Vowels can get pretty complicated when it comes to singing in the American language. When we sing, most of the focus goes to the vowels, not the consonants in the lyrics.
For some words, the vowels don't just have one simple sound like "ahh" or "ooh". When this happens, how will you know when to hit each sound when singing?
A diphthong is a vowel that seems like it would only have one sound, but it has two. The word diphthong is derived from two different Greek terms, "di" meaning two, and "thongos" meaning sound.
As a singer, when you come across words with diphthongs, it can be hard to tell how much time you should spend on each sound in the vowel.
International Phonetic Alphabet, also known as IPA, is an alphabetic system of phonetic notation based primarily on Latin words. In many genres of music in Western culture, 5 common vowels you will use are "ah ee ah oh, and oo", or using IPA, [e] [i] [a] [o] [u].
But what if you have to sing a word that combines multiple vowel sounds? You may, for example, have to sing an "eye" [aɪ̯] vowel for words like the words 'rise' and 'life'. Or you will need to sing an ay [eɪ̯] vowel heard in words like 'day' and 'game'.
When you sing a word with a diphthong, the first vowel will keep your throat open and the sound moving forward. On the other hand, the second vowel actually will likely cause some tension in your throat and limit your airflow.
This is why it is important to emphasize the first sound in the vowel and save the second sound for the very end of the word and sung note.
For instance, if you sing the word "rise", you will want to focus on the "ah" in the [aɪ̯] vowel and save the "ee" sound for the end. If you switch to the "ee" sound while you still plan to hold the note for longer, it will sound pretty awkward and not as open as the first part of the word.
You want to be sure to look out for eight common diphthongs in the English language.
Once you get a feel for how to sing these correctly, you will naturally begin to approach all types of diphthongs in the correct way, saving the last sound in the vowel for last and keeping the vowel open so that your lovely voice can shine.
[aɪ] as in "Light"
[eɪ] as in "Play"
[eə] as in "Pair"
[ɪə] as in "Deer"
[oʊ] as in "Slow"
[ɔɪ] as in "Toy"
[ʊə] as in "Sure"
Yes, the IPA can look a bit like a foreign language, but you don't need to get deep into IPA to start singing vowels right. As long as you understand the foundation, you will likely begin to develop good vowel and sound placement habits as you grow in your singing abilities.
Vowels are very important when it comes to singing in a choir setting. For choirs, you should practice getting phrases out uniformed with good rhythmic and melodic flow that everyone in the audience can be able to hear well.
Singing simple vowels is a challenge enough, but diphthongs, where all the choir members are singing different sounds in the vowel at different times, can sound like a jumbled mess!
Many choir directors like to point this problem out with their choirs and go over exercises to help them all sing the same sounds together and put the second sound in a diphthong at the very end of the note. When you're in a choir, you will need to shorten the last sound even more so than you would when singing solo.
Related Post: How To Find A Choir To Join Near You
Diphthongs aren't as huge of a deal when it comes to solo singing, which is why many soloists have never even heard of the term at all. I myself didn't learn about diphthongs until I started singing in choirs myself.
While it's not as big of a deal to shorten the last sound since you are singing alone, it is still recommended in order for you to be able to keep the vowel open and relaxed without mouth tension.
For example, in some genres like jazz or gospel, singers may want to emphasize the second sound in a vowel for emotional intensity. If you're singing the word "fight" in a choral or classical music setting, you don't want that "ee" to be bright and sounding like it doesn't match the tone of the music.
In gospel music, on the other hand, if you're singing about a spiritual fight, it could make sense to stress the "ee".
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