Quick Fix – Vowel Substitution

Having some tightness or a little slip off that high note? If only you can get those couple big ones under control you would have a presentable piece to perform right? Let’s explore the well known practice of vowel substitution.

 

You know what it’s like.. you sing the first verse and chorus and everything is fine but second verse falls apart in a few places even though the melody is no different. Why? It’s the vowels (and often consonants can contribute too) that influence resonance and can make or break a line.

 

The vowels in the song lyrics may not be the ones that encourage the best resonance and hence would throw things out of balance between verses, but help is at hand because we can covertly adjust the vowels to suit.

 

Vowels In The Higher Range

For a full understanding of what is at foot here one would need to swat up on the handover of formants and harmonics at the vocal bridge, and how vowels influence that (and I will expand on that soon). But let’s not get too heavy during the quick fix column… it’s supposed to be QUICK.
It can be summarised by saying that you have to be more careful with vowels through the bridge and some will work a lot better than others, whereas in the bottom voice (chest) it feels like any lyric or vowel would be a breeze.

Troubleshoot

Firstly we need the lyric which is causing the problem. Take Whitney and her song One Moment In Time, particularly the line “When I’m racing with DESTINY”. It’s a pretty high note and so it’s not a surprise that it is a struggle to sing for most, but using a vowel substitution to encourage better resonance we can potentially improve the result. Firstly check out this vowel subbing table:
Open – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Closed
Forward VowelsA (cat)   >   E (met)   >   I (fit)   >   EE (meet)
Back VowelsAH (father)   >   UH (mum)   >   OUH (foot)   >   OO (fool)

The vowels are running from how open they are on the left to how closed they are on the right. Forward vowels are called that because when you move through each vowel sound towards the closed end your tongue closes the space by moving forward, and with the back vowels the closing is done by the lips instead.

So what we need to do is pick out the vowel from the difficult lyric, which in “DESTINY” is “E” (met). Then we initially substitute it for a vowel that is more closed, and according to our table that is “I” (fit), making our lyrics “DISTINY”. I know it probably sounds like it would sound ridiculous, but check out my video ‘Vowel Substitution‘ for some small examples of vowel narrowing and how they can sound.
Did it work? Was there more ease with more brilliance? Usually the answer is yes, but occasionally the best direction for a vowel substitution isn’t to go more closed but more open. This is common with very closed vowels like “EE” and “OO”, so if the vowel closing bombs out then try the vowel opening option instead. You’ll feel what works!
I know your going to tell me that it will sound stupid, but I’ve done this a bazzilion times myself and with students and with the right pronounciation of the new vowel your audience wont even notice the change, but they will whoop whoop at the extra lift and ease that comes with a clever vowel substitution.

Things To Note

Just to increase your success with this tactic it’s good to remember a couple things:

  • Much like the issue in Quick Fix #1, you will need to be careful with the corners of the mouth and making sure that they are optimum and not too wide.
  • Coming up to the high note substitution the jaw will need to be relaxed and able to lower naturally to assist with tone and comfort
  • Volume must be within your control and the approach to be relaxed but purposeful
  • For dipthongs (two vowel sounds together) like ‘Day’, which is comprised of ‘E’ and ‘Ee’, you would apply the substitution to the first part of the dipthong. That would mean you adjust the ‘E’ to ‘I’.
So hopefully you’re thinking of a song that you can attack with this principle, and if you try it I’d love you to leave a comment with the song and lyric that you attempted it on. And of course the outcome!!
Chris Johnson Vocal Coach

Chris Johnson Vocal Coach

Expert Vocal Coach. Performer. Utter Geek. at Chris Johnson Vocal Coach
Chris is an expert vocal coach and mentor based in London. He works with major label recording artists, West End actors and songwriters, helping them maintain a voice that's ready for a demanding industry.
Chris is also a writer for iSing Magazine, a founder/presenter of The Naked Vocalist podcast, a voting member of Pan American Vocology Association, and a teacher trainer/vocal coach with the Vocology In Practice network.
All that aside, he's a pure and true music fan with a penchant for Donny Hathaway and songs about heartbreak.
Chris Johnson Vocal Coach

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Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Oblomov says:

    I always thought at it as different version of the same vowels in the high range, not different vowels tout court. Simply, for example the same version of AH EH EE and OH as in the bottom voice, risk eliciting thick fold coordination in the high range, making it easy to break. It’s the same reason why tenors tend to utilize different vowels from basses and women tend to have a more closed OO sound (like in “good”), more toward eh.

    • Naked Web Monkey says:

      Hi Oblomov! Thanks for the comment 🙂 You’re correct in that astute singers will modify vowels in a more subtle way on different pitches, which creates different shades of the same vowel rather than a different one altogether. But, as this is a ‘quick fix’ it’s a good start for singers trying out new techniques. We’d like to hear more about your concept of tenor vowels verses bass vowels. For us, it’s the vocal habits and coordination of the range that dictate vowel choices initially. But, in theory the unique combo of vocal cord mass and makeup + vocal tract length and shape could leave singers favouring different vowels whether tenor, bass or soprano. Just thinking out loud… what are you thoughts?

  • Tristan Paredes says:

    Hey I love this site but.. aren’t you just belting in the first example and then mixing in the second? On the youtube videos you’re providing of this? It would be helpful if you would clarify this in the videos themselves. Creates misconceptions about mix vs. belt sounds..

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