Let’s talk craft - vowel matching

Tom Raburn

Question: When does 2 + 2 = 5? Answer: When barbershop harmony is sung correctly, creating harmonic overtones and "expanded sound."

One of the most important factors in the achievement of choral blend and expanded sound is unity of vowel sounds. Vowels are what we sing and sustain, separated by consonants to make words. When we match vowel sounds, we create like harmonics and the sound expands in intensity through reinforcement. In singing, vowels are created through the natural resonance of the human vocal tract. The tongue, lips and jaw are used to fashion the resonators into their vowel shapes. Some basic rules to follow when forming vowel sounds are:

  1. When producing all vowel sounds, the tip of the tongue should be placed gently on the lower gum ridge, with the tip barely touching the base of the lower teeth. This helps keep the throat open so the vocal chords can vibrate naturally through the resonators (mouth, throat, and sinus cavities).
  2. The jaw should be allowed to relax naturally with a swinging down and back motion.
  3. The lips should leave the teeth uncovered.
  4. Although the mouth must be open wide, it is not how wide it is open but the shape that is most important.

Every vowel can be sung with one of three mouth shapes: round (example—"oh"), square (example— "ih" as in sit) and oblong (example—"ah"as in pop). Refinements to form each specific vowel sound are made by the degree to which the tongue is arched in the mouth, and the degree to which the jaw is dropped. For instance, both the "oh" sound and the "oo" (as in moon) sound are made with the round mouth shape, but the "oh" sound is made with the mouth as open as possible while the "oo" sound is made with the smallest, most rounded shape.

As we sing the songs in our repertoire, keep in mind the basic mechanics of producing vowel sounds and think about the target vowel sound for each word in the song. Properly matched vowels can enable our chorus of 20-something men to "fill the hall" and create the expanded sound that makes barbershop harmony so much fun to sing and hear.

Big D Bulletin, September 1998


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