Mouth Mechanics

Alright, alright! All you guys snickering in the back of the classroom knock it off! It’s not what you’re thinking. This article is about singing so you can go back to sleep and wait for the bell to ring. For the rest of you, pay attention and you will learn a few things about the mechanism that helps us make the noises between the notes that define the difference between vocal and instrumental music otherwise known as language. If you are interested in singing more effectively, writing better songs or producing better vocal tracks hang in there with me. This could get boring.

During my 30 plus years teaching voice I’ve had some interesting students with challenging goals. The inspiration for this article comes from an actor who recently asked me to help him speak English with a Viennese accent. During 2008 I produced Two bands from Austria, ConFused5 and Solidtube and since both bands performed in English I had some work to do in accent eradication with these artists. Coaching an American actor to adopt a convincing Austrian accent seemed at first just a matter of reverse engineering or getting him to do what I taught the Austrian singers not to do. During the process I realized that it’s really all about consonants and the difference between voiced and un-voiced consonants is a subject over which all too few singers have mastery.

For the purpose of this discussion, I will loosely define vowel sounds as music and consonants as noise. These noises can be a hiss, a short burst of air under various degrees of pressure and can be created in various areas of the mouth. For the untrained performer consonants can be the worst enemy in attempting to sing intelligibly and effectively but an understanding of how they are created can make them a singer’s best friend when it comes to executing difficult and sometimes poorly written passages. Many young songwriters compose what seems to be a pleasing melody and cobble together some verses which rhyme admirably but come up short when it comes to ease of singing. Great songs, those which great singers love to sing, are written by songwriters who understand, either by instinct or education, how to place sounds in areas of singer’s range with a minimum of booby traps.

Cross section of the mouth

Cross section of the mouth

Voiced and un-voiced consonants come in pairs or partners which are made by the same mechanical method. Whenever I work with a student in describing how consonants are made I ask, “What two pieces of meat are you slapping together to make that noise?” Let’s start with a hard ‘K’ sound. The ‘K’ is made by closing the back of the mouth. The back of the tongue rises slightly to meet the tip of the soft palette or uvula which you will recognize as the punching bag hanging in a cartoon character’s mouth when he screams. Air pressure is built up in the throat and released as the closure is opened suddenly resulting in a hard ‘K’ noise. There is no noticeable pitch. When the vocal cords are engaged as the closure is released the resulting sound is a hard ‘G’ as in god or dog. The difference between the voiced and unvoiced versions of the same mechanical process allows us to tell the difference between a deity and a codfish and a canine or a physician.

Now let’s take a look at the ‘T’ sound. What pieces of meat or bone do you use and how do you use them to make a ‘T’ sound? The tip of the tongue comes into contact with the roof of the mouth just behind the upper teeth. Build up a little air pressure, release it by dropping the tongue and Voila (that’s French for Ta-dah). The release of air pressure results in a ‘T’ sound which is no more than the noise of air escaping under a sudden release of pressure. Engage the vocal cords simultaneously and you will create the ‘D’ sound or “Duh.” Once again to illustrate the importance of these sounds to clear language, substituting voiced for unvoiced sounds at either end of our previous example, our god can become got, cod or cot and our dog can become completely unintelligible.

Before I go into why this is so important and how it can save a singer from gagging let’s take a quick look at the other pairs of voiced and un-voiced sounds. The ‘P’ sound (you in the back, stop your giggling) is produced by quickly releasing air pressure previously held behind the lips. Add pitch and the ‘P’ becomes a ‘B’ sound. ‘F’ is made by air escaping from the slight opening between the lower teeth and upper lip. Add pitch and the ‘F’ becomes ‘V’ as in love. Ever notice how a native German speaker pronounces “Love” as “Luff” and “we” as “vee?” The sibilant ‘S’ sound is made by air escaping through an opening formed by the tongue in the same general area as in the ‘T’ sound. Sustain the hiss and add pitch to produce the voiced ‘Z’ sound. Mastering the correct mechanics of the ‘S’ has actually helped me coach a lisp right out of a singer’s repertoire.

How then, do we use this knowledge to our best singing advantage? One might think that the un-voiced consonants present the most difficulty in singing a legato line but this is in error. It’s the voiced sounds that cause the most problems in sustaining pitch and also in singing intervalic leaps accurately. When singing a lyric like “My dog begs for his dinner” on one sustained pitch many singers will fall into the trap of singing only the vowels and dropping the level of support needed to sustain the line at the points where the consonants interrupt the flow of pitch. Looking just at the word “begs” for a moment we see that the initial ‘B’ sound is a voiced consonant so support must be maintained and the ‘B’ must be produced on the same pitch as the vowels surrounding it. Otherwise there will be a noticeable scoop in pitch. The voiced ‘G’ followed by the voiced version of S (sounded ‘Z’) at the end of the word “begs” must also be supported or the pitch will fall off and interrupt the line connecting “begs” with “for.” Careful examination reveals that these six words contain eight pitfalls for the inexperienced vocalist. Only the ‘F’ in “for” and the ‘H’ in “his” allow for an interruption in pitch.

Most American kids can sing “My Bonny lies over the ocean” so I’ll use the phrase to illustrate how knowledge of mouth mechanics can cure scoops or slides when approaching intervalic leaps. In the key of C the word “My” is sung on G and the first syllable of “Bonny” is sung on the E above at the interval of a Major 6th. Since the ‘B’ in the word “Bonny” is a voiced sound it must have pitch.If the singer falls into the habit of not sustaining support through the consonants the ‘B’ will resemble a spoken sound at some random pitch and the singer will have to scoop or slide up through the interval finally landing on the E. In order to sing the interval accurately, the ‘B’ sound must be approached as actually having the same pitch as the vowel which follows it. This is just one small example from a dumb little children’s song so you can imagine how many exist in songs you might be singing every day.

I have said in the past that singers should not allow themselves to be thought of as the least capable musicians on the stage or in the studio. One of the most effective things any vocalist can do to raise their level of musicianship is to study their material, recognize potential road hazards, make notations and address those areas that can be executed more musically. Singers who are also songwriters should be especially aware of composing potentially difficult passages that could, with a little effort, be written more effectively. Singing should be expressive, emotional and relevant. Knowledge shouldn’t take away from this but should enhance a singer’s ability to communicate with an audience. Sometimes a scoop here, a dip there and a slide up or down is just what a song needs. But just as a singer like Joni Mitchell uses the break between head and chest voice for intentional effects, so too should every vocalist develop their particular style according to intent and not because of limitations in technique and knowledge.

Okay, you guys in the back of the room can wake up and go home. Class is over.

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