How To Sing With Vowel Modification
Vowel Modification was a vocal concept that I really struggled with when I first started singing (that's me to the left by the way!). Along with other advanced singing techniques like placement, mixed voice, glottal compression and cry; I really felt like vowel modification was "the secret" to great singing that I was missing, and spent a considerable amount of time, effort and money trying to learn how to modify my vowels correctly - so let me save you the time by showing you exactly how to sing with vowel modification the right way.
The first thing you need to do to implement vowel modification is to understand what "vowel" really means when you sing; if you've come across from a 'speech singing' vocal method; you might be a little confused at the minute as to why we need to differentiate articulated speech sounds from vowel sounds formed in the vocal tract - but don't worry as I'll explain thoroughly everything as we go forward.
Vowel in singing really refers to a resonant overtone, not the central sound of a "word" like it often does in speech. When you sing there is one main formant overtone which is often referred to as placement, 6+ vowel overtones often referred to as a pure vowel and then four register overtones within each vowel from which we derive our vowel modifications.
Before we go through each overtone and I show you how to modify your vowels correctly, let's talk about your vocal foundation first. To sing with vowel modification correctly, you must first master The Four Vocal Fundamentals;
- Height In The Vocal Tract
- "All In One Flow"
- Mixed Tonality
- Forward Placement
These four vocal fundamentals are intrinsic to every other vocal technique out there, especially vowel modification as every single vocal concept can be boiled down into their four fundamentals. Vowel Modification in particular falls under the banner of Height In The Vocal Tract because the "modification" in vowel modification actually refers to the shape and size of your vocal tract, in essence modifying the register overtone of each vowel sound when you ascend or descend through each register change.
Without a solid vocal foundation, vowel modification simply won't work for you - this was my issue when I as learning how to sing; in part because I thought that the more complicated and advanced techniques i could stack on top of my singing the better I would become, but my voice failed every time as my foundation crumbled.
Foundation in singing really IS just like the foundation of a house being built; the rock solid base that your walls and roof (tone and range) are being built upon. If you're new to vocal foundation or you're unfamiliar with The Four Vocal Fundamentals you'll benefit greatly from the Foundation 101 singing course as these four fundamentals are the key aspect to how the course builds and grows your singing voice.
The very first step to developing vowel modification is to first find resonant space (height in the vocal tract) and forward placement - make sure you've mastered these fundamentals before you attempt vowel modification!
Singing With Vowel Modification
After you've mastered the basics in your vocal foundation, you can start identifying and developing each vowel and register overtone in the voice. The six main vowel overtones in singing are;
Depending on what and how you are singing, there is also the OO vowel for more classical sounding applications, warmup exercises and even ballads - but we're going to focus on the main six overtones for now.
These six overtones can be boiled down into two main vowel types, AY and AH based vowels where the tongue is up in the centre of the mouth or concave respectively;
- Tongue Down "AH Based Vowels" - AH/AA/OH (Hard/Hat/Hold)
- Tongue Up In The Centre "AY based vowels" - AY/EE/OU (Hey/Heed/Look)
AH Based Vowel Examples
An example of an AH based word would be the word "Hard" - the overtone in the centre of the word sounds like "AH".
An example of an AH based word using the AA vowel is the word "Cat" - the overtone in the centre of the word is "AA".
An example of an AH based word using the OH vowel is the word "Go" - the overtone in the centre of the word is "OH".
AY Based Vowel Examples
An examples of an AY based word would be the word "Head" - the overtone in the centre of the word sounds like "AY".
An example of an AY based word using the EE vowel is the word "See" - the overtone in the centre of the word is "EE".
An example of an AY based word using the OU vowel is the word "Look" (more French sounding than "You") - the overtone in the centre of the word is "OU"
Okay, so a super simple way to master the base vowel sounds is to pick a song in a comfortable low to mid range and re-write the lyrics with the vowel overtones in the centre of each word and over accentuate them while you are practising just to get used to the idea physically and psychologically. A vocal line like "In My Eyes, Indisposed" would become something like "AY-n m-AH-EE AH-EE-s" with the vowel sounds in capitals, consonants in lower case.
Now, the base vowel sounds naturally make up your chest voice overtone, meaning that you can sing the vowel fairly pure in your words - an AY based word in the chest register sounds a little like the word "Hey" - words like Yeah, Head, Say, Set, Pet, Let; are all AY based vowels and contain the same vowel overtone when singing. An AH based word in the chest register sounds a little like the word "Hard" - words like Love, Long, Mast, Eye; are all AH based vowels and contain the same vowel overtone when singing.
What Is Vowel Modification?
Now that we have our base vowel sounds AH/AA/OH with the tongue down and AY/EE/OU with the tongue up in the centre; we can start altering the shape of the vocal tract to allow a more efficient register overtone as you ascend in range.
Remember how to sing with Height In The Vocal Tract from the Foundation 101 singing course? Maintaining and managing this height and shape while singing is the true key to vowel modification. While there is also a subtle change in the coordination of your vocal folds when you modify your vowel, the simplest way to get this to happen is to alter your resonant space and encourage the right resonant overtone and your folds will adjust accordingly - when it comes to vowel modification, resonant space is key; and when it comes to resonant space, height in the vocal tract is key.
Now, if you sing with the pure chest voice overtone of one of your main vowels, let's say the AY vowel to begin with - you'll notice that you experience a vocal break somewhere around a D4 (my first break is actually a B3 out of interest) and no matter how many advanced techniques like glottal compression, cry or twang you throw at your voice you just can't get past this break without pushing; this is because you are trying to push the lower overtone of your voice past the point of efficient resonance and you need to modify your vowel.
Now, your "vowel" doesn't really modify when you sing with vowel modification, instead there is three main changes that occur;
- The size and shape of your vocal tract
- The coordination between the full thickness and the edge of the vocal folds
- The register overtone
So instead of trying to mangle your vowel sound in the mouth, you should be modifying your vowel in the back of the head near the soft palate as your vocal tract widens, narrows and raises to accommodate the changing frequencies and overtones of your voice as you ascend. These changes occur as follows;
- AH based vowels - Hard/Hord/Heard/Who'd
- AY based vowels - Hey/Head/Hid/Heed
So, as you sing towards your first break period (for me around the B3/C4), instead of forcing your vowel to resemble the speechy sound of your chest register, instead you need to port it towards the next resonant overtone.
An example of this is the word "EYE" in which the central overtone sounds a little like the word "Hard" in chest voice - which then moves slightly into the word "Hord" with a forward/French sound in the word. So, to sing the word "EYE" in chest voice you allow the overtone to sound like "Hard" and to sing the word "EYE" past your first vocal break it will change slightly towards a subtle French "Hord" sound - remember, vowel modification happens in your overtone, not the sound of the word in your mouth.
Another example of this is the word "YEAH" in which the central overtone sounds a little like the word "Hey" in chest voice - which then moves slightly into the word "Head". So, to sing the word "YEAH" in chest voice you allow the overtone to sound like "Hey" and to sing the word "YEAH" past your first vocal break it will change slightly towards a subtle "Head" sound.
Now, you might think that dragging the chest voice overtone as high as possible before making this change will make you sound like a total badass and make your voice a shredding belt-machine, but these overtones are actually where the power and finesse come from in a singing voice, so you need to navigate these changes as naturally as possible, especially when you are first building your voice.
To summarise, all AH based vowel sounds move towards a French "Hord" sound through the first break, into a narrowed French "Heard" sound through the second break then a fully narrowed "Who'd" sound into pure head resonance - and obviously the same in reverse in a descending vocal line. All AY based vowel sounds move towards a "Head" sound through the first break, into a narrowed French "Hid" sound through the second break then a fully narrowed "Heed" sound into pure head resonance.
How To Use Vowel Modification
The key to using Vowel Modification in a practical way when you sing isn't to modify your vowel as much as possible, it's actually to blend each overtone and move in between each sound in a fluid and consistent way when you sing. The better you get at vowel modification, the more subtle and smooth the overtone changes will become in your singing to the point you will barely notice them in a very well trained singer.
Singers like Chris Cornell, Aretha Franklin, Paul Rodgers, Freddie Mercury, Layne Staley, Adele, Whitney Houston, Chester Bennington and Scott Weiland ALL sang with vowel modification in various ways through their range to facilitate changes in their resonance, increase their range and ultimately connect their chest and head voice in a fluid way to create one long note from lowest to highest pitch.
Learn To Sing With Vowel Modification
The first step in learning to sing with Vowel Modification is to bridge a connection between chest and head voice using resonant semi-occluded sounds and lip trills first to get the vocal mechanism itself used to bridging a gap between the two vibratory mechanisms of the voice - the full weight of the folds and the edge of the vocal fold. With time and practice, your vocal break/the flip between chest and head voice will smooth out and disappear to the point where you can slide in a siren from high to low, low to high without any flipping or breaking.
Once you've mastered this fundamental connection between chest and head voice, you can start playing around with each vowel overtone and shifting the space in your vocal tract to identify the best formant for each register - I like to split the registers into four types like so;
- Chest Voice (Hard/Hey)
- Chest Mix (Hord/Head)
- Head Mix (Heard/Hid)
- Head Voice (Who'd/Heed)
Vowel Modification is a key aspect of the Growth 101 singing course here at Bohemian Vocal Studio which is the advanced extension of the Foundation Vocal Method. Remember, vowel modification first starts with a rock solid vocal foundation. Before focusing your time and effort on Vowel Modification, you first need to ask yourself whether you've truly mastered The Four Vocal Fundamentals;
- Height In The Vocal Tract
- Forward Placement
- "All In One Flow"
- Mixed Tonality
But instead of telling you over and over again just how important it is to develop your vocal foundation and just how AMAZING it feels to sing with effortless freedom and power now that I've mastered these four simple fundamentals - here's a few quick examples of what I'm achieving now that I've developed my vocal foundation and learned to use Vowel Modification the right way; just imagine the incredible singing voice you could build with a rock solid vocal foundation!
Do You Have What It Takes?
Think you're ready to learn Vowel Modification in Growth 101? Wondering whether you really have what it takes to become a great singer? This simple vocal quiz will show you exactly how and where to invest your time to make the most improvement in your singing. Best of all it's simple, incredibly accurate and most singers are absolutely shocked at the results!