How many of us love to teach our choirs and voice students about the ubiquitous schwa, the most common unstressed vowel used in spoken English? Posters, T-shirts, special schwa cheers, and other creative teaching tools are employed by voice teachers and choral conductors in the tutelage of this vowel. Here is a common scene: the schwa symbol [ə] is written on the board, and the teacher models loudly and clearly, “UH,” “AW,” or “UU”( as in “would”). The choir repeats with confidence and the taught “schwa” is immediately applied to vocal repertoire. Can all of these differing sounds be schwas? In fact, are any of them schwas?
Searching for answers after experiencing disparate teachings through the years, I turned to numerous diction books, where I found further conflicting teachings about the schwa. I then reached out to one of film and theatre’s renowned speech and dialect coaches, Leigh Dillon, in search of a definitive answer to the schwa problem. Expecting a quick and easy answer, I asked, “Can you please tell me what a schwa sounds like?” The answer could not have been more quick. Leigh’s schwa was so quick, in fact, that I could not tell what it sounded like or even be sure she had spoken it. When I asked her to repeat it, she explained that if I were able to clearly hear it, it would be too long or too stressed, and would cease to be a schwa. She proceeded to reveal the mysteries of the schwa, bringing the needed clarity.
INTRODUCING THE SCHWA
Before the solutions are shared, a brief introduction to this marvelous and troublesome vowel is merited. Its name, taken from the Hebrew שְׁוָא or shva, means “emptiness” or “nothingness,” an apt description of this elusive vowel. The symbol ə, was assigned to the schwa in the 19th century, first to describe an unstressed final “-e” in the German language, and soon thereafter to describe unstressed, neutral vowels in English. It became a standard symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Its presence between / /or [ ] marks lets the reader know it is being used as an IPA symbol.
The schwa is always short and always unstressed. Patricia Fletcher explains in Classically Speaking that it is a “shorter, more relaxed version of stressed /ʌ/ (UH)” as in “love” (p. 126). The Juilliard School’s diction professor Kathryn LaBouff explains in Singing and Communicating in English that the schwa is in fact the unstressed counterpart of [ʌ] (UH) (p. 71). Examples in spoken English include the first vowel in the words “about” and “again,” and the middle/medial vowel in the words “legacy” and “adamant.”
The schwa vowel is classified as a mid-central vowel, meaning the middle of the tongue is active in its production. Patricia Fletcher instructs, “form the shape for the always short /ə/ by resting the tongue tip down behind the lower teeth, with the lips and cheeks relaxed in a neutral position, opening the jaw a little more than for /ɚ/ (er), and arching the middle of the tongue slightly toward the center of the mouth.” Kathryn LaBouff instructs that when singing the schwa, the jaw should be in a “released, vertical drop” position, the same position used for [ɔ] (AW) as in “awful” or [æ] as in “cat.”
WHY WE USUALLY DO NOT SING SCHWAS
Returning to our scene above, in which instructor and students are confidently shouting “[ə],” we now understand that what they are attempting is actually impossible. As length and volume are increased, giving stress, what was once a schwa becomes a different vowel; a stressed schwa simply does not exist. This same phenomenon occurs in vocal music. Syllables containing spoken schwas are often elongated for musical purposes and usually are not unstressed enough for a true schwa to be used. Leigh Dillon explains that when this happens, “a stronger vowel sound is called for.” Often “the /ʌ/ ‘cup’ vowel which is close to the schwa but a little more open,” will be used, but is not appropriate in all situations. A variety of vowels can effectively act as schwa substitutes in singing.
When choosing substitutions, it is best to work on a case-by-case basis rather than adopting a single vowel as a one-size-fits-all schwa replacement. For example, in the song “Tonight” from West Side Story, Leigh Dillon teaches that for the first syllable of the word “tonight,” “one would sing an /u/ vowel” as in “true” rather than an /ʌ/ vowel as in “cup.”
Here are steps that can be taken when working through a song text:
- Ascertain which schwa syllables have strong form/stressed vowel options. (I.e., “shall” can be pronounced with the vowel [ə] when unstressed or with an [æ] as in “cat” when stressed.) These pairings can be looked up in the English Pronouncing Dictionary by Daniel Jones (Cambridge University Press), the gold standard for American and English pronunciations (only the 15th-18th editions include “General American” pronunciation). A word of caution: Google-provided pronunciations are often inaccurate and should not be trusted without further verification.
- For words that do not have strong forms, the following should be taken into consideration in choosing a substitute: the particular word, the rhythm, the level of emphasis of the overall word, the surrounding words, the pitch, and the style (e.g., musical theatre, sacred anthem, Handel’s Messiah). Some substitution options and common strong-form alternatives include [ʌ] as in “cup,” [ɪ] as in “did,” [ɛ] as in “let,” [æ] as in “cat,” [ʊ] as in “would,” [o] as in “obey,” and [ɔ] as in “awful.” This is not, however, an exhaustive list. It is also possible to modify any vowel, making it more closed or open, further forward or back, etc. There are many options for artistically beautiful schwa substitutions. Kathryn LaBouff suggests, “depending upon the vocal setting, experiment with… substitute vowels to find the one that sings the best. Remember, it must sound natural and not artificial” (p. 72).
Consider this English translation from the sixth movement of Brahms’ A German Requiem. Potential schwas are underlined.
“We all shall be changed in a moment… at the sound of the last trumpet!…
And the dead shall be raised incorruptible.”
Note: the second potential schwa in “incorruptible” would be left out in spoken English, but in this musical setting a vowel is needed.
1. Find and review words with strong forms. According to the English Pronouncing Dictionary, those words include:
- “shall,” “at,” and “and,”pronounced with an [æ] vowel as in “cat”
- “a,” pronounced with the diphthong [eɪ] as in “place”
- “of,” pronounced with an [ɒ] vowel as in “dog.”
These all seem artistically pleasing except the option for “a,” given its context. However, the note value is of short enough duration that it could probably be de-emphasized and performed either as a schwa, or with the schwa’s “cup” vowel [ʌ] partner, which would sound the most natural and draw the least attention to itself.
2. Try substitution options for the remaining schwas. Here are suggested solutions, with the emphasis on “suggested.” Remember, there is no strict rulebook for choosing schwa substitutions, only the guidance that they should sound natural and not draw attention to themselves.
- “Moment”: the two syllables are written with the drop of a fifth, from D# to G#, giving a natural de-emphasis to the second, and they are both quarter notes. [ʊ] as in “could” would be my choice. If the pitch were ascending or the second syllable were of longer duration, [ɛ] as in “let” could sound lovely.
- For the three “the” words, I would consider each separately. LaBouff teaches, “when the word ‘the’ is set on an elongated note, do not use [ʊ] but only [ə] before a word beginning with a consonant.” [ʊ], a common substitution for this word, tends to draw attention to itself as it is quite different-sounding from the actual schwa; it is most appropriately used only on short notes and when followed by voiced consonants such as in “the men,” “the lake,” and “the depths” according to LaBouff. When [ə] is not possible due to duration or stress, the closest vowel, [ʌ] as in “cup” is usually appropriate. This vowel can also be modified if desired, to sound slightly less bright in color. This can technically be done by adjusting the tongue motion, either having the arc be slightly lower or slightly further back on the tongue. It should not be far enough back, however, to turn into a back vowel such as [ɔ], or involve any lip-rounding such as in [ʊ].
- For “the sound” I would use a [ʌ] “cup” vowel because “the” is musically stressed in duration (quarter note), pitch, and volume (mf-ff). I would not modify the color of the vowel, given the fact that it is followed by a voiceless consonant, an [s].
- “The last” is similar to “the sound,” strong-volume quarter notes, although in one instance it is even longer, given the value of a half note. I would likewise use a [ʌ] “cup” vowel, although I might give it a slightly darker color, as it is followed by a voiced consonant.
- “The dead” is only sung once. The tempo is vivace, the value a quarter note, and the dynamic f. I would, again, use a [ʌ] “cup” vowel, but modify it with a slightly darker coloring.
- For “incorruptible,” I would use [ɔ] as in “awe” for the first schwa replacement and [ʊ] as in “would” for the final syllable as it sounds closest to the “bl” that would be spoken.
Since a picture (or sound clip) is worth a thousand words, here are four back-to-back audio examples of this text with the accompanying phonetic symbols.
- As it would be spoken, according to the English Pronouncing Dictionary
- With the suggested substitutions and strong forms
- With the suggested strong forms, and all remaining schwas substituted with a one-size-fits-all schwa substitution, in this case an [ʊ] as in “would”
- [ʊ] substitution for all schwas, including those that have strong-form options
While it is highly unlikely anyone would take this to the extreme of the final example, it does illustrate the risk of not knowing strong-form options. The approach of the third sample, though not as incomprehensible, also sounds unnatural or affected in places. Listening to these examples, it is no wonder that audience members may struggle to understand our words or find themselves asking what language is being sung. It is also clear that the schwa’s mission of subdued neutrality for unstressed syllables is at times reversed when a one-size-fits-all approach is applied, drawing attention to certain syllables as unnatural and odd-sounding. Substitutions should never draw attention to themselves or sound unnatural.
If you find yourself thinking, “I prefer a British approach,” that is an excellent choice, if… Bear in mind that in order to sound natural and unaffected, whether using American or British English, all sounds need to belong to the same world. Can you plausibly bring your choir into that phonetic world? Were you born and raised across the pond, or have you paid your dues to master both pronunciation and pedagogy for your choir? If not, changing just schwas, or any other sounds in isolation, will draw attention to those sounds as being out of context, unnatural, or affected.
If you have long treated schwas with more of a one-size-fits-all approach, or find this information to be otherwise new, it is possible that you have acquired a taste for unnatural-sounding schwa substitutions. Or you may have a regional dialect. You may need to learn or rekindle your sensitivity to standard American or British English and approach schwas with a fresh start. It might help to ask someone with ears not trained to accept schwa flaws to listen to you. Earlier in my career, I sang with a choir that embraced a one-size-fits-all schwa replacement, which was incorrectly taught to be a “true schwa.” At first it felt as if I was not singing in English. However, the substitutions became a habit within a matter of weeks, and I eventually lost awareness of their unnatural sound. When a respected colleague heard me sing with this new habit and laughed because it was so unnatural-sounding, I realized my ear needed to re-acclimate to my own language. Engaging others, including our choirs and voice students as objective listeners, can be both helpful in keeping us grounded in natural-sounding English and enjoyable as they take the artistic journey with us.
BACK TO TEACHING
It is my hope that there will be a schwa revolution in the vocal music world, that this wonderfully useful vowel will continue to be taught, but in its quiet unobtrusiveness rather than with shouts and cheers (at least when it comes to modeling). Adding to our pedagogy the necessity and variety of schwa substitutions and the value of approaching them with artistry and intelligence will help our singers sound less affected and will better equip them independently to make beautifully artistic decisions and avoid schwa flaws. Additionally, our audiences will spend less time struggling to understand our text or being distracted by how unnatural it sounds. The focus of both performers and listeners will turn more easily and peacefully to the meaning and power of the text.
Rebecca Lord, conductor and choral scholar, has served on the choral/vocal faculty of Brigham Young University-Idaho and as Associate Director of Choral Activities at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she earned MM and DMA degrees. She also served as Chorus Master for Arizona Musicfest and Assistant Conductor for the Hour of Power choir. She has a background as a professional violinist, soprano, dancer, and actress.
Dillon, Leigh. Email to Rebecca Lord, January 3, 2022. Personal Interview with Rebecca Lord. Phone, July 7, 2020.
Fletcher, Patricia. Classically Speaking: Dialects for Actors, Fourth Edition. XanEdu, 2017.
Jones, Daniel. English Pronouncing Dictionary, Fourteenth Edition Edited by A.C. Gimson. Cambridge University Press, 1991.
LaBouff, Kathryn. Singing and Communicating in English: A Singer’s Guide to English Diction. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Joshua Jacobson says
Thank you for your excellent analysis. By the way, ironically, the schwa is omitted from the word “schwa.” It should be pronounced [ʃəvɑ].