I Dreamed a Dream: Of Good Vowels On High Notes

I love “I Dreamed a Dream.” I have an embarrassing number of versions of it in my iTunes. I mentioned it in my first blog post. It’s a bit of a problem. Call the lyrics cliché, call the orchestration overwrought, but somehow it just sort of works. Now that we have that out of the way (did I mention I love this song?), it also provides a stark example of how important it is to carefully consider what vowels a lyricist chooses for big, high notes, and the headaches it poses for singers when they don’t.

Below is a great performance by Randy Graff. Starting at 3:18, listen to the change in quality between the word “be” (3:21), which is a closed, wide “e” vowel that gives singers fits up high, compared to the awesomeness of the same note in the next phrase on the word “not” (3:27), because there the singer has an “ahh” vowel, open and easy to belt:

Then, if you’re bored, watch every other version of the song that exists and see basically everyone who tries to belt sound incredible on the “ahh” of “not” and have a bit of a battle with the “e”s on “be” and the last high note of the song, which has the word “seemed” sitting on it, the same nasty “e” vowel. As great as this song is, one wonders how much better the ending could have been if all three of the last high notes had open vowels on them, rather than just the middle one, so that the singer could really belt the ending with full power. For another example with the exact same vowels, look at the end of “Defying Gravity” in Wicked (“nobody will bring me down”), in which everyone struggles with the e in “me” before sounding amazing on the ah in “down”.

As a songwriter, I try my best to make songs as “singable” as possible, since it ensures the best performances of my work. One of the things I keep an eye on is making sure I have “good” open vowels (ah, oh, a) on the high belted notes and avoid tricky nasty ones (e, i, etc). Of course, in a pinch, you can always take the “Jacquelyn Piro Donovan Approach” and just sing different vowels!

What do you think? Should singing technique guide word choice in songs? Or should the lyricist pick the best word and leave it to the actor to figure it out?

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