As a young-er singer, I was always frustrated by the fact that I was able to belt certain words in songs and not others (and yes, I do believe men can belt). I now realize there were many reasons why this was the case, but vowel/vocal tract shaping was a major one. To understand this, we must first briefly explore the concepts of ‘open’ and ‘close’ vowels:
An open vowel is a vowel sound in which the tongue is positioned as far as possible from the roof of the mouth. Open vowels are sometimes called low vowels in reference to the low position of the tongue. In addition, they can be produced using a front, central, or back tongue position. An example of an open vowel is [ɑ] (as in ‘father’).
A close vowel is a vowel sound in which the tongue is positioned as close as possible to the roof of the mouth. Close vowels are sometimes called high vowels in reference to the high position of the tongue. In addition, they can be produced using a front, central, or back tongue position. A few examples of close vowels include [i] (as in ‘meet’) and [u] (as in ‘you’).
Branching off from these two vowel types are ‘near-close’, ‘close-mid’, ‘mid’, ‘open-mid’, and ‘near-open’ vowels (but we won’t get that complicated for now). A full vowel chart with audio examples is available here.
The main takeaway from all this: it is often much more difficult to belt a close back vowel than an open front vowel. Again, much of this comes down to vocal tract shaping (the vocal tract is the mouth and throat coupled together as a tube). If you struggle to produce a belt sound high in your range while singing a close back vowel like [u], a few things are likely occuring:
- The high, ‘back’ tongue position required to sing the [u] vowel is causing a significant portion of your throat/instrument to be covered or ‘muted’.
- The larynx/voice box is being pushed up high into your throat, resulting in unwanted constriction.
What can be done about these things? Well, first you should learn to belt on a bright, open/mid vowel like [æ] or [ɛ]. When singing on these vowels, your tongue should be in a forward position, resting gently against the back of your bottom teeth. The middle section of your tongue should arch slightly (but not too high). Your lips should be spread into a slight smile, and your jaw should be lowered somewhat. Know that this vowel configuration will probably result in a slightly elevated, speech-level larynx. Contrary to what same individuals say, this is not inherently dangerous (your larynx moves up and down all the time when you talk). All of these elements are the basic ‘ingredients’ for producing a traditional belt sound (along with singing with the proper registration, of course!).
Once you have learned to belt on open/mid vowels (with the assistance of an experienced teacher), try to transfer similar vocal tract configurations to fully open and close vowels. I have provided one exercise to help with this here, but there are many others out there as well. As with classical singing, the goal here is to unify vowel sounds across one’s range. The easiest way to do this is to ‘tune’ close vowels to more spread, open vowel sounds. One might call this ‘modifying’ vowels, but it is a very different type of modification than we typically hear in classical singing (AKA wider vs taller). Good luck, and happy singing!