Updated: Jul 20
April is ending, and there’s no better time of the year to learn about vowel modification.
If you already know about modifying your vowels, I hope this article provides a deeper level of understanding. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re in for a treat!
Vowels are the secret sauce of singing. They are the primary difference between the style of each genre, and they can make your job harder or easier. It surprises me how often singers don’t think about their vowels- but considering we rarely think about our vowels while we’re talking, maybe it shouldn’t.
To truly master your voice though, you need to master vowels. This is because a huge part of what makes our voice, our voice, is how we shape the little vibrations from our vocal folds. This shaping happens in our mouth, throat, and nasal passage. This part of our body is referred to in singing as the filter. Our filter amplifies and modifies the sound waves coming from the vocal folds and creates what we think of as the voice. This principle is referred to by academics and researchers as acoustic formants.
Consonants anchor our vowels and turn sounds into words, and they also have an effect on our singing, but vowels make the biggest difference. When we’re struggling to sing or hold out a note comfortably, certain vowels will make it easier, and others will make it harder.
What is Vowel Modification?
Vowel modification is when we deliberately change vowels from what they typically are when speaking, to a vowel that sounds better or feels easier when we’re singing. This is used by professional and amateur singers all the time. Every professional singer does it, and the odds are good you rarely notice it!
To make it easy to grasp, I’m going to use an obvious example. In NSYNC’s song “It’s Gonna Be Me” from my tween years, Justin Timberlake uses an obvious vowel modification at the very end of the song, and it actually ended up being iconic.
Instead of singing “me” (mee, [i]) the way Americans speak it, he sings “may” (may-ee, [ei]). Straight up. He still ends the word with the typical “ee” sound, but he adds an “eh” in front of it, so “may”. This became a long running joke for some of us millennials.
It may seem odd, but there’s a good reason to modify our vowels sometimes when we sing.
Putting aside whether it was Justin, his music director, or a producer who made the decision, the idea behind the modification is simple.
In most of this song the entire band sings the chorus together, and the word “me” is in unison, creating a lush sound with strong volume on that word. This is ideal for a chorus. At the end of the song Justin sings this phrase solo, which has a very different sound than five people singing in unison. The word “me” is sung on a middle C, which for Justin is in his middle voice. Middle voice isn’t known for sounding powerful, but rather conversational and comfortable. This doesn’t work for the last word of this song.
To help add punch to the last word and create a strong finish, he changes the very closed “ee” vowel by adding a little “eh” into the middle of it, and this makes him sound a little louder, a little punchier than if he had sang the word as is.
Knowing which vowels are your friends and which ones aren’t gives you a lot more freedom in navigating your voice in different ranges, allows you to be more expressive in songs, and makes you sound more professional.
Which Vowels are Your Friends?
It really depends on where the note is in your range. There is also some variation between different voice types, but generally it’s pretty simple.
Open vowels tend to be better for your low voice, and super high notes. Closed vowels tend to be better for your high voice.
Open vowels add volume to your sound. The larger space in your filter allows lower frequencies (low notes) to amplify more than with closed vowels before they leave your mouth. They may even add undertones to your acoustic profile. They make you sound bigger- and we associate that with power.
Closed vowels do the opposite - they add overtones to your sound. When you’re singing higher notes, like the ones around your first bridge, closed vowels help those higher frequencies amplify to create more sound. Closed vowels also encourage your vocal folds to stretch and thin out- making your higher notes easier to sing! BONUS!
A great example of closed vowel modification (since we already covered open with Justin T), happens in Beyonce’s “Love on Top”. Beyonce has a fantastic vocal range, and part of this is because she uses vowel modifications frequently. Love on Top specifically was written to have closed vowels on the highest notes that sit just above her 1st bridge, almost into her 2nd.
“Ba-by it’s you, you’re the one I love, you’re the one I need”
An “oo” and “ee” vowel make the high notes smooth as butter, and give her more control. They amplify the primary note and add overtones, giving her a really powerful sound!
Try This at Home
Here’s a list of just a few closed and open vowels with example words:
EE - “Need”
OO - “You”
AY - “May”
AH - “Father”
UH - “Mother”
EH - “Bet”
Now it’s time for an experiment!
Speak each of the example words slowly, while looking at your mouth in a mirror. If you have impaired vision, place your hands on either side of your face and jaw, and feel what your mouth does as you speak each word. Observe your tongue, jaw, and lips. Notice how each vowel feels in your body.
What does your jaw do?
What does your tongue do?
What shape do your lips make?
You may notice while speaking closed vowels that your jaw sits neutral instead of opening bigger. You may notice your tongue raises a little to narrow the space in the back of your mouth, or maybe your lips are closer together.
You may notice while speaking open vowels that your jaw lowers to make more vertical space in your mouth, so those low note frequencies can be amplified. You may notice a feeling of space in the back of your mouth/the top of your throat (called the pharynx), which also makes your space bigger. You may notice your lips are further apart than they were on the closed vowels.
Now apply this to your singing!
Pick a high note in a song that’s usually hard for you. First sing it as you usually do- then modify the vowel toward a more closed one. For example:
If the word in the song is “Always” (which has a very open “ah” at the beginning), switch the vowel to an “ou” (as in Book) or “uh” (as in Mother).
Now, do the same exercise with a difficult low note, but instead modify the vowel towards an open one:
If the word in the song is “need”, modify the “ee” slightly to be closer to an “ih” (as in bitter), by lowering the middle of your tongue and raising your soft palate (the roof of the back of your mouth; an easy way to feel this is to yawn, and notice what the back of your mouth feels like when you do).
It’s time to ponder your experience.
Do the vowel modifications make the notes easier?
Do they add volume, or take it away?
How do closed vowels feel in your mouth and throat?
How do open vowels feel in your mouth and throat?
Leave a comment and let me know what vowels helped you!
A Note About This Exercise
If these vowel modifications don’t make things easier, there’s probably something else going on that’s making the note difficult. There’s a lot that goes into singing and it could be a breath support issue, a tension issue, or you may have a voice type that is less mainstream and has different needs. If you’ve never had a voice lesson where your voice is assessed, I encourage you to book one with me and learn what your voice needs specifically!
How Do I Get Away With This Sorcery??
Easily. We typically speak using a small portion of our vocal range unless we’re feeling intense emotions like excitement or anger. Most of us speak in our middle range, the not-so-exciting but personal and conversational part of our voice I talked about earlier.
On higher notes, closed vowels sound more open than they do in middle range, and open vowels sound more closed than they do in middle range. Because of this, vowel modifications at the extremes of our range actually make words sound more normal!
PLUS, we’re used to hearing singers do vowel modifications all the time, so any minor differences from how the word usually sounds are often ignored by our brain. We know what they mean.
Vowel modification in the middle range is a little harder to get away with.
Justin, you straight up sang “May”.
And a lot of people loved it.