Why Short Vowel Sounds Are So Important in Voiceover: The Schwa

(Make sure you’ve already read these vocal delivery tips)

What’s the biggest mistake in fixing pronunciation, diction or accent? It’s OVER-emphasizing short, quiet sounds. Most commonly, the “schwa” sound—the most common vowel sound in English—a very short neutral sound.

Schwa vowels must be SHORT and QUIET! The cadence/rhythm has to be right, like the “buh” in buhDUM. The schwa sounds like a grace note listen to piano grace notes in music. It’s *barely* there (unstressed), and the syllable FOLLOWING the schwa feels like it is the “on the beat”, or stressed sound.

Sometimes a Minnesota accent will turn a schwa into a long vowel sound, like the first ‘e’ in receive, receipt, etc. — it’s not REEceive, it’s rəceive (sounds like ruhSEEVE). We’ve noticed many Minnesotans have never heard of the concept of schwa, which makes it more challenging to fix words like these.

Every vowel can be pronounced as a schwa. Here are several examples of each:

In voiceover we *sometimes* speak a kind of altered schwa so that the rhythm feels casual, but the pronunciation is accurate. Saying the words “to downtown” like tuhDOWNtown, makes the “o” in “to” into a schwa. It gives the feeling of a casual relaxed conversation, but technically is a mispronunciation of “to”, as the “oo”-type of “o” sound went away.

You have to be able to keep the rhythm and cadence of the schwa in “tuh” but use the “oo”-sounding “o”. It isn’t *always* said this way (schwa-type cadence with correct pronunciation), but you have to be able to do it, and so should practice it.
Also, some alternate pronunciations include or EXCLUDE the syllable that has the schwa, and you have to be able to do either pronunciation depending on what the client wants. A few examples:
• Chocolate: chaw-kuh-lit, chawk-lit
• Camera: kam-er-uh, kam-ruh
• Several: sev-er-uh l, sev-ruh l

Again, sometimes it sounds more accurate while remaining casual to split the difference and *almost* but not completely drop the schwa sound in words like the four above.

“[Schwa] is a reduced vowel in many unstressed syllables especially if syllabic consonants are not used. Schwa is a very short neutral vowel sound, and like all other vowels, its precise quality varies depending on the adjacent consonants. In most varieties of English, schwa occurs almost exclusively in unstressed syllables.”