Vowel Pronunciation for Singers

This part of the series on vocal technique zooms in on vowels, or more specifically, the pronunciation of vowels. Keep bumping into the same issues, especially when you sing high notes? Then working on your vowels might just be the solution.


This blog was written by Alfons Verreijt, the developer of the VocalFeedback method and author of the book The Essentials of the Voice.



Since they require exact pronunciation and recognition of specific vowels, the techniques described in this article shouldn’t be practised without the help of a professional vocal coach. Even a handful of lessons can be enough to make a huge difference and keep you from hitting a wall or, worse, damaging your vocal cords.

Vowel Pronunciation

Go ahead and sing an ‘ee’ (as in ‘see’) at a medium pitch and medium volume with compression and then try going up a scale. When you maintain the same ‘ee’ sound as you go up in pitch, you’ll eventually hit a wall, where you feel something change within your vocal tract. That voice crack is you switching from singing with compression to singing without, which changes the sound of your voice. To avoid that change of timbre in the higher registers, you’ll need to change the way you pronounce your high-pitched e’s from the ‘ee’ in ‘see’ to the ‘i’ in ‘sit’ so you can maintain compression on the way up. Since there are quite a few pitfalls, the pronunciation of vowels is an important point of consideration for singers. Every vowel requires a different position of the vocal tract, which can’t always be maintained when you want to hit the higher notes. Forcing to maintain the original pronunciation of a vowel for every note will result in various unwanted outcomes. Not only does this build up tension in the vocal tract, it also tenses the muscles around it. That tension can be heard since it essentially stiffens up your vocals, resulting in thin and shrill sound. It’s a vicious cycle that makes every next line harder to sing, and can lead to vocal cord disorders in the long run.

Singing With and Without Compression

The aforementioned issues can be avoided by changing the initial way that you pronounce vowels as you move up in pitch. Besides technical arguments, there are also artistic considerations to be made when it comes to the pronunciation of vowels and the timbre of your vocals. Coincidentally, speaking English requires a lot of compression, which carries through in pop music. Pop singers tend to want to maintain compression for as long as possible, even for the high notes, which requires a little vowel shift for some vowels. In part four, we looked at singing with and without compression in more detail. Since compression is an important part of vowel pronunciation, here’s a quick recap: the vocal cords can be closed in various ways and, since they’re muscles, they can be tensed. When you sing and tense your vocal cords together with the muscles that basically pull the vocal cords shut (the adductors), you’re in what’s referred to as the active mode and singing with compression. Here, the vocal cords are actively involved (internally tensed) in producing the tone and pitch. Besides an active mode, unsurprisingly, there’s also a passive mode. This is when the vocal cords are also closed, but only because of the adductor muscles doing their thing. In passive mode, the vocal cords themselves remain relaxed. Singing in passive mode is singing without compression. Singing with compression results in a different sound than singing without compression, and both techniques come with their own set of limitations in terms of pitch and dynamic range.

Vowel Pronunciation for Singers

Strong-Armed by Vowels

Vowel issues are especially easy to bump into when you sing with compression. To maintain original vowel pronunciation during high notes, at some point, you’re forced to drop compression. This makes your voice sound different and can even cause unintentional voice cracks — something you’ll generally want to avoid. As a singer, you naturally want to be in control of your vowels and not be forced to change up your sound just so you can maintain the way you pronounce certain vowels during high notes. Christina Aquilera is a great example of a singer who can maintain compression during really high notes by shifting the way she sings the vowels. Every once in a while, she’ll drop compression for high notes, making her vocals sound a bit more raspy. Presumably, that’s an artistic decision. Shakira likes to do something similar. The Columbian singer likes to alternate between singing with and without compression by briefly dropping compression at the end of a line — a technique that almost sounds like yodelling. Some singers are so skilled, they can maintain initial vowel pronunciation going into seriously high notes. Dutch singer Marco Borsato is one of those singers. “Borsato pulls it off through his superb breathing technique and exceptional endurance”, says vocal coach Alfons Verreijt. “He takes in just enough air, keeping the internal pressure to the bare minimum. This way, his vowel pronunciation barely needs to shift. He has also mastered breath support and barely has to expand his sides, giving him a big margin when he gets to the tricky notes. Borsato doesn’t sing loudly but he does sing full of pep, which helps him control his vowels and maintain compression during the higher notes, while applying twang lends intensity to his vowels.

Vowel Pronunciation for Singers
Christina Aguilera

Pioneer Cathrine Sadolin

Thanks to Danish vocal coach Cathrine Sadolin, you really don’t need to be Shakira to sing well and comfortably dodge vowel issues. Founder of the well-known Complete Vocal Technique (CVT), Sadolin has done groundbreaking work analysing the vowel pronunciation of a large number of singers. “She discovered that many singers change the way they sing vowels when going up in pitch,” Alfons says. “That way, they can maintain the original timbre”. Sadolin’s method involves changing the pronunciation of certain vowels to ‘uh’ (as in ‘luck’), ‘i’ (as in ‘sit’) and ‘oh’ (as in ‘long’), which Alfons thinks is a solid and practical solution, even if it’s a solution that has its limitations. “You constantly have to be aware of which vowels change into those ‘uh’, ‘i’ and ‘oh’ sounds and at which pitch the shift should take place. In other words, there are strict guidelines that need to be followed, which is extra difficult for multilingual singers because vowel pronunciation differs between different languages. That’s actually why I started thinking about a different approach, one that feels more natural for singers.”

Gliding Scale

Based on Sadolin’s method and his own experience in the field, Alfons developed his own method to teach his students. The method helps singers naturally move towards the desired vowel pronunciation, without any sharp turns or transitions. It’s a gliding scale that the body automatically adjusts to, and it doesn’t require any thinking. What’s important is that you don’t try to stop your body from changing your vowel pronunciation as you go up in pitch. One of the core principles is that you just let it happen. Before we dive in deeper, take a look at the table above again and remember the two distinct modes: singing with and without compression. When you’re singing with compression, you’re on a scale that ranges from using the edges of your vocal cords (head voice) to using the full width of your vocal cords. In the bottom row of the table, you can see how you should change your vowel pronunciation for high notes. Singing high notes without compression and at the edges of your vocal cords doesn’t require any adjustments, but singing high notes without compression using the full width of your vocal cords requires you to direct your vowels to ‘a’ (as in ‘say’) and ‘o’ (as in ‘so’), and singing high notes with compression requires you to direct your vowels towards ‘i’ (as in ‘sit), ‘uh’ and ‘oh’. What’s important here is that you allow the shift in pronunciation to happen gradually as you go up in pitch.

In Practice

So much for the theory. How can you actually work on your vowel pronunciation? “Pick any vowel and sing it at a medium pitch and medium volume. “Make sure to sing it with compression and slowly increase the pitch by going up a scale while maintaining the original position of your vocal tract. Do this carefully and you’ll notice how the vowel slowly but surely shifts in colour, or timbre. Practise this with different vowels and, over time, your body will adapt to it. It’s about learning to focus on the position of your vowel tract instead of the sound of your vowels,” Alfons explains. “There’s one caveat though. I don’t recommend doing this exercise without the guidance of a vocal coach. Since subtle changes in your vocal tract can easily go unnoticed, you really need a coach that monitors you closely. In the process, you might also unintentionally change the way you use breath support, or build up tension in places you shouldn’t. You need someone there who knows what to pay attention to — someone who knows about the anatomy of singing.”

That covers it for vowels. In the next part, we’ll be looking at singing with effects. Think growling, grunting, screeching, moaning and screaming.

Good to Know

Clear Vowel Pronunciation

As established, you can’t maintain the original pronunciation of vowels when you shift to a higher pitch when you’re singing, especially when you sing with compression. If you try to pronounce certain vowels correctly while singing in a high pitch, you will automatically release your compression and switch to singing without compression, which inadvertently changes the colour of your sound. Vowel pronunciation can also have a detrimental effect on the clarity of your singing, even if you manage to maintain the same singing mode, so with or without compression. That’s because each vowel requires a different vocal tract ‘configuration’. To produce a specific vowel, your vocal tract basically has to adopt a different position, which might explain why you’re struggling to stay in tune when you attempt certain pitch shifts — even at an average pitch.


While it’s somewhat unrelated to vowel pronunciation, singing volume is an important enough topic to bring up again. “Volume is one of the biggest issues for singers, especially singers in the non-professional scene,” Alfons says. “Almost all casual bands rehearse at a volume level that’s just too high, and often in small rehearsal spaces too. This is a huge issue for the singer, who’s forced to turn up the volume so that they can still hear themselves sing. At the same time, they’re limited in terms of the maximum volume setting, since there’s a crossover value where unwanted feedback kicks in. The smaller the room, the lower that maximum volume setting will be. The result is that singers are forced to sing as loud as possible just so they can still hear themselves, which not only increases the risk of vocal cord disorders, but can sound completely different from their live sound since, on stage, there’s usually a floor monitor that helps you hear yourself, allowing you to sing much less loudly. This can feel like you’re playing a different instrument all of sudden. Like you were playing the keyboard in the rehearsal room and now you’re on the violin. This is why it’s important to keep the volume as low as possible during rehearsal. It takes a load off the singer who’ll be better able to focus on the sound, and is also just much easier on everyone’s ears.”

See Also

» Belt & Twang: the Loud & High Vocal Technique
» Auto-Tune, Melodyne… Is Using Pitch-Correction Cheating?
» How to Record a Full Choir
» Mixing Flawless Vocals in 5 Steps
» Recording and amplifying vocals for beginners

» Microphones & Accessories
» Vocal Books
» Vocal Effects
» Speakers

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