At the risk of your eyes glazing over, let's talk about the fascinating topic of vowels

by Howard Meharg, Web/Editor, NW ACDA

Several years ago, a young Summer Institute colleague asked me to talk about the most important concepts to teach as she worked with her high school and church choir. The following material seems basic to me. So, here I expand on what I wrote to her. In a sense, it is a critical component in the mechanics of it all. Yes, I’m fully aware that there are many other factors that make a choral group’s performance come alive. But allow me to talk about a certain aspect of the mechanics for now.

Those who have sung in my groups have heard me say (ad nauseum, I expect) that singing unisons is one of the most important ideas one must teach. Listening for unison is vital for both the director and for the choir. To be clear, I’m not talking about a choir simply singing a single line melody…that sort of unison. I’m talking about a soprano section or a tenor section that sounds as one voice. This is not to say that a singer must sound like the person next to him. But it is to say that the composite tone of the section really should sound like one person…with all the implications that entails as to balance, intonation, attacks and releases, and approach to the tone.

Each item in the previous sentence is worthy of discussion. Tuning and all its ramifications could probably fill a book. In fact, has been the subject of a good many books and articles. Quite obviously, dealing with approaches to developing comfortable, spacious and resonant tone quality is another “book.” How to make a choir sound good that is made up of singers with a variety of abilities and training as vocalists…or singers with next to no training…well, this becomes a virtual art form and an everyday challenge for directors of school, community, and church groups.

Ultimately, an effective director must understand how to deal with these mechanics. For now, allow me to zero in on one factor that helps one achieve that elite unison for which we strive.

Vowels, their importance to the sound of your choir

The vowel sound is the principle vehicle for the tone. Again, I must be clear. I’m not speaking merely of the vowels of the English alphabet, a, e,i, o, u, and sometimes y. It would be natural to assume that vowels and vowel sounds in American English are useful principally as part of clean, clear diction. And, indeed they are useful as such. But unless we’re simply humming, the vowel sound of every syllable of every word we sing becomes the tone, conveys the pitch of a note and has a bearing on what we call the voice quality of an individual. While a few consonants are voiced…that is, can convey pitch, the essential role of consonants is to separate the syllables in our language into understandable words and thoughts.

Agreeing on the vowel sound seems like it should be easy…after all, don’t most of us speak English?

Oddly enough, it simply does not happen automatically.

I believe that failing to call attention to unifying the vowel, agreeing on the same sound for each syllable of each word or simply assuming “we’re all singing the same language” invites poor diction and, more importantly, invites poor tone quality, poor blend…in short, a lack of unison!

Failure to match vowels creates a different set of overtones and poor blend. Depending on the type of music you’re performing, this can be a critical element in achieving a good choral sound. Paul Christiansen, famed director of the Concordia College Choir of some years ago, said that a choir could be likened to a string quartet (not a full orchestra). A unified sound from bass through soprano is the ideal. The shift from bass to tenor to alto to soprano should basically be undetectable in tone quality.

No, I’m not forgetting that it is sometimes necessary for sopranos, especially, to alter the vowel to accommodate extreme ranges. That’s a subject best handled by a soprano and a bit of a mystery to this middle-of-the-road baritone voice.

While familiarity with and use of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is important, especially for those teaching voice and directors with choirs singing in languages other than English, I believe one can simplify the notion of vowel agreement among singers by use of a vowel chart that incorporates all the twelve basics vowel sounds. Again, I say, we’re not talking only about vowels from the alphabet.

Note: Experts in IPA tell us there are as many as fifteen different vowel sounds in English. I wouldn't argue for a minute for I'm not an "expert." Dialects and regional accents enter the picture, too. The important factor is to AGREE on the vowel. Directors may well ask for "placement" of the tone to be forward, middle, or back...thus affecting the quality of the sound. Further, it is often good advice to singers to "round" certain vowels. One good example comes to mind: the bright "ee" sound placed rather forward or sung with a "smile" will often "pop out of the line" in a phrase. Rounding the lips for this "ee" as in the Scottish dialect is a method for dealing this.

Here is the chart that begins with the brightest vowel and moves to darkest vowel. Note the English word that illustrates the sound best, and then the IPA marking for that vowel (for those who determine it important to familiarize singers with IPA*):

ee- see - [i]

ih – sit – [I]

ay – say [e]i) (this can actually be a diphthong and most often is in American English (a diphthong is a sound with two vowels that elide one to the other)

eh – set – [Ɛ]

a - sat –[æ]  (this one needs a phonetic marking as a reminder of the sound)

ah – Father - [ɑ]  (the first syllable of this word is the vowel sound we want. Some would say that the word "cot" better illustrates this sound.)

aw – lawn or cause- [ͻ] (note this is darker than the “ah” in Father)

uh – love -[ʌ] if accented, [ə] if unaccented

er – earth [ɝ] if accented, [ɚ] if unaccented  -  (Note that the “r” is almost always a part of words that use this vowel sound; bird, word ,birth and may create a problem. Deal with it.)

oh – lone (boat) - [o] (closed o) or diphthong [oU]  (in most cases, also a diphthong, technically speaking. Uses pure oh followed by a vanishing “oo” sound.

oo - look - [U] (open U) (again we need a marking to show this is different from the pure “oo” sound

oo – loon - [u] (closed u) (the pure “oo” and the darkest and most closed of all the vowels

Diphthongs are syllables in words with two vowels in them. Take the word “voice” for example. The sound is a sequence of two vowels “oh” and “ee.” The usual rule is to sing (sustain) on the initial vowel and make the second vowel shorter. We sometimes call that second one a “vanishing” vowel. There are numerous exceptions to that rule, however. The word “view,” for example, has one keeping the initial “ee” sound short and the “oo” longer.

If you will, one more thought on IPA and the learning of the vowel sounds.
I must admit that the twelve vowels listed above, along with the English word that illustrates that sound, seems simpler to me than memorizing the IPA symbols and sounds they represent. Only two of the twelve (above) require a phonetic marking of some kind to remind a singer of the correct sound. The sound of ”a” as in the word “sat,” and the sound of “oo” as in the word “look.” I think it necessary to teach students the IPA markings for those two vowels. For the sound of the word “sat,” the {æ} would be good. For the sound of “oo” as in the word “look,” I recommend you teach them “[U]” as the marking so they don’t confuse it with “oo” as in “loon.” The other ten vowels are spelled in such a way as to "speak for themselves" and make it easy to learn.

It occurs to me that in some ways these twelve vowel sounds in English parallel the semi-tones of a complete chromatic scale. In that way it’s as if the syllables listed above become “pegs” on which to hang sounds. Just as you might be able to slide upward or downward through a complete octave, I suppose it possible to glide between vowels upward or downward as one method to brighten or darken the sound.

English is a language that requires extensive memorization with regard to pronunciation of the vowel sound as compared to the spelling. Long lists are possible for all the exceptions to “the rules” of spelling/pronunciation. So, be aware that the spelling of a word…that is, the vowel or combination of vowels within it, do not always dictate which vowel to use. Consider the vowel to be used in the word “said,” (eh). Then the word “laid” (ay). The first is a single vowel sound (eh) and the second is actually a diphthong (ay-ee). Normally, simply saying a word out loud will tell you which vowel sound from the chart to use. If in doubt, consult a dictionary. If you must make a decision “on the fly” during a rehearsal, choose the one that sounds right and ask all singers to agree on it. Unifying the vowel is vital.

It is especially important to note that working with inexperienced singers and especially beginning school groups may require shifting or “mixing” of vowel sounds. Often this is necessary to help improve tone quality. Sometimes it’s required to offset colloquialisms in speech or the habits of spoken language as opposed to “refined” pronunciations. But, don’t worry. It’s not hard to do, as you’ll see.

The following suggestions are meant as helps for both improvement of tone and improving diction in choral works based on (for want of a better word) classical poetry, scripture, or prose.

I like to alter some vowels a bit. The sound in the word “sat,” for example, can be harsh, especially if a singer nasalizes it. Allow more space in the throat and lean the vowel only slightly toward an “ah” sound. Sometimes I like to say, “open the mouth as if you are singing ‘ah,’ and then sing the ‘æ’ vowel into that space.”

And “uh” sound as in the word “love” is often sung by inexperienced singers back in the throat. Altering it slightly toward “ah” helps alleviate this tendency.

I also like mixing a bit of the “ee” sound into the “ay” sound from the outset of the syllable. It focuses the tone better and prevents a “spread” quality to the tone. (This is a slight lean toward the “ee” sound. Too much and it sounds a bit strange.)

While the vowels of syllables of most English words remain the same from one style of singing to another, it is quite possible that folk music, music in pop or jazz style, or novelty pieces would call for a colloquial approach and some vowel pronunciations might change as a result.

Unaccented syllables and many times the last syllable of a word can end with an “uh.” In speech, we call it a “schwa.” For example, the word "comma." Whatever the spelling of the word, determining whether to use the schwa (uh) or the “refined” vowel is often a matter of taste or simply your choice. The word “angels,” for example could be pronounced “an-jehls” or “an-juhls.” Yes, there may be a “rule” someplace for things like this. To me it depends on how sustained the syllable is as much as the style of the piece I might want to convey. As always, the important thing is to have your singers unified on the vowel.

You may have to tell your beginning singers that the word “of” uses an “ah” vowel. (Or if it goes by quickly, you could treat it like a schwa.)

Beautiful things happen when the vowel is unified. And some beautiful things can also happen to tone quality by asking for slight alterations in the vowel. As you listen (in your director’s role) to your choir or a section of your choir sing a phrase, notice if any part of the phrase “jumps out of the line.” If your aim is a lovely arched and flowing phrase and it’s not quite happening, ask yourself, “why?” Even if you have vowel agreement from singer to singer, this could happen. Listen again. Is one vowel in particular causing the problem? Obviously, it could be because more open vowels are more easily sung louder than others. Singers must be taught to compensate for that.

My experience is that even experienced singers have a tendency to “over-focus” the “ay” and “ee” vowels. That brightness can call attention to itself to the detriment of the phrase. The inexperienced singer often closes to a more “smiley” look for the “ee” vowel. The result is a thinner tone, probably lacking in warmth or maturity. In either case, ask your singers for a more spacious, rounded shape at the lips and inside the mouth and to sing the “ee” vowel into that space.

While I love this topic and believe COMPLETELY that understanding this material helps choirs sound better very quickly, some singers will get bored with “all this technical stuff.” So, if you make use of it, take it slow and a little at a time to avoid their eyes glazing over in boredom!

I like to take the words of a song we’re working on and ask my singers to put the correct vowel under each syllable of each word of a phrase or two. Then ask them to sing only on the vowels and listen for good unisons. A simple unison melody works well. Note the vanishing vowel in the diphthong is in parenthesis. While important to understanding the word, it must be of short duration.

Depending on what I’m hearing as my choir sings this very slowly…one syllable at a time for starters…I might ask them to alter the vowel “uh,” opening as if they were to sing an “ah” and singing an “uh” into that mouth position. The common word “and” can sound like “end” unless the mouth is kept open when singing it.


I love it when I walk into a choir room and see a vowel chart on the wall or on a screen. You could also have a separate printed sheet with the chart on it for them to reference. Listen. Do you hear any places in the phrases where you’d like to alter the vowel a bit? This “admonition” in the following sentence bears repeating, for with inexperienced singers the issue is so common. Does the “uh” vowel fall to far back in the throat? If so, ask them to open as if they’re singing “ah” for that syllable but singing “uh” into that space. Is the “ee” vowel too closed, “smiley” or bright? Ask them to provide a more rounded space for the vowel.

Another suggestion…
Ask continually that your singers listen for uniformity on the chosen vowel. “Are we sounding as ONE VOICE here?”

Yeah, but what about those consonants? I can’t resist.
Remember, the role of the consonant is to separate the flow of the vowels (the vehicle for the tone) by using the articulators…the tongue, teeth, lips, and palate to provide clarity so people can understand the lyrics. It’s amazing how active the tongue and lips must be to cleanly articulate all of the consonant sounds found in English. To me, the key is often a matter of articulating the consonant without destroying the flow of the line. That’s, again, a matter for another article.

But, keep in mind, the vowel is the source of the tone itself and thus the emphasis on the vowel here.

Here’s the really good part…
I found as I listened for unison and worked on uniformity of the vowel, that this became a wonderful guide to my listening to the choir. Yes, there are many other factors, but what a good starting point for the beginning director.

As you can tell, I love talking about this stuff. Use it if it helps. Toss it if it doesn’t.

*My thanks to Dr. Lori Wiest, WSU, for information on IPA. (If there are any errors, they are mine, not hers!)

I also add the following for those of you who want to pursue this further. Incorporate these ideas into your approach...both for diction and for tone quality. But don't quit because it gets complicated. To me, this is "key" stuff to making your choir sound better.

Another chart for reference:

My thanks to Reginald Unterseher, Voice Teacher and Composer, for calling these two charts to my attention.

Howard Meharg