How to sing with Vowel Modification
Vowel Modification is often a confusing concept if you are trying to learn how to sing – which vowel sounds should I use and not only WHY do we modify vowels, but HOW do you actually modify them? Well, I’m here to show you that it doesn’t have to be so hard – and learning to sing can be very simple, easy and enjoyable to do. This singing tutorial will focus on tuning your resonance to allow more efficient resonance in your singing voice and connected, strain free access to your high range. Coordinating vowel modification with other elements of a great singing voice like the middle register, placement, consonant grouping, onsets and others will allow you to sing with a smooth, powerful and connected voice that sounds like one long, resonant note from the bottom of your range to the very top.
WHAT is vowel modification?
Vowel modification is a subtle change in the WIDTH or NARROWNESS of a vowel sound to allow for ease and power in resonance throughout the ‘tricky’ parts of our voice and all us to transition through our vocal breaks without issue. Often, voice coaches teach their students to alter the character of each of their vowel sounds to ping their frequencies in a specific way which aids resonance and release of strain. It’s often packaged as the ‘secret’ to great singing in expensive singing courses, but is simply one approach to a natural aspect of your singing voice, resonance tuning.
WHY should we modify vowels? Without these subtle modifications to the width of our vowels, our frequencies would ‘spread’ and vibrate in an ineffient way, leading to extra effort (aka pushing and straining!) and a resulting flip, break or worse, damage to our voices.
HOW do you modify a vowel? Despite popular beleif, and the deceptive name, vowel modifcation has less to with with “vowels” and actually involves modifying the position of your tongue-root relative to the pharynx (I’ll explain this in depth for you in a moment). The vowel sound stays the same (AH/AA/OO/EE/AY for example), but the WIDTH of these vowels goes through a series of unique and ingrained changes as you ascend in range.
Can’t you just “Change” the vowel to OH or OO?
While this is generally most people’s introduction to Vowel Modification, in the form of singing “OH” for a wide vowel, and “OO” for a narrow vowel – it’s far too general to be an effective and efficient way to tune your vowels correctly. A better way to modify your vowels is to focus on the sensation and muscles required to reposition the root of your tongue, and instead keep the vowel the same, but change the WIDTH of your vocal tract instead. Here’s a super simple tuturial I’ve put together to show you how it’s done:
So as you see, singing towards “OH” is very ineffiecient, and often mangles your vowel completely and changes the actual shape of your vowel (read: the shape of your tongue) along with modifying the vocal tract. Learning the correct musculature and intention behind modifying your vowel will take you much further and lead to a much smoother and more powerful singing voice over time.
Why can’t I just keep the vowel how it is?
Subtle changes in the frequencies created by your vocal chords as you ascend means that your tongue is no longer “EQing” your resonance in the right way to create the vowel you’re going for at the pitch you’re trying to sing, leading you to create frequencies that simply don’t vibrate correctly, and causes you to muffle the GOOD frequencies in their place. You can test this yourself by singing in a comfortable low of middle tone with a “Lah Lah Lah Lah” sound – can you feel how the vowel either ‘constricts’ or ‘flips’ towards the top? This is due to the width of your throat – so lets try to either NARROW by moving the tongue root back, or WIDEN by moving the tongue root forwards in our vocal tract to tune our resonance correctly. If you still need help tuning your vowels properly, you can book a session with me now and I’ll show you how it’s done!
Will it get easier?
Yes, look at your favourite singer, or at least, a really GREAT singer who knows how to sing well – do you ‘notice’ their vowel modifications? If they’re doing so correctly, it will be an almost inaudible change that happens naturally, fluidly and without much work on the singer’s part. The more you practice and develop your vowel modifications and tune your vowels to the correct width, the easier and more natural it will become.
The best way to do it is to ‘release’ your vocal registers first by way of a lip trill, or a light hum. Then secondly to “place” your voice with the intention of your frequencies sitting above your top teeth, an “N” or “NG” works pretty great for this. Then you need to do the same thing with each of your vowels, AH/AA/OO/EE/EY and pay special attention to the ‘width’ that is being created by the root of your tongue as you ascend.
Which way do I go – wide, or narrow?
That really depends on your voice type – but the general rule is that you ‘widen’ somewhat through your first break, then ‘narrow’ incrementally up into your higher range. Now, obviously each voice is different and resonates differently, so this is just a basic guide. The best way to tune your vowels is to follow these two golden rules:
If you’re shouting and yelling – your vowel is too WIDE
If you’re flipping and going breathy – your vowel is too narrow
Of course, there are variations on this theme, but it’s a great place to start to get you singing past your first break and building the musculature needed to effective tune your frequencies by modifying your vowels.
How to practice Vowel Modification
Practicing singing with Vowel Modification is very easy – you can simply start with any vowel sound, perhaps “AH” for illustration purposes, and then sing towards an “OH” and then back to the vowel. Can you feel how the root of your tongue moves forward when you change the vowel like this? Now, lets try to copy the muscle movement this time instead of the “OH” sound and keep your vowel as close to “AH” as you can. Can you feel how this AH sound now widens instead of changing? Congratulations, you just modified your vowel! Next, you can try the same thing with by moving the pure AH vowel towards an OO, like an owl’s hoot – can you feel how your tongueroot moves BACK? Congratulations, you just sang with a narrowed vowel. Using the guide above for whether you should be widening or narrowing, try to implement this change while also changing pitch – singing up an octave from your low or mid range works perfectly for training your vowels.
Now that you understand how to tune your vowel without mutilating your actual vowel sound with “OH” and “OO” – you can start singing higher into your range and tuning your vowels along the way using the guide above to learn how to narrow, or widen your vowel sound and get the absolute BEST out of your resonance no matter where you sing.
How to sing with vowel modification practically
Singing actual songs with vowel modification takes some patience, understanding and finesse. This is why the layman’s approach to vowel modification “OH to OO” really isn’t effective in teaching you how to sing better – you’ll be mangling your vowels and tripping over your words constantly with this approach. The best thing to do is to practice a very subtle widening and narrowing through your ‘tricky’ areas and ingrain these changes – you can even learn how to ‘anticipate’ the change so that you are modifying efficiently and quickly without anyone ever noticing – this is what the PRO’s do when they sing high and powerfully.
Singing with Vowel Modification the RIGHT way, you can sing ANY song in ANY key and hit ALL the high notes you could ever want to sing! Remember, great singing starts with a healthy foundation first, and when you’ve got a STRONG base, you can build up your range with advanced techniques like vowel modification, compression, adduction and frequency control.
If you’re ready to take your voice to the NEXT LEVEL and learn how to modify your vowels the right way, book a session with me and I’ll show you how it’s done!
Feel free to leave any questions or feedback below!
Kegan DeBoheme is Bohemian Vocal Studio’s resident vocal coach and voice expert. He teaches professional singing and voice technique to students all around the world and enjoys providing tutorials like this one on how to improve your voice.