What are vowels? How do we make them?
In order to discuss vowels we need to talk a little bit about sound in general. If you have two different people say the same word on the same note they will still sound slightly different. This is because even though the pitch may be the same, the timbre of the two voices is different. The reason is the same as why a cello sounds different from a saxophone or a guitar even though they are playing the same note. When a sound is created, there are overtones that naturally start to vibrate as well. These tones when combined in different amounts create variations in timbre that allow us to distinguish the differences between voices and virtually everything we hear. Different shaped instruments made of different materials create the full palette of an orchestra as well as the fullness, warmth, and uniqueness of a singer’s voice.
So then what are vowels? We can say different vowels on the same note and they obviously sound different. In fact, two different people can say a vowel on the same note and we can still both hear the difference in their timbre and that they are saying a certain vowel together. Try to say all the vowels you regularly speak or sing and notice the shapes that your mouth takes.
It’s the heel of tongue (the back top), the lips, and the jaw that form vowels. As they change the space in the mouth and throat, they alter the intensity of particular overtones being emitted, muting some, while intensifying others. In this way, patterns of muted overtones, sort of like holes punched in the overtones of a note or the bumps in braille, distinguish what vowel we hear being said.
Try speaking or singing the word ah (saw) and then changing to the vowel i (see). You may notice that the tongue tends to stay flat or even fall back during the ah vowel, while during the i vowel the tongue lifted up towards your soft palate. The jaw also takes more space as it opens up to an ah. If you pause in between the ah and i vowels then you will get the e (maple) vowel. The tongue is the major mover when it comes to forming all of the vowels and the others lie within these two opposites.
Now try to sing oh (low) and u (poodle). Move back and forth from oh to e and i to u. These vowel pairs have similar tongue shapes, but the lips move to change to the rounder vowels. The lips are the fine tuners of the vowels.
Then there are the often forgotten neutral vowels like uh (soot) and Ih (is). The uh vowel is closer to the ah vowel, while the Ih vowel is closer to the i vowel. Both, however, lie more in the middle and the lips are neither relaxed nor fully engaged.
Try singing all the vowels moving back and forth from one to the next. Find where the vowels transition and try to keep your tone, pitch and support consistent the entire time.
Now that we have explored how many of the common vowels are made you can practice having a very clear vowel sound without making too many exaggerated external changes to the mouth or jaw. This leads to the last and most important point: Most of the work of resonance and vowel formation is done internally. What this means is that you just have to feel it out. You must learn by personal experience what each vowel feels like and how to transition from one to the next.
This is actually one of the most beautiful aspects of singing! We learn to sing by finding and refining the potential of our voice within the open spaces in our head, just as we learn to blend and harmonize with others by finding a space of common potential within each other. The longer and more attentively you sing with somebody the more your voices are intricately woven together and shaped by each other’s presence. In this way our voices are always evolving with us, shaping us, and simultaneously shaping those around us.