Vowel Classification

The five English vowels are a, e, i, o, and u. Whereas some languages have pure vowel tones assigned to letters, English pronunciation includes many variations of these five letters. It's most helpful for singers to think in terms of vowel sounds rather than the actual letters. The same letter a has very different sounds in the words cat, cape, call, and awe. When you first learned to speak and read, vowels were usually defined phonetically as long or short, such as the long a in the word bake and the short a in the word back. Further distinctions to clarify and better define vowel sounds for singers depend on the position of the lips, tongue, jaw, and soft palate. These distinctions fall into three main categories:

  • forward, central, and back

  • close, mid, and open

  • rounded and unrounded

Using these more refined descriptions, there are more than twenty vowel sounds represented by the five letters. The style of music will determine how precise you'll need to be in your pronunciation. Certainly a rock song won't demand the same clarity as choral music.

How do I know if my pronunciation is correct?

The most precise way to achieve accurate pronunciation is the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). This is a phonetic alphabet that assigns a particular symbol to each different sound. It was established in 1886 to unify a systematic code of pronunciation in many languages, and it is still the best method to learn clear diction. You'll find a complete chart of these symbols in Appendix A.

Forward Vowels

Forward vowels, also called front vowels, are defined by the shape of the tongue. The intent to voice certain vowel sounds creates an arch in the tongue. The highest point of the arch is toward the front of the tongue in forward vowels. The forward vowels are listed in order of the height of the arch position:

  • ee as in meet

  • i as in mitt

  • ay as in mate

  • eh as in met

  • a as in mat

Say these words and notice the position of your tongue. Be sure to keep the tip of the tongue touching the back of the bottom teeth and the lips in a neutral and relaxed position. The soft palate should be raised.

FIGURE 7-1. Forward, central, and back vowels

Back Vowels

The back vowels, as you might guess, create the highest point of the arch in the back of the tongue. They are once again listed in order according to the height of the arch:

  • oo as in too

  • oo as in took

  • o as in go

  • aw as in saw

  • ah as in father or lot

Notice the position of the tongue as you say each of these words. As with the front vowels, the tongue should touch the back of the bottom teeth and the soft palate is raised. The lips, however, are rounded forward to pronounce the back vowels.

You will find that ah as in father is usually listed as a back vowel, but it actually is unique enough to be considered in a separate category by itself. The tongue doesn't arch in the same way for ah, but rather lies in more of a flat position in the mouth and has a slight lengthwise groove down the center. Look in the mirror to see if you can identify the difference in this vowel.

Central Vowels

The arched shape is in the middle of the tongue for the central vowels. There are two vowel sounds using this position, but the most important consideration in this category is the stress of the syllable. A stressed syllable has a stronger emphasis than the other syllables surrounding it in the word. The other syllables may either have weaker stress or they may be unstressed altogether. The unstressed syllable in many words is sounded with a schwa, which is defined as a neutral vowel:

  • uh as in under

  • ur as in her

  • uh (schwa) as in the first syllable of above or the second syllable of sofa

When singing central vowels, the jaw should be slightly relaxed and the lips can be neutral or somewhat rounded. The soft palate should be raised.

When singing any vowel, the tip of the tongue should touch the back of the bottom teeth. The tongue should always be forward in this way except when needed to pronounce certain consonants. It should then return to its regular forward placement, touching the teeth. It's a strong muscle and will close the back of the throat if allowed to move out of this position. Remember to check yourself in the mirror.

Close and Open Vowels

Vowels can also be defined by the height of their position, meaning the distance between the tongue and the roof of the mouth. If you look at the previous lists of vowel sounds, the vowels at the top of each list are more close, or high, and toward the bottom of each list the vowels are open, or low. For example, the words meet and too have close vowels and the words mat and lot have open vowels.

This way of categorizing a vowel affects the singer primarily in defining how to feel the opening in the mouth. Rather than thinking of opening the mouth from the front, use the method of inhalation discussed in Chapter 3. Imagine the beginning of a yawn and notice the release of tension in the jaw. Now pronounce the words in the previous lists and notice the sensation of a relaxed jaw. See if you can identify the distance between the tongue and the roof of the mouth.

Rounded and Unrounded Vowels

A vowel is rounded if the lips are forward in a rounded position. Unrounded vowels require a neutral placement of the lips. Often, beginning singers will open the lips into a wide horizontal position resembling a smile. While the feeling of a slight smile can help lift the soft palate and open the back of the throat, a wide smile will work against you by lowering the soft palate. When rounding the lips, be careful not to pull so far forward that you create tension. You can practice these positions in a mirror to check yourself.

FIGURE 7-2. Smile position is too wide

FIGURE 7-3. Unrounded: neutral position

FIGURE 7-4. Rounded position

Usually the lips will be most rounded for the back vowels and unrounded for the front vowels. Try saying the word “boot” and notice the position of your lips that's necessary for the back vowel oo. Now say “bat” and see the lips move into the neutral position. Finally, say the word “beet” and check in the mirror to make sure that your lips have not moved into the horizontal smile position. If so, make the correction toward the neutral position of unrounded lips. Remember, your lips should not be held in a wide smile since it will affect the length needed in the vocal tract.

You might hear directors and teachers refer to a sound as bright or dark. Changing the degree of brightness in a vowel is accomplished by rounding the lips and shaping the tongue for an oo vowel to get a darker sound and opening the position slightly to an ee position for a brighter sound. The same vowel can have degrees of brightness or darkness. Broadway singers tend to use a much brighter sound than classical singers. The classical voice emphasizes a longer vertical position in the throat, which creates a darker sound. Be careful to avoid the extremes, however, as a sound that is too bright can be grating, and a sound that is too dark can be boring.

Sing the vowels “ee-ah-oo” on a single pitch and notice the changes of position in the tongue and lips as you move from one vowel to the next. Watch the positions in the mirror and then turn away from the mirror to get a better sense of the feeling of space in the mouth.

  1. Home
  2. Singing
  3. Diction
  4. Vowel Classification
Visit other About.com sites: