of the singing voice I enjoy now that I've mastered The Four Vocal Fundamentals - just imagine the killer singing voice you're going to enjoy when you too master these four vocal basics!

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Master The Four Vocal Fundamentals

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Do You Have What It Takes?

When I first started singing, I often questioned myself whether I REALLY had what it takes to become a better singer. I just wanted someone to tell me whether it was ever going to happen or if I was just wasting my time - or even which techniques to focus on to make the best use of my time

Well now this is possible!

This Vocal Improvement Quiz will show you exactly how and where to invest your time to make the most effective progress with your singing, along with calculating your potential for improvement - best of all it's quick, super accurate and most singers are totally SHOCKED by their results!

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