A Beginner’s Guide To Vowel Modification
Camille van Niekerk
Vowel modification is simply: changing a vowel sound to make it easier to sing AND improve the tone quality. Why would we need to change vowels, though? Aren’t they all basically the same?
No! Each vowel is the result of a slightly different shape in your vocal tract (the pathway from your larynx to your lips). Different mouth posture, tongue placement and lip closure make up the difference between an EE sound and an OO sound, for example.
It’s getting a little sciencey, but I promise it’ll make sense!
Your mouth and throat - which together make up your vocal tract - “boost” frequencies within the sound wave created by your vocal folds. You can hear this clearly when you move from an EE vowel to an OO vowel on the same pitch. Notice how your tone is very bright, maybe even nasal on the EE vowel, and notice how it gets significantly “darker” or “warmer” on the OO vowel.
Now, pause right here and we’ve got one great usage of vowel modification!
1. Modify vowels to improve tone quality
If your tone is overly bright, for example, you might modify your vowels closer to a warmer UH or OO shape. Lewis Capaldi and Adele are two singers who use this kind of modification a lot, resulting in a warm, rich tone, especially in their low chest voice ranges.
If your tone is overly dark, on the over hand, you might modify your vowels closer to a bright EE, EY (as in HEY) or A (as in CAT) shape. Notice how your tongue and lips are positioned to make these brighter vowel sounds, and use a similar position when you want that sound.
On a related note, we can:
2. Modify vowels to help achieve our desired registration
In order to do this, we need to understand 3 basic vowel categories, adapted from John Henny’s “Teaching Contemporary Singing”:
Mouth position: closed
Examples: OO (as in cool) and EE (as in bee)
Great for: head voice
Use when: you want a lighter tone
Mouth position: neutral
Examples: UH (as in cup) and ʊ (as in book)
Great for: mixed voice
Use when: you’re in middle/mixed voice or crossing registers
Mouth position: wide and/or open
Examples: EY (as in hey) and A (as in yeah)
Great for: chest voice
Use when: you want a heavier, chesty tone
See this video for examples and exercises to practice modifying narrow vowels: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pYq36TPd84&t=108s.
Pro tip: These vowel categories really come in handy when you’re singing in your mix or middle range! If you notice that you’re “flipping” into head voice (and don’t want to), try a slightly wider or more open mouth shape. If you’re getting too heavy or loud, try a slightly more closed shape.
To summarize and simplify: medium vowels (UH as in CUP and ʊ as in BOOK) are almost always helpful! If you’re having trouble with a specific section or lyric:
1. Remove the lyrics and sing on a syllable like MUM or BʊB (“BOOK” vowel sound)
2. Check your mouth position in the mirror: are you gently dropping your jaw? Is your mouth in a neutral shape?
3. Modify the problematic vowel to a shade that’s easier to sing. For example, if EE sounds tense but UH sounds balanced, a good “shade” of that EE vowel may be something closer to IH (as in GIVE).
4. Rehearse until it’s muscle memory!
Summing up: Vowel modification is an art, not a science. If no modification is needed (ie: you’re happy with the tone quality and registration), then great! But most songs will require at least some amount of vowel modification, even if it’s just on a lyric or two. It will become more natural the more you do it. Just remember that as singers, we don’t need to pronounce our words exactly as we’d speak them. We prioritize beautiful tone over perfect diction, but we do our best to remain intelligible!
Homework time: Listen carefully to your favorite singers - or even better, watch recordings of live performances - and see if you can identify some vowel modification. I bet you’ll begin to notice it more and more!