The Sound of Words

Featuring Paul Baloche Posted on January 19, 2010

Some words just sing better than others. They ring better. They sound better and they feel better as you sing them. It isn’t enough just to rhyme the ends of lines.  It’s important how all the words sound, especially the sustained ones.

Lyrics are meant to be heard, not read silently off the printed page, so it matters a great deal how they make the human voice sound.

• Words that make the singer sound  good will also feel good in the singer’s mouth and mask. The long tones will ring and every syllable will roll easily off the tongue. The vowels will vibrate in the face and give a wonderful resonance to the voice. 

Without clenching your teeth, hum with your lips closed. Feel that vibration? Now you’ve found your mask. If you don’t think about this when you write your lyrics, singers may be less apt to want to sing the song, even though they may not be able to tell you why. 

Vowels and Consonants 

• Some vowel sounds are great on high long tones, others should be avoided if possible. Take for example the famous tenor aria “Vesti La Giubba,” from I Pagliacci, by Ruggero Leoncavallo. This isn’t a song you’re likely to be singing with your guitars and drums in church, but it illustrates a point. The weeping singer is pouring out his emotion on the long, ringing high notes. Note the great resonance of the ee, ah and oh sounds: Imagine you’re Pavarotti and sing it aloud to yourself. If you can’t sing that high, sing it as high as you can. Now, on those same ringing high notes, try singing “Myr-tle from Mem-phis.” 

Doesn’t ring, does it? Certainly not unsingable, but zero resonance. 

Now try, to the same tune, “Full wooden bushel.” Same problem. Classically trained singers will know voice placements to get the most out of these sounds, but the tones will never have quite the sonority of open vowels. You can eliminate this problem simply by not writing these less resonant sounds on long high notes. Some vowel sounds just sing better than others, especially up high. 

• No vowels sound bad, but the so-called “pure” vowel sounds ah, ay, ee, oh, and u, resonate and feel better than the short vowel sounds, as in cat, pet, sit, look and much. Of course you can’t just decide to use only the pure sounds and exclude the others, because you can’t communicate very well in English without using all of them. But you can try to use the more resonant vowel sounds wherever possible, especially on the long high notes of loud, bright songs. Some of the more muted sounds may be desirable on long high notes of quiet songs. 

• Consider also the consonants. Say them aloud, not their names but their sounds: 

• Some of them have length and sound softer than the others (f, h, l, v, w, y, z.) 

• The tonal consonants m, n and ng are almost like vowels, in that they can be held out and hummed. 

• The plosive consonants, b, ch, d, g, j, k, p, and t, are shorter. You can’t hold them longer because there’s nothing there to hold onto. All the consonants sound good either loud or soft, but the plosives are especially suited to strong statements. 

• Some consonants can go either way: S and sh, sung loudly with strong accents, can sound like crashing cymbals: “Lightning strikes and shouts Your worth!” Sung quietly and smoothly, they sound like soft breezes. 


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