Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method. Download All Things Vocal podcast on your fav app!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Vowel Shapes and Lengths for Contemporary Singing

Unlike rocks, contemporary vowels need to be elastic... to morph!

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Many things define and separate musical genre styles. For instance, the type and frequency of vocal embellishments (licks), rhythm choices such as letting lines lag behind the beat or singing right with the beat, using a chest-heavy mixed voice for notes another genre would more likely place in head register. Today's topic is one of the most important genre definers ...the shape and length of the vowels. 

If you have ever been a member of a good formal choir, you'll probably have been directed to hold your vowels open - right up to the beginning of the next word, separated very briefly by the consonants. You'd also have probably been told to pronounce your vowels in consistently 'tall' shapes. When singing with groups, it's important for all members to make the same exact articulation choices like this. You'll also find classical and some musical theater singers using these long lengths and tall shapes.

I have found that many singers with choir experience and/or classical training forget to transition vowel shapes and sustain lengths when singing solos in contemporary or  popular music genre styles. Popular and formal genre vowels contrast significantly and detract and sound unnatural if confused with each other. It helps to think of them as different languages to trigger the appropriate vowel shape and length.

Of course if you literally do speak another language than the song is written in, you may need to learn to form unfamiliar vowel shapes. I have a student in Italy who is learning to pronounce the word 'emotion' as ee-moh-ch'n'  instead of 'ee-moh-shoun' in order to sing the Dire Straits song 'Walk Of Life' in English.

Morphing Vowel Shape

More formally known as 'vowel modification' I like to think of this vocal shape-shifting as vowel 'morphing'. This is, to me, one of the vital goals of vocal exercises... to get your your mouth and throat channel flexible! No matter what genre you sing in... your voice wants access to movement!

Why? When your articulation is frozen, the jaw and soft palate more or less the same for all vowels...
  • it doesn't sound very conversational or communicative. Popular styles call for more natural shape-shifting such as lazier forming of diphthongs.
  • certain vowels, especially ees and oos, can get very tight when not allowed to open and morph a bit more vertically.
  • your upper and lower range is harder to reach. 
  • you can strain your voice trying to keep vowel shapes the same on pitches where that shape doesn't fit  - much like the square peg round hole situation!
How? Morphing vowels involves
  • active eye language 
  • active jaw movement
  • a feeling of pulling articulation open and free

Shortening Vowel Length

Popular singing, also known as contemporary commercial music (CCM) singing, requires more conversationally intuitive choices for lengths of time you hold, or sustain, vowels.


Holding vowels out too long in phrases can sound like you're using the wrong language for the genre. In many cases, it's helpful to just articulate it and be done with it. Sometimes you do hold a note out, but not EVERY TIME.

How do you choose how long to sustain a note?
  • Dedicate a lot of time to focused listening and miming with the masters of the genre you want to sing. 
  • Get a coach, director, producer, musician or other informed ear to listen to you and give you honest feedback: Are you holding vowels too long or cutting them too short? Does it sound too formal? Does it sound natural, emotional and just right?
  • Record yourself singing, listen back and ask yourself the same questions.
  • There are no hard and fast rules, there is just a sense that the vowel length sounds and feels right. It's an art, not a science.
Remember that no matter what you sing, you should never have to strain your voice to accommodate a style.  A little morphing of vowel shape is a great tension reliever for choir and even classical singing. Contemporary voice just needs a greater freedom and communicative variety of morphing and lengthening vowels.

You might also want to read my post "5 differences between contemporary and classical singing" as well as watch this video vocal lesson:

If you'd like more help with vowels or any other vocal issue, contact me for a lesson in office or by Skype, or get a course in Power Path and Performance vocal training, available at my website.

Your comments, and any review you could leave at iTunes for my podcast, are most welcome!

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  • At November 18, 2015 at 5:19 PM , Anonymous Ron Calabrese said...

    This article has a lot of sound advice. As an operatic tenor,classically trained at the American Conservatory in Chicago, my main teacher, Walter Kirschner, frequently worked on my vowel forms, particularly in the upper register. He also pointed out men normally like the "ah" sound rather then the "oh" preferred by women. Joan Sutherland actually changed words at the top of her prodigious range to accommodate her vowel comfort.

    Your recommendation to listen to certain singers proficient in a particular idiom, is extremely important. I've always considered Sinatra the Enrico Caruso of pop singing. In his early years he had a bell like quality and perfect enunciation. 40 years later, he still had the perfect enunciation and always exhibited a unique method of handling vowels with adjoining consonants. He would frequently get off the vowel quickly and hold the consonant, i.e the "m"would be held in the word "dream. This unique creativity allowed Sinatra to communicate at a level far beyond his contemporaries.Vic Damone had a mellifluous voice but could bore you in minutes. Thanks for the interesting articles


    Mr. Ron Calabrese
    Lumenite® Control Technology, Inc.

  • At November 18, 2015 at 5:22 PM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

    Ron I am so appreciative of your comment here! Love heawring about your teacher working with you on vowels, and about Ms Sutherland's word changes in the name of vowel comfort! I also recommend this to songwriters... try not to write an 'ee' word on the highest sustained peak of the chorus! Also, I am in total agreement about Sinatra! He is rightly a vowel morphing, phrasing hero of popular genre singing.

  • At November 24, 2015 at 5:48 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    What a wonderful post! As a classically trained singer, it took me a LONG time to get comfortable with teaching vowels in CCM music. I'm finally embracing the phrase "ditch the choir vowels here!" with my students. It makes them laugh and lighten up a bit, and it helps us remember that different genres should have different vowels shapes/lengths. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • At November 24, 2015 at 6:36 PM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

    Very happy to hear your experience with your students, Sara! I so appreciate classically trained teachers like you who are willing to adapt to help their students sing authentically within more contemporary genres of material. Your feedback encourages me and is most appreciated.


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