Search Ace Linguist

June 30, 2021

How Singing Resonance Affects Vowels

I've recently been delving deeper into the human voice and the actual anatomy behind it. Most of the audio I look at is sung speech, so I've been wanting to further categorize aspects of sung speech that may be relevant. Vocal science and voice descriptions are quite opaque, and descriptions of voices can vary wildly from one source to another. A big part of this is also because it is still not entirely clear how the vocal mechanism functions, and what anatomical configuration results in certain vocal colors.

Even with this lack of consensus, one can find useful ideas. One recent idea I've found that explains a fair amount is that there are two types of resonance that singers naturally find when singing. One is based around the 'oo' sound: image a loud 'woo-hoo' call. The other is based around the 'eh' sound: imagine calling out 'hey'.

The 'eh' type of resonance results in a voice that sounds brassy and even shrill. It is prominent in pop music, which I cover a lot. I suspect that the 'eh' type of resonance is also easily found with the 'oh' sound and the 'uh' sound: sounds that are mid-way between the top and the bottom of the mouth.

When I use 'eh' resonance, I can feel a vibration above the back of my tongue. Achieving this vibration is very easy if I use mid-height vowels like [e], [o], and [@]. The farther away you go from these vowels, the harder it is, but lower is even harder. [I] is harder than [e], but not by much, while [ɛ] requires some effort to get that brassy resonance. [a] is very hard to achieve, and requires a weird tongue posture where the front is low in the jaw while the back is raised.

I was never taught how to achieve this resonance; I simply noticed that when I sang on [e] and [o] vowels, my voice seemed to carry farther without having to use more air. From there, I tried modifying vowels to get them closer to mid-height where I could get away with it:

  • [ɛ] got shifted up to [e]
  • [ɪ] got lowered to [e] as well.
  • [ʌ] could sound nigh-on Southern as [ɜ]
  • [u] didn't decrease in height, but I did push it forward to [ʉ], which let me keep the back of the tongue high.
    • What is the impact of this? Well, it means that when analyzing a piece of sung text, we have to keep these vowel modifications in mind. Here's an example from a past Dialect Dissection: Britney Spears raising the vowel in BED:

      "You used to say that I was sp[e]cial" - What You See Is What You Get

      In the Britney Spears article, I listed this as a possible example of Southern influence. And it could be! But it could also be an example of a Pop Vowel Modification (time to name things :)). Considering that Britney is actually from the South and has a Southern accent in real life, I would give points to the "is using her Southern accent" theory. She's just also using features that work well within the aesthetic constraints of pop music.

      This also plays a role in the popularization of ME-breaking and HAPPY-breaking (and to a lesser extent, HAPPY-laxing): we move from vowels that are harder to get 'eh' type resonance on ([i] and [ɪ]) to vowels that are easier to get resonance on ([i] moving to [ɪ], and [ɪ] moving to [ej]). This feature began as part of actual, real life accents: Southern American English (white and Black) and working class London English. It just so happens that they fit the Pop Vowel Modification.

      I believe that music can be a great vehicle for understanding language and linguistic change. But in order to make use of it, we need to understand how sung speech differentiates from spoken speech, and how the pressures on sung speech are different from the pressures on spoken speech. To that end, I'll continue studying this area and writing about it.

No comments:

Post a Comment