Primary Vowels and Vocal Function

The effect of vowels on the function of the vocal instrument has been observed and recorded since the very earliest writings on singing. The Italian tradition, evidenced by their documentation in music and print, vocalized a great deal on the ‘ah’ vowel.

Italian vowels [a-e-i-o-u] have been a continuous standard of singing and vocal pedagogy, but are there commonalities of vowel that can be found in all languages? How can a teacher use vowels for singers of all cultures and backgrounds to elicit proper function of the voice?

As it turns out there are PRIMARY vowels in the human language in the same way there are PRIMARY colors.

Voice scientist Ingo Titze has remarked that speech science literature recognizes the vowels [α],[i], and [u] as the primary vowels based on their particular articulatory qualities. [α] is a low and back vowel, [i] is high and front, and [u] is high and back.

Husler and Rodd-Marling in the 1960s made the following highly descriptive assertion about primary vowels and their use in their book, Singing, The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organ:

THE VOWEL SOUND ‘OO’ [u]

This vowel is a ‘throat opener’. Forming it directly exercises certain muscles from the muscular net in which the larynx is suspended. The larynx is pulled forwards and down by the chest-bone-shield-cartilage muscle (M. sterno-thyroideus) and simultaneously drawn slightly upward at the back of the palato-laryngeal muscles. This means the vocal folds are stretched still more (i.e., in addition to the stretching done by the crico-thyroid muscles and the posticus). The epiglottis (the lid of the larynx) is raised vertically, the nasal cavity stays open. The muscles of the vocal lips, i.e., the Tensors, are slightly, possibly completely, relaxed (‘head voice’). The chink of the glottis gapes to a certain extent, possibly its whole length. The ventricle bands are drawn apart. The vowel sound oo exercises the principle to which the term “covering” has been given; the voice acquires a ‘head tone’ quality.

THE VOWEL SOUND “EE” [i]

Practising this vowel sound serves to rouse and to exercise the specific Stretchers (M. crico-thyroideus and M. posticus), also the specific Closers (Mm. lateralis and M. transversus). The chink of the glottis is closed except for a small elliptical gap, approximately in the centre of the vocal folds. This elliptical opening is caused by the inactivity of the marginal muscle-fibres ary- and thyreo-vocalis. When forming the vowel sound ee, the most active of the muscles that inspan the larynx is, apparently, the M. crico-pharyngeus, which anchors the larynx downwards and back, thus relieving the stiffness normally present in the muscles of the tongue and tongue-bone. The epiglottis is somewhat raised.

THE VOWEL SOUND “AH” [a]

This vowel sound belongs to the Tensors, i.e., the vocal lips themselves (vocalis system). It serves to rouse the main muscular body of the vocal folds as well as their marginal sub-fibres. It is possible for the Stretchers to be more or less inactive (though such voices are unhealthy). In the best possible instance the glottal chink is completely closed by the action of the marginal muscle-bundles of the ary- and thyreo-vocalis; a pure ah-vowel cannot be produced without the delicate work done by these edge muscles. Of the suspensory muscles, the shield cartilage tongue bone muscle (M. thyreo-hyoideus), which draws the larynx forwards and up, plays a rather larger part than it does in the formation of the other vowels. The epiglottis is somewhat lowered.

Author Peter T. Harrison, a protegé of Yvonne Rodd-Marling, has written very succinctly on the use of these primary vowels in his book, The Human Nature of the Singing Voice:

For centuries, the pure Italian vowels have been recognised as the most suited to coaxing the voice back to its singing condition. This is because in their purest form the primary vowels are the ones most closely aligned to the basic vocal processes. Thus, for example, in addition to ‘u’ or ‘oo’ already mentioned in conjunction with stretching and opening the folds, ‘ah’ is best for stimulating their contraction, and ‘ee’ can help to stretch the vocal bands (mucous membrane) – falsetto – and (along with ‘ah’) stimulate the ‘closers’ as in the coup deglotte. Primary vowels are like primarycolours – interestingly there are three of each. Working with vowels, we have a tool of great flexibility, which lends itself to the training of speakers of all languages, the singing of different languages, and to a high degree of fine tuning. Pure vowels and by implication fully formed vocal processes may have to be approached gradually via the vowels in the language native to the singer. Nevertheless, the structural health of the larynx can to a large extent be verified by its ability to form these pure vowels fully and freely. Ultimately, it is the natural integration of the acoustic properties (resonance) of the pure primary vowels that brings about the individual’s ideal singing sound.

Pedagogue Cornelius Reid has also illuminated the influence of the combinations of pitch, intensity, and vowel upon the correct muscular action of the vocal mechanism. For Reid, vowels were a corollary of a properly functioning laryngeal mechanism, and the vowel was the indicator of the proper coordination of the action of the throat through registration. Reid also was clear to note that vowels can also only be ‘as pure as the coordinative process will allow.’  In other words, if a vowel cannot be sung purely, then two objects were to be addressed: 1. an improvement of the resonance adjustment and the elimination of muscular interference, and 2. improvement of the registration.

For a teacher of singing, much positive work can be done in vocalization on these primary vowels. In the same way that new colors can be revealed from the proper mixing of primary colors, so the primary vowels can help the singer to find improved function of the voice. A student could build a very successful singing voice on these primary vowels alone.

When teaching international students for whom English is not their native language, singing in these three primary vowels can help to perfect the voice, since these vowels are common to ALL human utterance. Every language contains these primary vowels, and therein is more than enough reason for their use in the voice studio.

Of course, application of these vowels must never be divorced from their functional nature, and their effect upon the vocal folds and throat, and teachers should spend time learning about the particular qualities (so eloquently explained by Husler, Rodd-Marling, and Harrison), before endeavoring to apply them in vocal exercise.

Each and every vowel should be chosen for its inherent properties in the perfection of a vocal technique built on freedom, ease, and functional beauty.

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