There are 21 consonant sounds in the English language, and they are defined as “speech sounds that are articulated with complete or partial closure of the vocal tract”. Now just a minute….Closure of the vocal tract? How on earth is one to make a free open singing sound when we have these language sound barriers to adjust for? Just before you decide to continue to under-enunciate your speech even more singers (ahem….), believe me, they can be extremely helpful in improving your ability to manage your breath and produce a connected, free sound if you understand how they are produced. Let’s stop and understand the two main categories of consonants (voiced and unvoiced) and then look at how they can improve and/or enhance our singing.
Voiced and unvoiced consonants: The differences
An easy way to determine whether a consonant is voiced or unvoiced is to place a finger on your throat. As you pronounce a letter, feel the vibration of your vocal cords. If you feel a vibration the consonant is voiced, if not, it’s unvoiced.
Try saying ZZZ = voiced
Try saying PPP = unvoiced
So what exactly are voiced consonants?
They use the vocal folds to create the consonant sound. Included sounds are Z , M, N, B, L, G, D, W, J and combination sounds such as Ng, Sz, and Th, as in (“Then”). Try them and see!
These are those “noises” in our alphabet that do not require the vocal folds to produce hard, percussive sounds. Instead, the vocal folds allow air to flow freely from the lungs to the mouth where the tongue, teeth and lips manipulate the sound. Voiceless consonants include Ch, F, K, P, S, SH, T, and Th.
How can consonants help to improve our singing?
Voiced consonants can help us…
Find the “buzz” in the voice before we open to a vowel. It helps us get the right placement in the singing “mask” (sinuses, nose). I especially like “M” and “N”. The nose and the lips should buzz, sometimes so much the tickle is unbearable (lower notes especially).
Connect our breath energy to the singing sound. Especially helpful are “V” and “Z”. Depending on the student, one works better than the other I find. If you imitate a kids’ “vvvvrooming” truck sound on “V”, sliding up and down in pitch, you’ll notice how your abdominal muscles gently engage to “support” your voice. This is the same thing when starting a singing sound. Sing a pitch by starting the sound on “Z”or “V” (elongated, no need to rush through this) and then open to an “AH” vowel sound. When you don’t accidentally put an “H” sound in between, you will have engaged your abdominals gently –probably without even noticing- and a more supported sound usually results.
Continues a beautiful legato sound on a long held note, for instance, connecting two notes together or ending a quiet piece. No need to rush through the voiced consonant, it is a lovely way to check your placement of the vowel. If you are unable to voice the voiced consonant, or find it difficult, your vowel placement has usually gone astray (lowered or dropped) and it is no longer placed in the right spot in the singing mask. Once you get it right, though, it will be effortless and a better singing placement/sound will have been achieved.
Unvoiced consonants can help us...
·Avoid holding our breath after inhaling. Take the explosive unvoiced “p” consonant. If you are starting a singing sound on the word “Pain”, the quick emergence of the explosive consonant “P” after inhalation encourages us to avoid the old “ breathe/hold/sing” cycle. When we release our breath immediately after breathing in we always get a more freely produced singing sound.
And they add a lot of colour and character to our singing (voiced consonants too!). They are very expressive and help us when we want to convey text with great meaning. This should never be underestimated! And of course, they are integral to having clear diction.....more on this in "Consonants + singing: Part 2: Lightning speed consonants to the rescue".
…But unvoiced consonants can often be tricky little devils, especially in languages such as German and Russian (for English speakers) when you find 3 or 4 unvoiced/voiced consonant sounds in a row. The key is to say them all before the beat and come to the vowel on the downbeat. It takes preparation and learning to do this, but is key to organising successfully the singing apparatus (the mouth, the tongue, the lips) and the breath to achieve the best singing sound.
Here’s to consonants- both to their challenges and the beauty they bring to our singing.