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choral background vowels- ooh, ah, oh??

Hi all,
I am writing a piece in a slowish tempo and for awhile I will just have the text/melody in soprano voice. The other voices will be supplying some gently moving harmonies on ooh, ah, or oh. As a conductor which of these vowels appeals to you the most when you are making music? Are they all pretty much the same to you or do they seem quite different? As I start these other voices the sopranos will be on the downbeat with the word "soul" so I am tempted to use "oh", as it will (at least for a moment) match the vowel of the text word on that downbeat. I like that idea but am not certain it's of utmost importance. I'd love to see what you all think about composer/arranger vowel selection for passages like this. The piece is an arrangement of the carol "Gabriel's Message".
Paul Carey
Replies (8): Threaded | Chronological
on May 3, 2011 1:47pm
Paul:  As a rather experienced arranger, I can say that the main difference is in the volume level, and it's a very significant difference.  You absolutely MUST keep this in mind, and it isn't really a matter of one vowel being more "appealing"!  If I had to come up with a loudness scale, it would be something like this:
mm or ng:  pp or ppp
nn:  p or pp
oo:  p or mp
oh:  mp or mf
ah:  mf or f.
So the traditional oo-ah is not just a change in vowels, it's also a crescendo.  And the opposite is a decrescendo.
I like the idea of matching the text vowel, but wouldn't you want to keep doing that, and therefore changing the vowels?  In which case you would definitely get volume differences.
All the best,
on May 3, 2011 3:20pm
I found that it is usually good to use these four.
mm [m]
nn [n]
oo [u]
ah [ɑ]
I tend to avoid "oh" because in English there are open Oh [ɔ] as in "all" [ɔ;l], and closed Oh [o] as in "soul" [soʊl] and it might be confusing.  Closed Oh sound appears as dipthong in English by the way, therefore amature English-speaking singers sometime unconciously sing  [oʊ].
If you want to be very specific, you could write instructions like,
mm [m]
nn [n]
oo [u]
oh [o]
aw [ɔ]
ah [ɑ]
like John wrote "ah" is an easier vowel to be sang at loud dynamics, and has the most complex upper overtones among those, therefore the possiblity to cloud the other text.
on May 4, 2011 2:53am
We recently did some gigs with the Irish group Clannad who specialise in "mystical Celtic dawn of ancient toothpaste haunting" sounds, and I was gobsmacked when they informed me that the best background vocal was actually "uh". Well, it works for them and they have sold 5 million albums, so I suppose that that should be up there with all the others.
on May 4, 2011 6:39am
From a singer's perspective:
If working with non-professional singers, keep in mind the range of the singing.  If all voices are singing in a comfortable middle range for their voice type, you can be choosey about your vowels.  If the voices are asked to go to a high or low range, keep in mind the quality of sound you want.  If the singers are being asked to sing in an "extreme" range (low or high), keep in mind the capability of the singers.  Just a thought......
Alison Vernon
on May 5, 2011 6:12am
I was thinking the same thing, Alison. Vowels that are brighter are harder to produce in higher ranges for many singers.
I'd focus on identifying what your desired volume & texture of the accompanying voices, match your vowel sounds to those, and not be afraid to morph from one vowel into another. Good luck, Paul!
Brad Burrill
on May 5, 2011 2:51am
I just want to chime on to say that these sorts of wordless backgrounds are a much more common effect in the vocal jazz world, and you'd do well to get some inspiration from that corner. In particular, I submit Gene Puerling's marvelous writing for The Singers Unlimited. For me, his writing, particularly on TSU's three a cappella albums but really throughout, is a lifelong inspiration and a constant source for what works in vocal writing.
Jed Scott
on May 6, 2011 7:09am
I must respectfully disagree with some of my colleagues' opinions here.  While so much of this depends on the ability of the choir and the philosophy of its conductor, I submit that a good choir can certainly sing [a] at a very soft level.  In fact, as far as I am concerned, good tone means that the choir is capable of maintaining similar overtones and 'canopy' across the vowel spectrum.  That being said, I remember a clinic at grad school with Stuart Hinds - overtone guru - who said that his research definitely pointed to [a] being the vowel on which overtones are most difficult to produce.  As someone else also indicated, if you are hoping that any choir who might perform your piece might achieve similar effects, the more instruction the better.
You can check out Stuart Hinds here.  Crazy stuff!
Nathaniel Roper
Brunswick, GA
on May 7, 2011 7:10am
What an interesting discussion! My humble opinion, based on experience, is that "oo" [u] the easiest vowel to get amateurs to sing in a unified manner. It also tends to be one of the best vowels for eliciting a pleasant head voice sound from the women.
Tom Bookhout
Phoenix, Arizona
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