The tonal variations and shades of a musical instrument (such as the guitar) are nearly infinite. From the choice of woods, to strings, to the musician’s approach, each element helps create a rainbow of sound variations.

Singers have their own infinite color choices, and vowel shadings are a significant source of variations for musical expression.

In this episode, John discusses how to think of and approach vowels for maximum variety and suggests exercises to help find your musical color palate.

Episode Transcript

Episode 73 – Your Vocal Color Wheel

Hey, this is John Henny welcome back to the intelligent vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending this precious time with me. Okay a little bit of housekeeping. As you may know, I’ve got my book coming out. I’m getting it back from the editor this week. This podcast should be dropping around the 12th or 13th of February 2019. That’s a weird month to say February. Do you really pronounce that are anyway, of 2019 and I’m going to be looking for some test readers. So if you would like to read my book, the title right now is Teaching Contemporary Singing. If you’d like to read my book, it will tell you how to become a give you my method for teaching voice in book form and it’s a great book for you. If you’re a singer and you’re thinking about teaching you’ve never taught before, maybe you’ve been teaching a little while, but a want a little more info on contemporary singing maybe your specialties a little more classical. 

Well, I have a book I can recommend and I’m going to be needing some test readers. So what I’m going to do when I get it back from the editor, I will be sending out a free PDF to everyone who’d like to read it. All I ask is if you can give me some feedback. If you’re good at proofreading, maybe you can catch some things that have not been caught. I’m not good at that but, and also just let me know how the structure goes if the information makes sense. And if you do feel so compelled perhaps write a review on Amazon when the book comes out with your honest opinion. I certainly don’t want to coerce anyone and that’s against Amazon’s policies but of course reviews are helpful. The best way to find out about this is to join my email list. 

Go to you’ll see a little boxes there to sign up. You can also like my John Henny vocals, Facebook page, John Hennyy vocals, and I will be announcing it there as well. However, I suggest you get on the email list because I send out far more content to my email list than ever gets out to the rest of the world. And also there’s special offers that I make, etc. So I would suggest you get on that if you do enjoy these podcasts. Okay today I want to talk about your vocal color wheel and what I’m talking about as I’m usually talking about, I’m talking about vowels, but I want to talk about vowels in a bit of a deeper way. Vowels are really important in terms of balancing your voice. When you sing, when you create this sound wave from your vocal chords, compressing the air that’s being sent up from your lungs. 

And when the vocal cords pop open that compressed air starts vibrating as the energy. Then comes out and bounces around the vowels are the filter. The vowels control your resonators of the throat and mouth and their interaction with the sound wave, which is vitally important, especially if you want to tame your vocal break and learn to sing powerfully up high. You need to understand how to tune these vowels and modify these vowels to create the vocal balance that you need. Otherwise we get all the straining and cracking and the various vocal issues that keep voice teachers like me in business. But there is a further area in which you can develop your control over the vowels. And this is really coloring your voice and having options of how you are going to sound you know, let’s take a guitar. There are so many variables in what you finally hear coming from either the acoustic guitar or an amplifier that it’s almost infinite from the choice of the wood to the string to even where the guitars strings set on the nut and the bridge. 

That type of material is just the pick, the thickness of the strings, the type of strings, the way the guitarist will attack the string. How soft, how loud, just their type of touch will affect the tone. And there are certain elements of the guitar that are fluid such as the touch, etc. Some that aren’t as fluid. It’s kinda hard to change pic in the middle of a solo, but you can do that. Even less fluid is changing the strings and pretty much non fluid is changing the tone woods, what the neck is made of, the body of the guitar, etc. Those are more fixed. The voice is this amazingly flexible instrument in that yes, we do have some fixed parameters. The size and shape are your vocal chords, the size and shape of your resonators. 

There are some variables there that are somewhat fixed. However, we can play within those parameters. We can change the size and the shape of our resonators. Ultimately now I cannot make my mouth wider. Then, oh the great line in a Bohemian Rhapsody where they movie, where they talk to Freddie about getting his teeth fixed and he says, no, no, it makes my mouth bigger and I can get higher notes. And I’m not going to go to the dentist to get my mouth to look like Freddie Mercury’s. However, within the parameters that I’ve been given, what nature has given me, I’ve got a lot of variants and control and I can change these parameters in ways that no other instrument can. Therefore our color wheel becomes rather sophisticated and I want you to understand the various options that you have as a singer to control the tone and the color of your voice. 

Because as great singers understand this, whether they understand it innately it’s just an instinct. It’s just their musicality dictating it and others kind of have to intellectually get it into their heads and play with it and then it becomes more your instincts and your musicality. You go from conscious competence having to think about it to unconscious competence where you just become amazing without having to think too much. Usually when I don’t think I am a mess, but in certain parts of my life where I don’t think it’s actually a good thing and certainly when singing and expressing myself. The more I can get to that unconscious competence, the better it is. But I really have to kind of play with things and explore them and see how they work before I can cross over into that deeper understanding of just letting it flow. 

So I want to present to you these ideas that you can go and play with and fool around and just feel how this works. If really understanding this can help your singing, taking some control of this, doing this with purpose, experiment with it, exaggerate it, and then go back and just get into your flow and see if it has a change in your singing. I think it will. Now just to sing a little bit of a song just to demonstrate what I’m talking about. I’m going to use the star spangled banner just because it is in the public domain and I don’t feel like getting some copyright infringement. So most people know this song and starts add oh say, but there are so many variables that I can play with in terms of the vowel and there are so many shades of these vowels that I can use without going into any extreme vocal sounds without going into the store Sherman or anything wild which is not my strong suit anyway. 

But to just work with, the simple framework of the vowels and vowel perception. So we start off with Oh, now there is a range of o’s that I can make that you as the listener are still going to perceive as Oh, and there is a range within the word say that a diphthong it’s two vowel sounds, actually a diphthong is the weirdest word ever. It’s D I P H T H O N G diphthong. I can barely say it nevermind. Understand it. Well, it’s actually pretty understandable, easy to understand to vowel sounds together. A it’s not like Italian, it’s a in English, but the, we traditionally hold the first sound so that a part of it, there is a range of a that I can do where you will still hear the word, but they’re actually quite different, especially on the extreme. 

So going back to that little intro, I can sing Ooh C or Oh say, Oh say, Oh say, Oh say you hear the language in all of those. But I basically went from Oh to Ooh, but if I go too far aaaoohh now you’re starting to hear aah and I’ve crossed over the perception line. Remember vowels are just perception. I’ve talked about vowels a lot in these podcasts there is a perception that we hear the Oh perception to the Oh ooh aah, and as we open up the mouth or as we move the tongue forward A okay. We actually have the O and the say we have two families of vowels. We have what are called the back vowels cause the Baxton tends to stay back and the lips do the changing aaaooh and then we have what are called the front vowels because the tongue comes forward in order to change the vowels eey and so I think I’ve actually went aaah on the, the lip vowels. It’s actually Oh and then it’s eey for the front vowels, so we have, Oh and say so one the tongue is back at the second one the tongue starts to come a little forward now within say I can play with tongue positions, I can have the tongue more back, say tongue more forward saay you still hear say, but I’m going to get different colors and the vowel color that you choose will also begin to effect to some degree the intensity level with which you sing as you begin to make the vowels more open as the lips begin to spread and you can play with tongue position and lip position within both families of vowels. It’s not as strict and certainly for, for the colors that we want for singing. 

And certainly to balance up on high, we can get rather creative, with the vowels. But we have these two families of vowels, Oh say and as I, if I open that Oh more, aooooh, I’m naturally going to get a little louder than if I go Oh, I’m getting a little more energy in the upper part of the sound wave. It’s like taking an EQ and I’m boosting that a little higher and there’s this amazing thing this interaction between this acoustic energy and your nervous system and the vocal folds. As those vowels begin to open up your body will naturally start to create a little more intensity at the vocal fold contact which is going to create a stronger sound wave, which then feeds into this resonator which is boosting more of the higher energy, which then feeds back to your nervous system and the vocal cords and says, give me more of that. 

And if I go the other way and I rounded down, it’s kind of there’s less energy and it’s kind of telling your nervous system to calm down. And this is a way, layman’s way of explaining this, but it’s kind of the way I understand it and you get this just this amazing palette by just doing these very, very simple things and also it’s really, really handy if you want to sing more quietly, just kind of rounding the vowels a little bit. So rather than ho say which a little more midline if I Oh say and then if I really want to get soft, Ooh say and I just round that down. Now if I keep that rounded, but I want to get loud, Oh, it’s harder if I open up, Oh, now I’ve got this bigger sound and I’ve got more energy in the upper harmonics and now I can begin to play. And you can even begin to play within the sound itself if you want to Oooooh say he can come back and forth or say, you move the tongue back, you move the lips, you start to get all of these different tone colors. So what I want you to do is take a song and I want you to start this on lower notes because the range that you can play with this is wider on the low notes for acoustic reasons and balance reasons. It’s also easier to adjust and there’s way less danger of grabbing, cracking or getting into all of that your vowels. Even though there’s quite a lot of room to play up on top. It’s a different type of precision. It’s a different type of playing around. And so I don’t, I want you to experiment with this where it’s gonna make sense and you’re not going to be overwhelmed with the challenges of a higher note. But you take that song and you just play with different shades of the word. And what you can do is you can not just, with your lips and tongue, but also your laryngeal position and to me there are two laryngeal positions and they are called Patrick and SpongeBob and Patrick is a low learn hey SpongeBob  and SpongeBob is a high learn hey Patrick and between those two you get these very, very different vocal colors. So if I put a little bit of Patrick on it, ooh say.

So if I round and also Patrick a little I’m going to get this deep  saaay very, very mellow, very round. Now if you do that really low, it’s gonna fall apart and it’s gonna Ooh, you don’t want to do it too low. But here oooh and if I’m higher ooh ooh and a little bit of that, Patrick is going to give some depth. Where is the SpongeBob going to give you more brightness Ho ho say now that’s a little too much, but if I play with my lips, tongue and then laryngeal position, that just opens up an entire world. Ooh say that’s what I want you to play with. 

You obviously don’t have to do the star Spangled banner. The copyright police aren’t going to come get you when you’re singing around in your room, but uploading it to a podcast. Yeah, I don’t want to be doing that but there is so much to be found there. Literally there is a gold mine waiting for you there and then when you start adding breathy effects and little vocal runs and little whines and a little bit of distortion to your music all of these different things it, the whole thing just explodes. Your choices become almost infinite. They really do and you are going to have that ability to really capture listeners. I’ve said this before and I’ve said this before, before, but this bears repeating music, great music and a great vocal is a combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar. 

If I start ring on the star Spangled banner and making choices that are better so outside, it will no longer sound like the song even though I know some singers have tried it will no longer sound like the song. So I have to give enough familiar information, that it brings the listener in so that the brain can follow it. But if it just becomes this rote trite rendition the ear will get bored. The listener’s mind is going to wander. So if I start bringing in unfamiliar these different colors, little nuances that just kind of reawaken the listener and grabs their attention again, you start to hit that magic zone of a great vocal and I talked about that a couple of podcasts ago in the seven traits of great singers and one of the traits is this beautiful ability to keep listeners engaged. 

And you can do that so that you don’t come up, Oh say, but you get a little, Oh,say can and that you start to paint and you start to create and then you start to infuse it with emotion. And then these colors become an extension of what you’re feeling inside and your ability to express. And I want you to have as many colors to express yourself with as necessary, even more than you’ll ever need and that just takes a period of playing with this. So here is your assignment. Go get that song. Just take the verse of a song and work this. I don’t necessarily recommend the star Spangled banner just because it quickly starts to get into the upper ranges. From the women song that I often give as a beginning song is the Rose, the old Bette Midler song, because it doesn’t really get into your bridges, just touches the top of your chest voice a little bit. 

It’s nice and slow. It’s got some emotion in it and you can play with it without feeling the stress of having to have great vocal technique. This one is not about great vocal technique. It’s just beginning to find the colors. Now as you begin to find these various colors within the vowels, they will serve you with your vocal technique. As you begin to sing higher and you begin to go through your bridges and up into your upper register and controlling that and being able to control your larynx between Patrick and SpongeBob and the different shades, how many different ways can you make an E vowel and Oh on O  this becomes vitally important. Oh yeah and O is a diphthong as well in English, in Italian, it’s no. When we say no, I should have said that earlier. 

But again, we sing on that first sound, but get your song work through it, play with the colors, record yourself, see what you like, see what you don’t like. See how changing these vowels sounds will maybe give you a little more intensity, a little less intensity. Try holding the word and then going from a brighter, more open sound to the darker, more close sound. See if you can, not worrying about high notes, but on this lower note, see if you can maintain that without falling apart and you can begin to play with dynamics as well, which is a whole another level of vocal control. So let me know how you do with that. You can always email me [email protected]

Hey, I want to thank you again for spending this time with me. If you could do me a huge favor. Speaking of reviews, if you go to iTunes and leave me a review, I would so appreciate it. Just look for the intelligent vocalist that really does help people find the podcast. You can also support this podcast by sharing it on social media, turning some singing friends onto it. I obviously don’t do any advertising. I, I don’t do patreon accounts. This just started as just a way for me to kind of talk about singing and it’s, it’s grown into something really cool and I’d like to keep growing and I just loved the response and people like Matt from doing this podcast. So you enjoy the podcast. I really, really appreciate it. And until next time to sing better singing. Thank you so much. Bye bye.