Audrey Hunt, author of "Anyone Can Sing," and international vocal coach teaches us how to sound better when we sing by using clear diction.
The Five Pure Primary Vowels Used in Singing
If you want to improve your singing, pay attention to how you form vowels. Every song you sing contains a vowel. Without vowels, words would make no sense at all.
For this purpose, it's crucial that you, the singer, have a solid knowledge of forming vowels. To be understood, it's necessary to position your mouth in a certain way, depending on the vowel itself.
Five Basic Vowels for Singing
The five primary vowels for singing are:
- Ah—as in father
- Eh—as in met
- Ee—as in meet
- Oh—as in home
- Oo—as in blue
Proper Mouth Shape and Tongue Positioning Are Key
The key to good production of these five vowels is in the formation of the mouth, jaw, and tongue. Keep the lips relaxed as you gently position them for each vowel. Too much tension in the lip area will produce more pressure in the tone, affecting your sound, and you don't want that to happen.
Each vowel should be enunciated with your tongue forward in the mouth, tucked neatly behind your bottom teeth. The back of the tongue should be kept away from the throat to keep the sound nice and clear. Keep the tongue relaxed and free from tension when singing.
Don't Sing Vowels the Same Way You Speak
It's easy to fall into the habit of singing indistinctly and not be aware of it. Most singers are surprised to find that they are committing this vocal sin. They have no idea that this happens because they don't shape their lips correctly when they sing words containing vowels (which is most words.) They think they should pronounce words the same way they speak and wonder why their voice doesn't "carry." Also, sometimes their tone goes flat (it's not just a bad ear that causes off-key singing.).
Although there are 26 letters in the alphabet, only five primary vowels exist. When appropriately executed in singing, these five vowels—Ah, Eh, Ee, Oh, Oo—will help " carry" the tone, resulting in a much better sound. Vowels carry the greatest energy where the vocal tract is most open.
Each primary vowel requires a different mouth, lip, and jaw formation. Once you practice each shape, you'll be amazed at how your sound improves.
Now, let's begin with the powerful vowel, "Ah."
Mouth Positioning for the "Ah" Vowel
The sound of Ah is made with the mouth wide open but not so wide that tension sets in:
- Position the mouth in an oval shape.
- Place two fingers (pointer and ring) between the top and bottom teeth lengthwise to ensure enough space.
- Do not tense the jaw or tongue. It is crucial to keep these areas as relaxed as possible. This will give you a smooth and rich tone without tension.
- With the mouth in this position, speak the word "haaaaa." Hold on to the word sustaining the ah sound. Try a relaxed, gentle sigh with the mouth in a yawning position.
- Feel for vibrations across the nose area. Do not swallow the sound.
- Sing the same word in an easy and comfortable tone. Be sure the pitch is not too low or too high. Make it sound like a long sigh.
Tip: Practice in front of a mirror so you can view your mouth position. Eventually, you will memorize the correct form, providing you practice often.
"Singing brings out in me what I can't bring out in everyday life. It's an incredible feeling to bare your soul to people you've never met in a way that can make them understand so clearly what you mean. That's what I love most about singing . . . it becomes my truest form of communication."
— Josh Groban
Words That Contain the 'Ah' Position
Here's a simple exercise that will help you to keep your mouth in the correct position for all words containing the vowel Ah.
- Standing or sitting in front of a mirror, sing the Ah vowel and monitor your mouth position.
- After doing this several times, close your eyes, repeating this exercise. As you are holding the sound (sustaining), open your eyes to see if your mouth remains open.
- Repeat the closing and opening of the eyes as you sing Ah several times.
Now sing the following words containing the ah position, monitoring your mouth opening by looking in the mirror again. Use a relaxed tone, not too low or too high.
Remember to keep the open mouth position until the consonant makes a connection. In other words, don't allow the open mouth to change to a smaller opening as you approach the consonant. This is the key to making the word clear.
Mouth Positioning for the 'Eh' Vowel
Think of the word "met." Sing the word met, sustaining the 'Eh' sound. The mistake most singers make is to sing 'Ih' instead of 'Eh.' As you attempt to sing this vowel, place your lips in such a way that you are just beginning a smile.
- Keep the tongue very relaxed in the bed of the mouth, with the tip resting lightly against the bottom front teeth.
- Sing 'Meh sustaining the eh sound to give you time to make any necessary adjustments.
- Feel for light vibrations just above the upper lip and across the nose.
- Lingering on the "m" will add these vibrations if you fail to feel them.
- Using a mirror, singing the following words in a light and easy tone monitoring the lip position:
Mouth Positioning for the 'Ee' Vowel
I prefer using the sound of Ee when beginning warm-ups for the voice. Here's why. In teaching singers to concentrate on feeling vibrations through the hard palate (roof of the mouth.), the tongue is closer to this area than any other vowel. Developing rich resonating sounds is one of the main goals of excellent singing.
For this reason, I often start warming up the voice on the vowel Ee, gradually introducing other vowels as we work up and down the scales.
- The mouth position for Ee is a flat tongue resting against the bottom front teeth. The lips are in a relaxed slight "smile" position. The subtle rise of the cheeks will pull the lips into a perfect position.
- Practice as outlined above to learn to form the Ee vowel. Don't rush this process. Then sing the following words containing the Ee sound in a warm comfortable tone:
Mouth Positioning for the 'Oh' Vowel
The Oh vowel is easy to learn but often executed incorrectly when singing. So you will need total concentration for voicing this vowel. It's not uncommon to hear a singer produce the sound of "uh" instead of a nice round Oh.
Note: For vocalists who have been trained in the use of diphthongs, remember to add a quick " Oo" following the Oh. Example: Oh-oo. This only applies to a singular Oh vowel and not when it rests between consonants.
- To shape the lips to sing an Oh, form the lips into a round Oh. To test your mouth position opening - with the lips in the Oh position, stick your pointer finger through the opening and back out again. The finger should not touch the lips (unless you have extra big fingers.)
- After singing this vowel several times, add the following words:
Mouth Positioning for the 'Oo' Vowel
Just pucker up as if to kiss someone and you have shaped the Oo vowel perfectly. That's all there is to it.
Then sing the following words using the sound of Oo:
Learning how to enunciate the vowels correctly takes some practice but makes all the difference in your singing. It directly affects your sound.
Singing Vowels Requires Mouth Space
Vowels are catchy little critters with a demanding attitude. The singer needs to learn to sing vowels while not allowing consonants, which resonate and project more poorly than vowels, to get in the way. Just try to sing the following consonants, and you will see that you can't sustain them.
- B C D F G H J K
- P Q R S T V W Y Z (X )
So, in learning to produce proper vowel sounds, remember that vowels are shaped and formed in the vocal tract by the tongue and, to a lesser extent, the lips.
Remember, you need to sing on open vowels, and not try to sustain consonants to maximize the resonance and carry your voice's power.
Vocal Clarity Begins With Good Vowel Production
When we listen to a song, we are influenced by the lyrics the singer delivers. When we can't understand the words to the song, there's nothing more frustrating. Singers are responsible for pronouncing every word with clarity, and good articulation begins with a thorough understanding of vowel production.
YOU are the instrument as far as singing is concerned, and your entire body is involved. The singer must combine and control many body parts to sing well. Learning to shape primary vowels (Ah Eh Ee Oh Oo) will bring clarity to your voice. To sing so that every word is clear and can be understood, the singer must learn how to shape the vowel within the word itself. Learning how to do this will enrich your singing because the vowel carries the sound itself.
For example, suppose you're singing the word "father." The sound of "ah" requires a dropped jaw. If the jaw is lazy and doesn't drop enough, the word "father" may sound like "further" to the listener. Unless it's pointed out to the singer that this is happening, he repeatedly continues to sing the word "father" the same way. One of the most frustrating experiences for the listener is not understanding the words being sung. The performer who cannot articulate the words of a song so that they are understood, has defeated the whole purpose of his art. Here's a typical scenario of what can happen when the singer lacks knowledge of vowel production: