The music of the voice is in the vowel, and therein lies a great key to singing.

Understanding how to approach vowels is critical for singing, not only for technical mastery, but also vocal color and nuance.

However, the vowels you want for singing can be very different from the vowel sounds you commonly use for speaking.

In this podcast John delves into vowel perception, and how the listener actually hears the vowels you are producing.

Understanding this topic can help the singer adjust vowels correctly, giving the listener the correct vowel perception while keeping vocal balances and color choices.

Episode Transcript

Episode 30 – Vowel Perception

Hey there, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of the Intelligent Vocalist.

Well today, my voice should maybe sound a little chipper than the last few episodes because I’ve recently gone through a major extreme overhaul of my diet, and said goodbye to a lot of unhealthy foods that I certainly loved to eat. I basically now eat plants and just whole plants. Not even refined flour or just sugar or salt or added oils. Yes. I’m one of those people now. I’m one of those annoying health people. But I feel so much better now because, I will tell you, I think I went through a period of mourning over cheese. It was like I had to sit shiver on my favorite foods and them leaving my life.

Now I’ve come out of the other end of that tunnel. I’m a little more chipper. I have begun to lose weight. So, I think I’m going to go back and rerecord my old podcast with my new thinner voice because it’s my chubby voice on the other end of my recording, and maybe I don’t like that as much. Actually, as a side benefit, my voice is feeling better – my singing voice is feeling better. There were days where I don’t think I was doing myself any favors and I was giving myself reflux. I’m not going to get into the whole thing. But, I like to eat. And I also like to eat things that aren’t good for you. So now I avoid anything that taste good and my body seems to be thanking me for it. My psyche has taken a little longer to come around, but I’m feeling good. I’m ready to talk about what I think is just an absolutely fascinating subject, which is vowel perception.

Now, as a singer, you’re probably wondering, “What do I care about vowel perception? I just sing words. I know how to say E or A or U. So if the word is You or Me, I kind of figured that out years ago how to do that.” Well, you have. And you’ve done it in speech. But now we do it in singing.

I used to belong to a group called The Speech Level Singing. And this is a singing technique that was developed by Seth Riggs here in Los Angeles. It has fallen out of favor a bit in recent years because some of the explanations of how the voice worked weren’t entirely correct. Maybe some of the exercises weren’t perfect, and probably not the podcast to get into. Maybe I’ll do a podcast all about my thoughts in history on Speech Levels singing for those of you that are interested. But the name derived from this idea of singing is basically speaking on pitch. And there is some truth to that – that you want the ease of production. You don’t want singing to suddenly be this thing where everything tightens up, and you’re shoving, and you’re having this kind of difficulties. The end goal is that it’s easy for you to sing high notes as it is for you to speak.

Now, that would be a matter of your own physical perception, and what it feels like to. Of course it’s not as easy. And the other thing is, singing is not speaking. It’s turning your voice into a musical instrument. And also, acoustically, there are things that we often need to do as singers that we don’t need to do as speakers. I tell this to students all the time, “Every language and every dialect or accent within that language needs to make some modifications for what it is that you want to do, musically.”

Perfect example is the way I say the word “accent”. In my broad, splatty, American accent I make the beginning of that word AEH – AEH-CCENT. That is not a pleasant sound to sing. I need to take that vowel a little bit too EHH-CCENT. EHH-CCENT. Now that’s not how I say it but, even on a low note, to give that some acoustic warmth. Now, this depends on what I’m going for. I mean, if I’m kind of in a punk band, I maybe don’t want that warmth around the sound. But, I need to make some modifications. Now the interesting thing is if I AEH-CCENT or EHH-CCENT. You still hear the word. You still hear the vowel.

So there is a range within the vowel that we still hear as OH or UH or AH. I can say Ow or Oh or Ohh, and it’s all OH – it’s all shades of. Now, what we can do in speech, we have range, and that’s why we have all the different accents and dialects, even in the English language. As we go higher, we don’t quite have the range of vowel sounds that will work for us – certainly within the certain styles and certain colors. Everything I say on this podcast, if I ever use the words Never and Always, you should NEVER take that as an absolute. And ALWAYS ignore me when I say never and always, because there are no absolutes in music. I mean, there are vocal performances that I absolutely loved that are not technically correct, with my voice teacher had looking at them. But my human being ears are just completely moved by this vocal performance. So take all of these within those parameters, okay?

But in general, as you go higher, the range of vowel sounds that worked begin to diminish a little bit. For instance, me taking that really wide AEH-CCENT, that could tend to have some more difficulties upon higher notes, even though it’s not so hard on the lower notes. Now, taking that idea that we can play with the vowels and we have a range of the vowel where it still gives the listener perception of that vowel. They still hear the vowel, even though you know you can make changes to it. We get into this idea of vowel perception, and what vowels actually are.

You know, some said that some people go out and they really do the work, and then other people just read and repeat other’s works. I’m going to be the reader and repeater here. If you really want to go on the source on this, you need to get books by Kenneth Bozeman. He has Practical Vocal Acoustics and Kinesthetic Voice – I think it’s Pedagogic. If you go to Amazon and look him up, those two books really get into these acoustics areas wonderfully well. Kenneth have this amazing ability to take very very complex subjects and make them easier to understand. I would tell you, this is not what I would call an easy read, but it is the easiest read you will likely get on these subjects. So if you’re the one that really wants to get down into the well and drink from the Fountain of Knowledge, use Ken’s books. And also Ian Howle is doing this amazing research. He’s a wonderful counter-tenor and voice teacher. And he’s just doing great research on vowel perception, and how we hear things and it translates into vowels.

Now the most personally mind blowing thing for me, hopefully it’s mind blowing for you – this really just makes me just stop and just listen to vowels differently. It’s that all vowels are frequencies. If we hear a certain frequency, we hear a vowel in that frequency. Basically, when your vocal cords emit a sound wave, it’s got a whole bunch of pitches in it. There’s this whole range of pitches within the sound wave.

You know, I used to say that the very bottom one is, and you’ll hear it on the podcast – you can go back and listen to those and go “Oh, John didn’t know what he was talking about, because I would say we hear the very first one as the pitch. And then we hear the ones above is color.” And it actually is not entirely true. We hear the first and so many above. They kind of coming to, what we perceive as the pitch. And then the ones above that, we perceive as the color. But what’s truly fascinating, and if you search Ian Howle on Youtube, you can see him do some of this as he takes software, and he’ll sing a vowel and go from UHH to EEH. And then he’ll remove portions of the sound wave of the spectrum, so that you’re only hearing the very bottom part of the sound wave. When he goes from UHH to EEH, the amazing thing is, all you hear is UHH. When he’s going OOH-EEH-OOH-EEH all you hear is OOH. And if you’ve listened to his stuff and kind of tuned your ear into it, as I’m going from OOH to EEH, you can hear the OOH ride on the EEH. It’s amazing.

So what does this mean for the singer? Well, this means that you’re taking the sound wave with all those pitches in it and you’re putting it through your resonators, which are filters. I’ve talked about this before. It’s like the DJ running the EQ filter over a track, so that the CD is admitting the same information. But, what’s coming out of the DJ’s speakers as the DJ plays with the filters is (sound effects). The DJ takes out the high’s, and then starts the high’s back in and pulls out the lower part. Now, those highs and lows are always going in to the system than the system filtering them out. In other words, he’s not changing, he or she is not changing – sorry to be sexist – he or she is not changing, because Paris Hilton is also a DJ, so I need to say she or he. He or she is not changing the information. Okay? What’s on the MP3 or CD remains the same. It’s just the filtered change is what comes out of the speakers. So, when we make the sound, what comes from the vocal cords, the sound wave is not changed, but the filter boosts or brings down bits and pieces of information. And as those bits and pieces of information or frequencies, we can chop these up. And when you’re making a sound, when you’re making a note, there are vibrations in different speeds so they’re different frequencies or pitches. As we filter those in and out, those frequencies make us hear vowels. That’s all vowels are – frequencies.

There’s a great Spongebob – I will unapologetically admit to you laughing like crazy at Spongebob – but there’s a brilliant episode where there are on a hunt for, I think it’s a murderer or some criminal. And Patrick is giving a siren sound as an alarm. The way Patrick does it is, (low note) WEE-WOO-WEE-WOO. He says WEE and WOO. And we often do that if we’re imitating sirens. That siren has no vowels in it. It has no filter. It’s just undulating frequency or a pitch. We hear the higher one takes on the EEH quality and the lower one takes on an OOH quality. The higher frequencies sound like EEH to us and the lower frequencies sound like OOH to us, and then the whole rainbow of perception in between there.

So as a singer, you need to understand that when you are singing, you cannot associate how you make a vowel sound completely to the way that you naturally do it in your everyday speech because you have taken this pitch with all its accompanying frequencies, and if you’re singing a higher pitch you’ve moved everything up, so that the sound wave now is mathematically changed. And the way it vibrates has changed because the first harmonic, if you will – that’s the fancy term for that first part of the sound wave, the lowest – and the accompanying harmonics above now vibrate more quickly. And so, the way you need to filter it in order to hear EEH or OOH changes. It changes because the frequencies have changed, if that makes sense. And also, you need to make adjustments for acoustic balance and color.

Very often when I’m working with a singer, they’re resistant to this idea because they think this isn’t going to sound like the word. If I sing the word ME but not on this higher note, I’m singing it a little more like MEEH. That’s wrong. That’s going to sound ridiculous. No it’s not, because you’re now adjusting your resonators to the new frequencies, and so your filter has to adjust. And when you give the listeners ear, that correct frequency range, they’re going to hear EEH. They’re not going to hear it as some strange bizarre vowel. Now if you do it in your speaking voice, yes, it’s going to sound odd. But as a singer, this becomes your palette and your ability to play with, and color, and shift vowels for vocal balance, for vocal registration, or being able to move smoothly between low notes and high notes. For vocal intensity, whether you want it bright, whether you want it darker or warmer, whether you want to sing a little more intensely or a little more softly. So much of these ties into what you do the vowel.

As a singer, I often asked students, the really serious ones, the ones that are really good, I will say “How good do you want to be?” If you really want to get really good, if you want to be a really great singer that has a full palette, you need to start deep diving into vowels, and colors, and playing with them, and seeing what happens. If as you sing to certain words, what happens if you drop your jaw a little bit? What happens if you round your lips slightly? What happens if you pull your lips back? What happens when you move your tongue slightly forward? All of these actions change the size and shape of the filter. It’s like the DJ playing with the effects, it changes the frequencies that are given to the listener, so that you have the frequency either boosts or pulling down, that gives you the perception of a particular vowel, but you also have color as well as you play with some of these other frequencies. It’s just, it’s absolutely fascinating.

And so, I encourage you to just start to play. Even in something in your lower register, if you’re just singing, taking in an easy song, just take a single line and start to sing it with little different configurations. Yes. Four basic ways to play with your filter; you can lower, lower your larynx or raise your larynx a little bit, how much you drop your jaw, how much you spread or round your lips, and what you do with your tongue, whether it comes a little more forward or a little more back. And you can just mess around with those, and just see what different types of colors that you get. Let’s see what happens as you sing louder – if the lips open a little more, if you want to back off, if they round a little more. In general, when you’re round, you’re going to pull off the higher frequencies and it’s going to warm everything up. When you pull your lips back, drop the jaw, when things feels like more open, then you’re going to boost a little more of the high frequencies. And you’re going to get a little more brightness, and a little more bite on that.

Hey, thank you so much for spending the time with me today. If you’re interested in more of my ramblings, etc. you can go to and just click whether you’re possibly interested in voice lessons with me. I also have some programs if you want to get more deep into this stuff. You can just click on PRODUCTS and see what I have there.

You can email me as well, [email protected], any comments or suggestions for future episodes. I love to hear from you. Please subscribe on iTunes. And if you get a chance, go there and give a rating. It actually really helps. It helps people find the show. Unless you’re one of those twisted Yelp-type of people that just love to give bad ratings, maybe you just go find something else to do.

Anyway, until next time. To better singing! Thanks a lot. Bye.