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As an addendum to my post on word sounds from a couple of months back, I had a lovely little light-bulb moment from John Grant when working with him with Heartbeat Chorus last week. It was about the vowel ‘Oo’.

Now, I have observed over the years that Oos can sound a bit muted compared to other vowels. This is sometimes an advantage of course: as an arranger you can manipulate both relative loudness of different parts and overall dynamic shape of an arrangement by your choice of neutral vowels. But it can also be a problem, reducing the sense of projection.

Something that Magenta has been working on of late is a very purposeful approach to Oos, modelling the mouth action on Maggie from the Simpsons. This is designed to counteract the tendency for the lips to close down and mute the oo vowel with the twin effect of keep the aperture the sound comes through a bit more open, and lengthening the resonant chamber in the mouth by drawing the lips away from the teeth.

But the thing that John pointed out was that the thing about the oo vowel is not merely that the way it’s formed can reduce the amount of sound emerging from the mouth, but that by the same token, it keeps more sound within the singer’s head. If you put your fingers in your ears and sing ‘oo-ah-oo-ah’ with same level of intensity, the Oos sound distinctly louder than the Ahs.

This means that not only would the Oos come out quieter than other vowels, all things being equal, but also that all things are actually not equal. The singer can further reduce the energy they put into Oos and it will sound internally as if they are balancing with the other vowels. Double whammy or what!

The context this emerged in was where Oos came in diphthongs, words like: Oh, Now, Grow. As the chorus turned the diphthong, we were hearing a dip in energy in places where the music really needed to maintain its momentum.

The solution was twofold. First, there is the singerly discipline of waiting as long as possible before turning the diphthong. Minimising the amount of time on the closed in vowels is a good idea. (And writing that has made me notice that it generally is a more closed vowel that comes at the end of a diphthong, isn’t it? Obvious, really, but interesting to note. And if you try the fingers-in-ears thing with ‘eh-i-eh-i' you get the same volume effect there too.)

Second, you need to energise the end of the diphthong as you turn it. Give it a bit of a spin; use it as a springboard into the next note. And this too is a useful technique too, as I was remarking just recently on the London City Chorus’s work on finishing notes artistically.

So the solutions are things that one would wish to do anyway, but understanding this internal/external mismatch was something of a revelation in understanding why we find ourselves needing this techniques in this situation. Thanks, John.

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