The almighty vowel. They are the first sounds of speech we mimic as babies and are the cornerstones of language. They are also the most important part of singing.
When we make a vowel sound what is really happening and how does it affect our singing?
Two Sounds = One
What we hear as an OH or E vowel is actually a combination of two resonances blending together.
Just as blending red and yellow gives us the new color orange, the blending of these two sounds created in our vocal tract gives us different vowels.
How are these two sounds created?
When your vocal cords create sound waves (puffs of vibrating air) they travel from the cords to the throat, past the back of the tongue to the mouth and then past the lips.
This journey has a great effect on the resulting sound waves.
The acoustic space of the throat and mouth are key here. The size and shape of them create the different vowel sounds.
The sound waves created by the vocal cords are actually composed of many pitches, a spectrum of sound. We hear the very lowest part of this spectrum as the note being sung, the rest of the spectrum provides the color of the tone (bright, dark, etc.).
If we amplify more of the lower parts of this sound spectrum we get a darker tone. If we boost higher parts we get a brighter, more vibrant sound.
When the sound waves enter your throat and mouth they bounce around and gain energy, or get louder. The size of your throat resonator and mouth resonator boost or make louder different parts of this sound spectrum.
Look at your mouth and larynx when you say OO. The larynx is relatively low (the throat amplifier) and the longue is back and lips are rounded (the mouth amplifier).
When you say AH you will notice the larynx raising, the tongue coming forward and the lips spreading apart. This changes the sound spectrum boosts and gives us a new vowel sound.
How Does This Help With Singing?
When we sing we are often producing pitches that go far beyond the realm of speech. These very low and high pitches greatly change the sound spectrum produced by the vocal cords.
Now your throat and mouth resonators need to give boosts to parts of the sound spectrum that is very different from spoken sounds. The vowel shapes need to change in order to align with these new pitches.
You now need to learn new variations of the vowel sounds in order to keep the voice balanced. An AH vowel sung at the bottom of your range needs to be different from one sung at the top.
What happens if we try and keep the vowel on a high pitch the same as in speech?
Unfortunately the relationship the resonators previously had with the full sound spectrum no longer works. If we try and force this previous relationship we encounter the classic vocal problems of straining, cracking, loss of range, etc.
In fact, the imbalance of the vowel to different pitches is the single greatest issue singers must overcome.
Learning to rebalance the vowels throughout your range is the key to becoming a masterful singer. Find a voice teacher who truly understands vowels and you are well on your way.