Vowel intelligibility in classical singing

Jean Westerman Gregg, Ronald C Scherer
Journal of Voice 2006, 20 (2): 198-210
Vowel intelligibility during singing is an important aspect of communication during performance. The intelligibility of isolated vowels sung by Western classically trained singers has been found to be relatively low, in fact, decreasing as pitch rises, and it is lower for women than for men. The lack of contextual cues significantly deteriorates vowel intelligibility. It was postulated in this study that the reduced intelligibility of isolated sung vowels may be partly from the vowels used by the singers in their daily vocalises. More specifically, if classically trained singers sang only a few American English vowels during their vocalises, their intelligibility for American English vowels would be less than for those classically trained singers who usually vocalize on most American English vowels. In this study, there were 21 subjects (15 women, 6 men), all Western classically trained performers as well as teachers of classical singing. They sang 11 words containing 11 different American English vowels, singing on two pitches a musical fifth apart. Subjects were divided into two groups, those who normally vocalize on 4, 5, or 6 vowels, and those who sing all 11 vowels during their daily vocalises. The sung words were cropped to isolate the vowels, and listening tapes were created. Two listening groups, four singing teachers and five speech-language pathologists, were asked to identify the vowels intended by the singers. Results suggest that singing fewer vowels during daily vocalises does not decrease intelligibility compared with singing the 11 American English vowels. Also, in general, vowel intelligibility was lower with the higher pitch, and vowels sung by the women were less intelligible than those sung by the men. Identification accuracy was about the same for the singing teacher listeners and the speech-language pathologist listeners except for the lower pitch, where the singing teachers were more accurate.


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