How To Sing With Vowel Modification
Vowel Modification is one of the more advanced singing concepts that truly confused me as I was first struggling to learn how to sing. Often explained in passing without much detail by singing coaches who use this approach, Vowel Modification actually has very little to do with your vowel sound, and absolutely everything to do with resonant space. To modify a vowel, you don’t actually change the sound of your vowel itself – you alter the resonant space that occurs in the vocal tract, which has the run-on effect of slightly altering the character of your vowel.
This vowel chart is going to change your life as a singer, but before we get started I’d like to take you through the basics of vowel formation for efficient singing.
How To Sing Vowels Correctly
With all the different accents, languages and voice types out there, it really is a wonder that many people subscribe to the idea of singing like you speak. As an example, my Australian accent does NOT lend well to resonant and strain free singing. Sure, certain American accents might just have the right vowel setup to use this approach, but for the rest of us? Forget about it. Instead, the correct way to sing vowels is actually to shape each sound with the tongue while allowing and manipulating resonant space in the vocal tract.
Learning how to sing vowels correctly has been the biggest game-changer for me as a singer, and really has led me down the path of becoming a voice coach and also a well respected singer too!
A great way to introduce this powerful and important concept to you is for you to alternate smoothly between an EE and an AH sound where you feel comfortable. You’ll notice that your tongue rises at the back on the EE sound, and it lowers to a concave on the AH sound – congratulations, you just shaped your first two vowels. Ingraining these shapes as a healthy habit so that you resonate efficiently every time you sing these sounds (instead of pronouncing) is the key to incredibly consistent singing. Shaping your vowels in this manner will:
- Improve your pitch
- Improve your diction and clarity
- Improve your resonance
- Allow you to increase your range
- Improve your tone and timbre
- Allow you to use Vowel Modification correctly
This last point is incredibly important. Vowel modification requires you to shape your vowels in this fashion, and without this efficient resonance, you will simply pronounce each sound and your range will suffer, you’ll strain, and you’ll ultimately lack a free and powerful high range.
Vowel Modification 101
Vowel Modification is actually a pretty simple concept, but it’s not often explained in a simple or practical way. I guess this comes with this ‘lucky’ accents that naturally shape their vowels or speak using resonant space – I know I certainly don’t. Vowel Modification happens when you use the soft palate, tongue root, glottis and vocal tract itself to allow efficient resonance to continue even as your frequencies change in the higher registers. Lack of resonant space is generally the cause of vocal breaks and voice cracking, and is the number one cause of vocal strain and tension – it’s like playing an electric guitar without a guitar amp… or even without strings!
How to Fix Voice Cracks
Rather than holding on to the ‘sound’ of your vowel as you ascend in range from a comfortable low to middle register, you can jump-start the resonant space we just discovered by allowing the vowel to widen a touch. For example, a pure AH sound would become a more open OH sound (or AWE for you Americans out there!). Remember, this change doesn’t happen in the vowel itself, it happens due to an increase/change in your resonant space – so don’t focus on the sound per se, just focus on that resonant space and ‘allow’ your vowel to slightly alter through the first break area of your voice. Each vowel has it’s own unique character as you ascend, and of course different accents will perceive these sounds difference – but in a very general sense, this is how each vowel character modifies as you ascend in range;
- AH – OH – OO (EE/OO)
- EE – AY – EH – EE
- OO – OH – OO
Now, beyond these three main vowel shapes, there are actually countless variations on each sound, but we’ll focus on the most common for now.
The AH vowel will also give you an AA and an OH sound, the EE also gives you AY and OO is the only pure vowel that has little variation. Each of these variations goes through a similar change to the root vowel.
The Most Important Thing To Remember
Simply attempting to change the sound of your vowel, or even change the articulation that is happening at your lips isn’t Vowel Modification – vowel mangling would be a better term for this approach. True vowel modification happens in the resonant space that occurs in the pharynx which is located at the back of your head. With subtle changes to the root of the tongue, compression, the soft palate and vocal tract itself, each vowel will naturally modify to an efficient resonant space and allow you to increase range, sing with more power and sing completely without tension or strain.
The reason I struggled for so many years with the concept of vowel modification was in part due to my lack of understanding of how resonant space changes the character of your vowel, but mainly due to a lack of control and balance in my foundation. Of course an advanced concept like Vowel Modification wasn’t working in my voice when I lacked support, had little resonance, pushed and strained and generally lacked any finesse around my approach to vowel shaping. Advanced concepts like Vowel Modification, Placement and even Mixed Voice are actually the EASIEST part of singing, because by the time you get to them – your voice is ready! My ability to modify vowels efficiently only appeared once I learned to set up a strong foundation and create a blend of resonance between chest and head known as Mix or Middle Voice.
If you’ve having trouble modifying your vowels, a great place to start is this exclusive Mixed Voice Singing Lesson which will share with you the simple and practical approach I discovered to connecting chest and head voice, increasing my range and ultimately opening up my voice so I could sing with more range and power than I ever through possible. You can check out the Mixed Voice Lesson here.
If you have any questions about Vowel Modification, feel free to leave any feedback or questions 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.