Music, in itself, centers around telling a story. In fact, humans operate on a story-telling basis. History, skills, and knowledge itself is passed down using stories of how they apply to life. In order for stories to be passed down, they must be understood. Music tells stories of love, loss, and other dramatic situations depending on the context.
Music may even have no context at all, but the listener can always interpret the emotional nuances of the pieces they listen to in order to comprehend the intent of what they are listening too. Music is unique because it is a universal language. There can be spoken words, sung words, or no words at all and it still can be understood because of the emotion that can be felt within the music itself.
Singing With Words
For vocalists, however, we must communicate through words and lyrics. In order to do this effectively, we must use diction to communicate the context of the song. Diction can be described as the lips, jaw, and palate working together with the teeth, tongue, and the throat in order to articulate words. Basically, speaking but with a focused flow of air.
Stories cannot be understood within context if the means of communication are not clear and precise. Think of a pop song with lyrics that you’ve gotten wrong most of your life, and found out just recently that they were different. You felt like you were lied to, correct? Well this is because the artist did not use proper singing diction to make sure that the words could be heard over the music. The “bright” timbre (or quality) a voice can have that is used to be heard over music is its resonance.
Combined with diction, resonance is a tool that can be used to make sure that you are heard clearly and you can get your story across to the listener. This is the equivalent to making your speaking voice sound bigger in order for someone across the street to hear you, but with the absolute least tension on your throat.
Why Focus On Diction?
Vocalists are Basically Actors
As stated in the introduction, vocalists must be heard in order to get our stories across. We are very much like actors who sing their monologues instead of speak them. Without the proper English diction, our audience will not be able to hear our story. The context of the song will be lost, and any climactic moments in the music will not be earned because it will remain unheard. Especially in songs with complex stories such as musical theatre pieces or arias from operas, diction is vital to present the context of the music.
The audience does not always have a program in front of them to explain what came before and after in the “plot” of the music, but if they can understand the situation in which the emotions are being emitted from, they can relate to it in some way with their own life experiences. This simply cannot be done if they do not understand what you are communicating with them. Vocalists need to be trained specifically on how to pronounce words when singing in order to properly communicate with their audience.
Singing Comes in Many Languages
As I mentioned in my introduction, I never really understood the importance of diction until I took my Diction for Singers classes in college. My two semesters learning Italian, English, German, and French diction were very difficult. For those who want to get into the classical and opera genre, learning how to sing in these languages is a MUST.
In the class, we focused mainly on the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) and the different rules that applied to how words were pronounced. There are so. many. rules. French definitely has the most rules only because they don’t make any sense (there can be 5 letters but only 2 of them are pronounced? Excuse me what?)
German makes a little more sense because it is the most similar to English, and Italian is definitely the easiest with less vowels. But today, we are only gonna focus on English. It’s easier than German but harder than Italian. For native English speakers, we will have an easier time with singing in English, but we will also have a hard time reversing any bad habits we’ve formed due to the lazy nature of American English speakers.
How to Use English Diction In Singing
Like Presenting a Sung Monologue
I always recommend to my students to recite the text of their song like a poem, because it’s what it really is: a sung poem. Actors when reciting their monologues never use their regular “inside” voices, they use supported and elevated voice so that their words can be heard by the entire audience, whether they are close by or far away. Similarly, singers should use their voices, in the same way, using vowels and consonants. Vowels are used to present pure tone, while consonants often add rhythm and complexity on top of the notes.
The Importance of Vowels
As a general rule, vowels are usually placed on the beat as the main foundation of sound. Vowels are divided into three main categories which can be demonstrated through the vowel placement chart found in this video here:
There are front, back, and center vowels. These are categorized to where they are placed on the tongue. Although the lips have some part in forming vowels, it is the tongue that becomes the primary muscle for speaking and singing vowels.
Vowels are what mainly establish legato. Legato in the singing sense means that the words are connected smoothly to form phrases. Think of how we speak, we usually don’t breathe in the middle of a sentence. The same idea applies while learning how to sing vowels. The smooth connection between phrases is the main vehicle that drives the flow of sound.
The Importance of Consonants
Consonants are usually placed right before the vowel as a percussive prefix and suffix to not only define the beginning and end of each word but to form the word itself so that it can be understood by those who are listening. They are divided into two groups: voiced consonants and unvoiced consonants.
Voiced consonants are those that make the vocal folds vibrate more prominently, such as d, b, g, v, etc. Unvoiced consonants are those that do not vibrate the vocal folds and are generally more aspirated, such as p, s, k, f. Try saying these consonants by themselves while feeling your vocal cords. Can you feel the difference between a voiced and unvoiced consonant? You should feel buzzing on your fingertips when you say voiced consonants. An approach that is quick and precise should be approached when considering how to pronounce consonants when singing.
Getting Rid of Bad Habits
As stated earlier, most Americans speak lazily, and a lot of us slur our words. In singing, we MUST over-exaggerate in order to be heard. When I was a young chorister, I would pretend to be a posh British noblewoman when I would sing. This really helped me get rid of unnecessary diphthongs (cutting a vowel short by going to the final consonant too soon). The general rule in articulate singing is that consonants should be quick and precise, while vowels should be free and sustained as much as possible since they are at the core of the sound.
Articulators that were mentioned before such as the tongue and jaw should NEVER hold any tension. Tension in the tongue, jaw, and neck can result in a strained sound that sounds unnatural and painful to the audience. One of my teachers told me to imagine that I was just given novocaine at the dentist and my articulators were numb as a result.
Problems in Diction
Any of your resonators (teeth, tongue, jaw, throat, or lips) can hold tension in them when you sing. Think of what happens when you hold something heavy up for too long. That is similar to what happens when you hold a note for too long and it starts to hurt. Just like form is very important in working out our body muscles, proper technique is important for the longevity and stamina of your singing muscles.
The jaw should drop forward with the weight of itself pulling down. It should not be too closed or too open. Think about what happens if you fall asleep in the car or sitting down. Your jaw opens naturally with the weight of itself pulling down. If you feel the need to drop your jaw and pull it back towards your neck, your jaw is tense and therefore using the incorrect technique.
One common problem most beginning vocalists tend to face is singing with a spread mouth. What happens to your mouth when you smile? The corners of your mouth are pulled up and your cheeks become tense. What happens if you smile too long? Your mouth starts to hurt because of the tension in your face. This tension can also affect how you sing, namely how to pronounce vowels when singing.
In order to combat this problem, it is common to think of singing with tall, vertical vowels. Using the natural drop of the jaw to color the way you form your vowels is crucial to proper singing technique. The closure comes with forming the vowels, but the lips must always remain tall and never wide or spread.
Another common problem beginning vocalist have is maintaining the same energy all the way to the end of the phrase. Of course, our stamina has it so that we run out of gas by the time we are towards the end of a sentence or phrase and we replenish our energy by breathing, but singers must fight this instinct by making sure their diction is as energetic as how it was in the beginning of the phrase. Consistency is key in proper diction and singing itself.
Supplemental Singing Diction Exercises
This exercise has many names such as lip trills, lip buzz, and lip bubbles, but if you’ve ever been in a choir you probably already know this exercise. There’s a reason this one is so popular. By “bubbling” your lips, it releases tension and makes them relax while bringing your sound to a more forward placement.
The vibration from the lips also goes down to the jaw, which is another resonator that tends to become tense when singing. Think of it as a massage for your face.
Since we are dealing with words, it’s best that we can pronounce them correctly and practice them at a fast tempo if we need to, right? Tongue twisters, sung or unsung, are a perfect way of getting the coordination between your different muscles in order to pronounce words efficiently. Sentences like “She sells seashells by the seashore”, “a proper cup of coffee in a copper coffee cup”, or “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” are a perfect way to warm up those speaking muscles.
To put it in place for singing, a five-note scale up and down saying “Momma made me mash my M&M’s” is one that I like to use for my studio. Another fun one is a 1-3-5-8 8-5-4-3-2-1 exercise with the words “Articulate the consonants, spit out the words, round all the vowel sounds or else you’ll be a nerd!”. For example, if we start on middle C: (C)Articulate the consonants, (E) spit out the words, (G) round all the (C) vowel (G) sounds or else (F) you’ll (E) be (D) a (C) nerd.
The focus on these exercises is that consonants such as t’s and p’s are short and precise, the ending s’s are not held out too long, and ending consonants such as d are emphasized with a shadow vowel (example: made-uh, nerd-uh). This is to bring out the final consonant so it is not clouded by the closure of the mouth.
Staccato exercises further facilitate the need for precision in regards to good diction. Using a 1-3-5-3-1 scale and either using ya-hah-hah or a laughing ha-ha-ha will promote the dropping of the jaw in a natural manner rather than a forced manner. This will also help with tonal accuracy, as it is more difficult to stop the air in between notes and start again rather than sustaining notes and being helped by sliding up or down towards the next note. This can also supplement the quick, precise approach talked about earlier when learning how to sing consonants.
Legato Vowel Exercises
In contrast, all focus should not just be on the consonants, but also on the vowels themselves. They are, of course, the core of the sound and if they are not formed properly the sound will be muddied and unclear and clear consonants will have nothing to anchor onto. To work on vowels, I like practicing a legato EE-EH-AH-OH-OO on a 1-3-2-4-3-5-4-2-1 scale. I encourage students to place their hands on their cheeks or jaws to facilitate a tall vowel, especially for EE. In my own practice, I also like to massage my jaw while doing this exercise.
Another good exercise is a Vi-ah exercise on a 1-5-4-3-2-1 scale. The V promotes a focused onset, while the ah on the 5 promotes a dropping of the jaw on the highest note. As we sing higher, we must have more space to compensate for the narrowing of the vocal folds or it will result in tension.
Things to Remember
- Avoid tension at all costs!
- Always sing with tall vowels
- Always warm up before a practice session
- Vowels are the core of the sounds
- Consonants add depth and percussion, so bring them out!
- Read the text of your piece like a monologue and sing it like one
- Tell a compelling story
- If you have fun with your story, the audience will
Other Things to Consider
- Practice reciting your text out of rhythm to the music, this will help you understand the natural flow and not fall into the habit of relying on the musical rhythm
- Learn the International Phonetic Alphabet
- Take a Speech/Voice and Movement Class
- Have fun!