Bonus points to the first to use "Shoo Shoo Baby" in an arrangement.

Bonus points to the first to use "Shoo Shoo Baby" in an arrangement.

The a cappella syllable, contrary to what many may believe, offers an expansive palate that extends far beyond the traditional “doo” or “bum” (although these syllables certainly have their worthy time and place). The syllables that an arranger chooses have a similar function to various guitar effect peddles or the timbre of differently sounding instruments. They do more than simply give a singer words to put to the notes; they establish the song’s color, character, and emotion, and choosing certain syllables can have a dramatic impact on your work’s end result.

While there is no “right” or “wrong” choice when it comes to this discipline, the various vowels and consonants that can be tagged to your notes will change the way the piece is sung and the way it is heard. For example, a decidedly loud, bright, full vowel like “ah” will convey a substantially different tone than would a relatively closed and pointed “ih”, and the “right” choice will depend on what we’re looking to achieve. Further, a dramatically percussive “p” will create a different type of entrance than would applying an “l” to the same word.

Syllables are the different paints on your palette, and merit a general overview.  Briefly, you’ll be well served to study phonetics/diction for a greater understanding of the spoken sounds we’re able to produce, understand the difference between consonants and vowels, learn about the fuzzy areas within and in between these, and appreciate the idea of IPA.  Plus, it will make you much better suited to learn new languages.  Onward!

International Phonetic Alphabet

Before we get started, it’s wise to acquaint ourselves a bit with IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet.  The idea behind this alphabet is simple: each letter represents a single sound, and every change in pronunciation can be written down as a different letter or inflection mark.  Remember Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady?  He would have been able to write down her Cockney and her High Snooty English with completely different letters.  Very handy, and learned by singers, stage actors, and linguists all over the world.


Depiction of relative locations of IPA vowels.

Depiction of relative locations of IPA vowels.

A vowel is a sound that is pronounced with a clear airway — no pressure ever builds up in the mouth; as a singer, you’ll learn the vowels are distinct in that they can be sustained.  They are the color of the sound, and give the voice a timbral signature.  Since getting your group to match vowels exactly will be crucial to making them sound their best (if you’re unfamiliar with this idea, you could consider joining your local University choir), it’s important to make sure you know exactly what vowel you want, and how to make sure everybody is using it.  Oh yes, and please put them in your arrangement.  It’s awfully hard to sustain “p.”  Try it.  And send me a recording, please.

Bonus: Remember the Groan Tube?  It helps show that changing the length of the vocal tract (tube length) will change the vowel.  All vowels can slide into each other, creating something of a mess when you’re trying to specify exactly which to use.


Boy, what a grab bag these are.  Take a look at that IPA page that Wikipedia provides again.  The vowel section is larger, since all its parts are continuous and can transform into each other rather easily.  Consonants are more discrete, with fun names like plosives, fricatives, labial, or dental. You can even have a labiodental plosive.  Basically, they are all ways to block the airway or create tension or other strange noises.  By their very nature, they interrupt the sound produced; use them judiciously.  Heck, you could probably write a fantastic arrangement with all vowels.

Vocal Percussion is a series of consonants strung together rhythmically, with no vowels in between.  If you have lots of well-placed consonants in your arrangements, you might not need vocal percussion.  And vice-versa.

Vowel-Consonant Mix’n’match

One way to construct syllables, then, is to mix and match your vowels with your beginning and ending consonants.  This is a sensationally good way to get some variety in there and expand your syllable library!  However, the downside is that if you think only this way, you’ll be trapped in the idea of programming an electronic keyboard, and changing the instrumental patch.  This is great if you want to sound like a synthesizer (or Finale), but if you would like your group to sound like voices, this tack gets dangerous quickly.

Remember, the words you choose will change the way your song sounds! And the way your song sounds will change your (and your song’s) overall awesomeness factor.

Words (That Mean Things)

Of course, the other option is to use words in the block.  This could work very well to unite the soloist with the background, and emphasize key phrases, if you’re a Dylanesque poetry fan.  I like using words a lot, since we’re using voices to sing, but just don’t make it sound too dorky, okay?

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I didn’t know about the Gran Tube!

Written By joseoscar on February 13th, 2013 @ 12:01 pm

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