Choir directors have often told me that the “ah” vowel is the most difficult one to tune. The discussion often ends right there, or begins with explanations of how to shape the mouth or vocal placement, or even showing an “ah” from a model.
The issue, however, is not that people have trouble getting their mouths around a particular vowel, but that U.S. ears have a great deal of difficulty distinguishing the different open back vowels. So what one winds up with after a degree in singing or choral conducting is this International Phonetic Alphabet vowel chart (note the question marks):
When a choir is asked to sing on an “ah” vowel, often they conceive of a migrating point among those question marks. This is because even well-trained singers were never drilled on the sounds that each of those vowels in question makes. This post will try to fill in the gap a bit.
This vowel, the open front unrounded vowel, is so unattractive to U.S. choristers’ ears that it is usually darkened a bit. To hear what the sound actually is, click on the link to the Wikipedia article on the vowel and play the sound clip on it. It is quite bright and only seems to occur in English in the diphthongs “eye” and “ow” (in spoken U.S. English) before reaching the final vowel. It is so offensive to U.S. ears that what one sings the word “high” in a choir, one is often told to sing it closer to the vowel in U.S. English “hot” (the [ɑ] vowel). The vowel [a] is the vowel used in Italian, Italian Latin, many French words, and most German ah sounds. To our ears, it sounds almost like [æ].
This vowel, the open back unrounded vowel, is the sound in the U.S. English word “hot” or “father.” It is much darker than [a], but it is the typical “ah” sound that U.S. English speakers think of when asked to produce one. It only rarely occurs in some German words and French words, and isn’t one of the vowels used in Italian Latin (though U.S. choirs, not hearing any difference, usually migrates toward it on “a” vowels, which puts it slightly closer to the Italian Latin “o” sound).
This vowel, the open back rounded vowel, is the sound in the U.S. English word “law” or “fought.” (This assumes the caught/cot merger isn’t going on, as it does in some northeast accents). This vowel is so confusing to U.S. choristers that when a conductor asks for an “open o,” what he or she means is this vowel. Perhaps this confusion is because people are taught that the sound in “law” is an open o, which is true in the United Kingdom (Received Pronunciation), but not in the United States. It is the same shape inside the mouth as [ɑ], but the lips round over it.
This vowel, the open-mid back rounded vowel, is particularly confusing to choristers because U.S. spoken English only really uses the sound before an r, as in “more,” or in the “oy” diphthong. Conflating U.S. and U.K. English, some choristers think that this is the sound of “law,” so when a director models an “open o” (which is what this vowel is usually called), he or she models the vowel [ɒ]. Again, to hear all of these, listen to them on their respective Wikipedia pages. This vowel is much darker than U.S. singers and directors tend to think it is. Thus when singing in Italian Latin (as the vast majority of U.S. choirs universally do), choirs will change the “a” from [a] to [ɑ] and change the “o” from [ɔ] to [ɒ], thus making them sound quite similar.
This vowel is theoretically the unrounded version of [ɔ], though many languages permit IPA transcriptionists to place this vowel much more centrally than that, closer to [ə]. This sound occurs in British RP English as in the word “bus.” This might be one of the more confusing vowels for singers because, again, we are taught that it is an ugly sound, and that we should open it to [ɑ]. There is so much variation on vowel sounds when singing that directors actually just conflate all the vowels into [ɑ]. The “turned v” as it is called in phonetic circles is simply an unrounded open o, or an open o with open lips. This makes the vowel a bit deeper sounding in U.K. English than U.S. English. For instance, the “neutral vowel” that Ralph Vaughan Williams calls for in one of the movements of the Five Mystical Songs is “the vowel in the word ‘but.'” A U.S. choir sees that direction and gives a nice clean schwa (or maybe even the sound in the U.K. word “burst”), until the director just tells them to unify it into the wrong vowel, [ɑ].
Then there is this one, the near-open central vowel, which doesn’t really come up too much in sung English, except as a variation of [ʌ] as in “nut.” The time to really know this vowel is in singing German, as it is the vowel of final “er” syllables in German. The word “oder” ends with this vowel. The temptation of a lot of U.S. singers singing German is to sing it as a a schwa and call it a day, but the sound has its own profile.
Thus after one is able to hear and produce those differences, the question marks in the first image become this chart below:
Rest assured that there are more vowels than this. When a singer sings in languages outside of English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish, he or she will need to know [ɨ] for Russian and Slavonic, [ɤ] for Estonian and Chinese, [ɯ] for Irish and Turkish, a.s.f., but the above vowels should get one by in the course of a singing degree in the United States.
Let’s apply these a bit. Assuming your choir is singing in American English (even if we tend to opt for a trans-Atlantic bowdlerized accent when singing in English out of fear that people can’t sing the actual vowels of U.S. English without too much variation among themselves), what vowels are the closest to correct U.S. English in these words?
- BONUS, German: wieder
Here are the answers, at least by my own transcription:
It stands to reason that the spoken English language has too much variation in the pronunciation of its open vowels to settle on a standard, but that kind of defeatism often leads a choir to sing the same [ɑ] sound for all of the ah vowels. At least, they think they are singing that sound, when in fact a sixth of them are singing [ʌ], a sixth are singing [ɐ], a sixth are singing [ɑ], a sixth are singing [ɒ], a sixth are singing [a], and a sixth are singing [ə].
Nailing down what each of these IPA symbols actually indicate and being able to use all of them appropriately can lead to a more familiar connection with the text and with even more vowel unity than before, which leads to better tuning, which leads to more happiness in general.
A choir can tune any vowel—they just have to all be singing the same one.