Vowels and Diphthongs

Dic­tion is the art of speak­ing clear­ly so that each word is heard and under­stood. The words to songs are the sto­ries that cap­ture the emo­tion; they are the poet­ry. Words are what sep­a­rates singers from oth­er musi­cians. Under­stand­ing the impact of dic­tion choic­es enables singers to best com­mu­ni­cate the sto­ry to the audi­ence so that they may devel­op a deep­er con­nec­tion to the song’s meaning(s).

When one sings, one is singing vow­els. Vow­els are like col­ors; there are infi­nite shades. An E can be pierc­ing or airy — or it can be mixed with a hint of an EH sound or a U.

Try it: U is sim­i­lar to E in many ways — they are most res­o­nant vow­els. Do a long tone on E, then a long tone on U. What changes in your mouth? Your tongue? Your lips? Where do you feel the vibra­tion?

Start to slide between the E sound and the U sound. Make the tran­si­tion with­out mov­ing your lips. Make the tran­si­tion only mov­ing your lips. How does it affect the sound of the vow­el?

Exper­i­ment with all the vow­els: E‑Eh-Ah-Oh-Ou. Which vow­els have a sim­i­lar shape in your mouth?

In Eng­lish — and espe­cial­ly in rock, pop and jazz — a pure vow­el sound is rarely sung. Exer­cis­es such as this, help singers become more aware of how their tongue and lips affect the sound of each vow­el. These types of exer­cis­es can help deter­mine how clear one’s lyrics come across.

Many vocal teach­ers start stu­dents with Ital­ian songs because this lan­guage uses most­ly pure vow­el sounds. I teach rock, pop and jazz — so my stu­dents are usu­al­ly not singing in mul­ti­ple lan­guages. Instead, I uti­lize exer­cis­es with pure vow­els, and explain the Ital­ian pure vow­els to stu­dents — but work exclu­sive­ly with Eng­lish Dic­tion.

One of the great­est chal­lenges for begin­ning stu­dents singing in Eng­lish is diph­thongs. Diph­thong means “two sounds” in Greek and refers to two (or some­times three!) adja­cent vow­el sounds occur­ring with­in the same syl­la­ble. The tongue and/or lips move dur­ing the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the vow­el. When singing diph­thongs in rock, pop, and jazz one usu­al­ly holds the first vow­el sound and the sec­ond vow­el sound is added at the very end. Sim­i­lar­ly we have to watch our for cer­tain con­so­nants col­or­ing our vow­els. The biggest offend­ers are R, L, M, N, NG.

The above has to be learned. It’s not how we speak so it can seem counter intu­itive at first — but will make a huge dif­fer­ence in the nat­ur­al beau­ty of one’s tone. Remem­ber: we sing the vow­els.


* Sing the word “bye”, sing bah and hold out the ah sound, adding ee only at the very end.

* Sing the word “bay”, sus­tain the eh sound and add the ee and the very end.

* Try singing the words let­ting the sec­ond vow­el ring out. See how it changes the sound of the word.

* Sing the word “car”
Try singing caaaah‑r
Now sing car­rrr

* Sing the word “spring”
Try singing spri­i­ii-ing
Now try sprinnnng

Notice the dif­fer­ence — the lat­ter is usu­al­ly not a desir­able sound in singing. The word is dis­tort­ed, sounds tense, and is much more chal­leng­ing to sus­tain.

Ini­tial­ly this takes focus, but will even­tu­al­ly become sec­ond nature. If you’re not lik­ing the way some­thing sounds it’s always good to ana­lyze the vow­els. You are most like­ly col­or­ing the vow­el with the con­so­nant that comes after it, accen­tu­at­ing the end of a diph­thong, or using a vow­el sound that is incor­rect.

Try it: Sing your song using just the vow­el sounds. If the words are there was a boy, you would sing ehr uh ay oy. Then sing it again adding the con­so­nants. Did it change the way you sang the song?

There are some styl­is­tic excep­tions with diph­thongs. For instance, while singing coun­try music one might put just as much if not more empha­sis on the sec­ond vow­el sound. For exam­ple, when singing the word they, one would pro­nounce it theh-eeee. Anoth­er exam­ple in pop music is puls­ing in rhythm between vow­el sounds at the end of a phrase; one could sing the word “plain” like pleh-ee-eh-ee-eh-ee-eheen.



I enjoy explor­ing con­so­nants via rhyth­mic exer­cis­es.

Try it: Go through the alpha­bet using a metronome.

B bb B bb
C cccc C cccc
d ff d ff d ff ff ff

…then switch it up a bit…

d k — k B k — k
d gh d gh z — v Z‑z-z‑z

When impro­vis­ing or using your voice like an instru­ment, prac­tic­ing with the metronome or beat helps stu­dents devel­op a phys­i­cal sense of tim­ing. This exer­cise will help build the tongue and lip mus­cles and organ­i­cal­ly aid with enun­ci­a­tion.

I pre­fer the use of songs when work­ing on con­so­nants and enun­ci­a­tion. A singer has an intu­itive knowl­edge of con­so­nants. The main con­cern is enun­ci­at­ing — but not over enun­ci­at­ing. Some­times the ends of words get lost. R’s and L’s both tend to col­or the vow­el sound too much. Less than one would think is need­ed; a sub­tle R or L will be under­stood clear­ly.

Although there are many sim­i­lar­i­ties, dic­tion tech­nique varies between styles of music. Ampli­fied and unam­pli­fied music require dif­fer­ent tech­niques. If a singer always uses a micro­phone when per­form­ing, they should prac­tice their songs ampli­fied and be aware of basic mic tech­nique.

When singing with a micro­phone it is impor­tant to soft­en con­so­nants like ss, pp, kk, and any­thing that will pop. In a record­ing set­ting even less pop­ping in con­so­nants is need­ed. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, singers can get quite lazy when using a micro­phone — and lyrics may be mis­un­der­stood or com­plete­ly lost. Often­times, the first part of the word is under­stood — but the end­ing con­so­nant is bare­ly audi­ble. Many singers ben­e­fit from work­ing with a coach before they record. Micro­phone tech­nique is anoth­er ball game, so to speak; micro­phones used for live per­for­mance and record­ing are very dif­fer­ent — so it nat­u­ral­ly fol­lows that one must con­scious­ly alter how one sings while in ses­sion.

The ulti­mate goal with dic­tion is to con­nect and com­mu­ni­cate with the nec­es­sary con­trol to choose a col­or and mood that fits the words and the sto­ry. There is not one prop­er way to play a note or sing a word. It changes with every song, phrase, musi­cian and ensem­ble.