The Key To Singing Vowels Correctly (Tongue Shapes)
Singing vowels correctly is truly the key to a great singing voice, and the key to singing vowels correctly is actually your tongue shape. In speech we actually use the front part of our faces, sometimes called The Articulators, including the teeth, lips and tip of the tongue to create and pronounce our sounds. However, in singing, the shape of your tongue and corresponding resonant space in the vocal tract actually creates your vowels – this is called vowel shaping or tongue shaping.
One of the simplest ways to illustrate the concept and technique of vowel shaping is for you to alternate between an AH and an EE sound. If you pay attention to your tongue when you sing these resonant sounds you’ll notice that the EE sound occurs with your tongue raised in the back, and the AH sound occurs with your tongue low and concave. These two shapes are the main base of almost all of your vowel sounds, all except OO. Are you ready to start singing vowels correctly using tongue shapes and vowel shaping? Let’s get started.
The three main shapes
All vowels stem from three pure shapes, OO, AH and EE. OO is a sole vowel that has it’s own special tongue shape, while EE also creates EH, AY and IH and AH also creates AA and OH. Learning to shape these first three critical vowels is paramount to singing vowels correctly.
These vowel shapes make the base of all other vowel sounds. Study them well and practice regularly for the most efficient and powerfully resonant vowel sounds in singing. Now, you may ask HOW exactly this works, so lets talk about frequencies and resonant space before delving into each vowel sound individually.
Resonant space and frequencies
In essence, the shape of your tongue “EQ’s” the frequencies that are created in your resonant space, giving the illusion of each sound while maintaining a powerfully resonant sound in the vocal tract. Now, resonant space occurs in the pharynx due to alterations made to the vocal tract, mainly by movement of the root of the tongue, compression in the glottis or twang, and movement of the soft palate itself, which raises up to create and elongate your resonant space in the high range.
An easy way to develop your understanding of resonant space is to first set up your vocal tract free of tension and strain. Most tension in singing is due to improper use of muscles which have very little to do with actually singing, an example being the digastric muscle.
The digastric muscle
The digastric muscle sits underneath your tongue under the base of your chin and serves the role of alternating the mechanism of flow into the throat either between the lungs or stomach – it serves zero function in singing, but many people engage this muscle when they sing and experience all manner of strain due to it’s unnecessary participation in the process of singing. The best way to release this muscle is to gentle place the flat part of your thumb up underneath your chin and then release your jaw. If you do this correctly and learn to release tension from this area, you will notice a ‘slack’ jaw feeling as though you’ve just been to the dentist – you can now perform a gentle yawn in the back of your throat (not in the larynx) breathing solely through your mouth. Congratulations, you just released vocal tension while creating resonant space.
Now, in theory this is an easy way to learn about resonant space, but putting this into practice takes time and perseverance. The trick with singing vowels correctly is to alternate between each tongue shape without inviting tension into the mechanism, while also allowing appropriate resonant space in the pharynx like we just discovered. When you sing higher into your range, your mouth should open from top to bottom and the soft palate must raise to create the same resonant space you just felt on the tension-releasing yawn we just performed.
Resonant space truly is key to singing vowels correctly, and the key to resonant space is developing proper control over the soft palate.
Additional vowel sounds
While AH, EE and OO are the ‘pure’ vowel sounds, they really don’t serve to create absolutely every word and vowel sound you would hope to sing effectively, so we can make slight alterations to our tongue shape, mouth and vocal tract to “EQ” further sounds into our singing voices.
The AH vowel serves as the base for two other vowel sounds, AA and OH respectively. The AA sound occurs when you take a pure AH sound, so, tongue low and concave, and you move the centre of your tongue forward. This will create any AA sound like Cat or Hat. Now, the OH vowel is a little different, in that we still sing a pure AH vowel, but simply shape our lips into an oval aperture at the front of our mouths – this will make any sound like Go or Throw.
The EE vowel serves as the base for one more sound, the AY, or EH vowel. This vowel occurs when you open the front of your mouth on a pure EE vowel. This makes any sound from Pay to Pet to Say and Brave. This vowel can be particularly troublesome for many singers due to the way they hear this sound in speech. Remember, singing and speaking are ultimately two separate actions that require separate instructions – don’t use your speech pronunciation or your singing voice will suffer.
The First Break
The first vocal break generally occurs in most singers due to a lack of resonant space. This resonant space, like we discussed earlier, happens in the pharynx due to release of the tongue root and a raised soft palate. Many singers like to alter the character of their vowel instead of tuning their vocal tract in such a physical way, in essence cycling through a set of different vowels as they ascend in range. This is known as vowel modification. Now, vowel modification doesn’t happen from the articulators like you may expect, the change in vowel character actually occurs in the vocal tract itself when you alter the resonant space. As you ascend up towards your first break, try altering your EE vowel slightly towards an AY in the back (remember, not the front!), and your AH vowel towards OH. This will open your resonant space while keeping the purity and clear sound of your vowels. Over time you can memorise this sensation and do away with the clunky need to butcher your vowel sounds and it will become smoother and clearer with practice and perseverance.
The Second Break
The second break occurs for a similar reason to the first, but actually requires you to narrow your resonant space and elongate the vocal tract rather than widening like we do through the first. This is easily achievable by practicing the French OU sound, which occurs when you sing with an EE tongue shape, but OO vowel articulation at the lips – so, a very small pinhead aperture at the lips, but a raised tongue at the back. If you sing this sound high in your head voice, you’ll notice that you are able to sing with a POWERFUL resonance in full voice – pretty neat, right? Now, the key is learning to mimic the sensation in the back of the narrowed vowel sound while also allowing the purity of your other vowels to ring true as you ascend in range. Many singers feel as though the change goes through three different vowel characters, AH>OH>OU or EE>AH>OU, but you can also learn the physical sensation of narrowing the vocal tract and altering your resonant space for a much more efficient and practical approach to increasing your range and singing vowels correctly.
Learning how to sing vowels properly is the key to powerful, resonant singing. If your vowels are consistent, your voice will be consistent – if you aren’t shaping your vowels in the right manner, then you will lack control and you won’t be able to balance your tone and timbre efficiently.
Vowels are key
Singing and speech are ultimately two separate actions. Learning to sing vowels correctly is the key to any great singing voice and any solid approach to singing technique. Remember, the sound of each of your resonant vowel sounds in singing comes from the shape of your tongue and how you alter your resonant space – are you shaping your vowels properly, or are you pronouncing? A great way to learn which vowel sounds are appropriate for each word in actual songs is using our Vowel Translator tool – the first singing vocal translator of it’s kind.
If you need help shaping your vowels and modifying your vowels correctly so you can unlock your full vocal range and your full potential as a singer, I suggest booking a Skype Lesson with me so we can start working towards extending your range and building balance and consistency in your voice ever time you sing!
If you have any questions about singing vowels correctly, 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.