Yvonne Dechance's Frequently Asked Questions
about Studying Voice Diction

Original Copyright 1994; revised 1997, 2002, 2008 by Dr. Yvonne R. Dechance--none of the questions and answers contained on this webpage may be reprinted without permission. Questions and Answers marked with an * in the Question Index are reprinted from the "I Hate Diction" Q & A help files of PhoneticismTM 1.2 and have been specially adapted by the author for use at The Diction Domain. All contents copyright 1994; 1997-2008 by Yvonne R. Dechance.

General Diction-related questions

International Phonetic Alphabet-related questions

Q: How important is good diction?

A: Sounding authentic in a foreign language, communicating with an audience, and avoiding major embarrassment (more on that later!) -- certainly these suggest that good diction should be a goal of every singer. Consider also the words of Pierre Bernac:

"Obviously the literary text deserves the same care, the same scrupulous accuracy, in short the same respect that is demanded by the musical text. This respect will be manifested in the first place on the purely technical level, by means of the concern with articulation and pronunciation. In so far as the vocal difficulties and the tessitura permit, the poetic text must be perfectly intelligible. This is a matter of elementary politeness to the listener, and of fundamental honesty to the poet"(Pierre Bernac, The Interpretation of French Song, p.3).

Q: What should I expect to get out of studying voice diction?

A: The real answer: You should learn how to sound convincing and confident when singing foreign texts, even if you don't speak a word of the language (conversationally, that is!).

Along the way, you should expect to make mistakes, acknowledge your failures gracefully, and learn from them. I know a terrific opera singer who sang a closed vowel instead of an open vowel while singing in German for a German-speaking audience -- the resulting change in meaning was so dramatic that the audience nearly howled the opera to a standstill. Far better to make such an error in the classroom than on the stage.

I was lucky enough to be in the room when a young singer mispronounced a French word while singing for M. Gérard Souzay. At the end of the song the he told the soprano what she had actually sung (it is not fit to print), studied her horrified expression and wiped tears of laughter from his eyes as he said to the class "I should not have told her."

Never underestimate the power of language.

Q: What if I'm not good at learning languages?

A: Well, here's the tough answer: get good at them. Languages are at the heart of what we singers do.

Remember, no-one starts out with equal ability in 7 or more languages, but patience and practice will go a long way toward acquiring it.

Q: Why are diction classes so boring/difficult?

A: Yes, go ahead, dare to ask the tough questions. If anyone out there found diction class to be fascinating, write me and tell me how, then send your diction instructor a note of appreciation. Or a Ferrari.:-)

Let's face it, voice diction is a tough course. All of a sudden you're expected to learn a large set of symbols you've never seen before. When was the last time that happened to you -- a Russian course maybe, or perhaps those giant alphabets on the kindergarten walls come to mind! Add to that enough seemingly contradictory rules of transcription to fill a college linguistics course curriculum. What a combination.

Plus, there's another aspect of the voice diction class that's often overlooked or underestimated -- the students are often (painfully) aware of each other's ability levels. There's no anonymity in the diction classroom -- you're reading out loud, repeating things, probably even singing in front of the class. Let's be honest, this classroom has a kind of stage in it, so it's going to have the stage's moments of competition and camaraderie. Some students will rise to the occasion; others will want to hide under chairs. Even the "stars" will not always welcome the attention -- it takes a lot of energy to perform in front of people, and that's exactly what's required in the diction classroom.

But I think the hardest part is that there are so many different things that must be learned, and each person in the class is going to learn them with various rates of comprehension and success. This also seems to add an often unbearable amount of tension and stress to the exams. I observed a group preparing to walk into a voice diction exam -- some huddled in depressed groups, while others screamed their frustration, and one obvious "star" crammed frantically and muttered "Oh god, I've got to know it all." Pretty comical to witness, except that my classmates and I were exactly the same way before our diction tests.

If you recognize the diction classroom environment for what it is, allow for other students' struggles as well as your own, and above all keep in mind why you're taking the course, a lot of anxiety can be overcome or avoided altogether.

Q: What if I'm really having trouble with voice diction?

A: Try to figure out which specific areas you're having the most trouble with, and focus your study time and/or seek extra help.

  • Listen to singers who have excellent diction.
  • Study the language or attend a conversation group; it really does help.
  • Work with your studio teacher on diction in addition to your studies with your diction instructor.
  • Apply what you're learning to the repertoire you're currently working on.
  • Smile-- how many semesters could it be?;-) Besides, some famous singers have had, well, less-than-perfect diction.
  • Pray you never have to teach diction, or create a diction resource!

Q: Is voice diction related to linguistics?

A: Yes, but it's both more specialized and less exact at the same time. Linguistic studies are concerned with exact, detailed pronunciation and transcription: they use narrow transcription full of highly specialized IPA symbols.

Voice diction uses broad transcription, which uses a simplified set of phoneme symbols, and aims for a reasonably authentic, understandable pronunciation. This pronunciation may then be modified to suit the demands of the music or the needs of the voice.

Q: How is singing diction different than speaking diction?

A: They start out basically the same, but most of the guidelines for sung diction are based on the guidelines for what's known as poetic declamation. Especially in French, the way poetry is read differs from ordinary speech. For instance, there are more required liaisons in poetic declamation (and thus in singing) than there are in speech.

Second, some changes occur precisely because we are singing the language. We may for instance modify some pronunciations because the pitches they are sung to are either high or difficult. And some spoken sounds, like the Parisian "r," are changed to make them more pleasing to the ear.

Q: Why is it when I'm concentrating on my diction it's hard to sing well?

A: When you're first learning voice diction it's easy to concentrate too much on pronunciation, articulation, etc. and not enough on singing techniques. As you gain confidence with your diction skills, you should be able to balance the text to the vocal line, so you can sound resonant, maintain a good singing "line" and modify as necessary for those especially difficult notes that we all must face. See also vowel modification.

Q: If so much of diction gets modified for singing, why so much fuss about good classroom diction?

A: You must first know how to pronounce and articulate the word without modification, before you attempt to modify it. You must also be able to recognize when what an audience (or your recording) is hearing sounds correct, because when diction and vocal technique work together what the audience hears is the word correctly pronounced. See also vowel modification.

Q: How does vowel modification affect diction?

A: Ideally, vowel modification should enhance comprehension for the listener. The tricky part is, in voice diction studies, you will first be asked to speak sounds and words correctly, and then you'll often be asked to modify them for singing--both to accomodate higher pitches and to achieve a pleasing tone throughout your range. Three voice pedagogues in particular have addressed this matter most eloquently. The first is John Moriarty, who wrote that "... detailed instructions about position of tongue, lips, jaw, etc., are for the purpose of leading the singer to a discovery of the authentic vowel sounds. After they have been securely established, the singer will perhaps wish [to put less emphasis on the purely physical aspects of these vowel formations, and will wish] to adapt the formations to his method of vocal production. If the production is at all honest, it should be possible to effect this adaptation without sacrificing the identity of the vowels" (John Moriarty, Diction, p. 23).

Meribeth Bunch addresses the actual changes vowels undergo as they are sung, particularly in the extremes of range."Hundreds of books are concerned with the phonetics and descriptions of spoken vowels (and consonants). However, differences occur when vowels are sung, partially because of the extended range of pitch used in singing compared with that of speaking. A singer ascending a scale requires certain shifts of resonance which are usually achieved by a modification of the vowel sound. On the highest pitches, most vowels are modified... to create more resonating space in the pharynx. The resulting physical appearances of the tongue and mouth are not the same as the patterns described in the texts on speech, although the sung vowels somehow are still perceived correctly by the listener" (Meribeth Bunch, Dynamics of the Singing Voice, p. 89).

Finally, Barbara Doscher summed up the realities of adapting spoken voice diction to the requirements of singing when she stated:

"Modified vowels are often more intelligible than pure vowels. That statement is difficult for singers to believe. What they 'know' cognitively interferes with what they feel, and they logically cannot believe that altered vowels sound anything like the spoken word" (Barbara Doscher, The Functional Unity of the Singing Voice, p. 130).

You can learn to sing vowels that sound good and are clear to an audience, and they will be based upon the vowels you learn in voice diction studies; your voice teacher is your best resource for making any necessary adjustments. Be assured that the time you spend correcting and refining your spoken diction will not be time wasted.

Q: Help! How do I memorize all those diction rules, and why should I even try?

A: Well, first of all, if your diction class is anything like mine, you'll need to know some of the "rules" in order to pass the final exam! More importantly (at least in the long run), you won't really learn the rules until you start using them to make decisions. Like what symbols to use in transcription, and why. Or by trying to figure out why authors made certain transcription choices in their books and articles.

Remember, all "rules" are merely guidelines: different diction books have slightly different sets of rules, and exceptions are inherent in every language. But the more you practice making choices and working with song texts in transcription, the more knowledgable you'll become.

Q: How much of this diction stuff will apply to what I really want to do?

A: Well, if you want to become a diction teacher, you've got it made! (What, no hands raised?) Assuming you probably want to sing, then this stuff can really get you out of a jam, or into some really interesting repertoire. Want to sing in Russian, or Scandinavian, or whatever, but don't speak the language? Get someone who does to make you an IPA transcription. You may still need some serious coaching, but it will speed your learning process along considerably.

What if you're singing in a language you're fairly comfortable with, like French for instance? You'll still come across words and names and all sorts of odd phrases you'll have no idea how to pronounce. That's when you'll be glad you can read books like the Coffin Phonetic Readings of Songs and Arias, or your phonetic dictionaries. Start collecting those reference books early; you never know when you'll need them.

Q: What sources should I start with?

A: Well, you're here, and that's an excellent place to start. A good college course in voice diction is always a good idea if one is available to you. Berton Coffin's Phonetic Readings of Songs and Arias is probably the best-known collection of IPA transcriptions. It's not perfect but it's still one of the biggest reference sources we have. Specialty books are slowly becoming available, such as Claire Rohinsky's The Singer's Debussy, which covers all of the songs Debussy wrote, and our own Diction Diva Dr. Magner's books Phonetic Readings of Brahms Lieder and Phonetic Readings of Schubert Lieder. Companies like Leyerle Publications and Alfred Publishing Company are now publishing growing collections of song anthologies which include phonetic transcriptions; what was considered unusual a few years ago is rapidly becoming a selling feature. You might start by building your library around the composers and genres you like best, then branching out.

The other main sources are voice diction texts and phonetic dictionaries. These texts are probably some of the most frequently used for voice diction classes:

In addition, Adler's Phonetics and Diction in Singing is not as easy to read, but it contains a lot of valuable information. As for phonetic dictionaries, buy the best ones you can (make sure they use the International Phonetic Alphabet) then guard them with your life! A good phonetic dictionary is worth its weight in gold.

Q: Why don't all the sources agree in their transcriptions?

A: To begin with, transcribing involves a large set of "rules" (but you probably knew that!) and a certain amount of judgement calls. In general, the older a book is, the more likely the transcribing style may be unique to the author. In recent years, song text transcription has become a lot more standardized in format, syllabic division, etc.

Also, the IPA has been revised. Some books use the older symbols and some have adopted the newer symbols. These symbols are usually not radically different (like using a nasal closed o instead of the older nasal open o symbol) but it can be confusing at first if you don't realize they mean the same thing.

Q: What do all those weird terms like fricative mean, and why should I care?

A: Words like fricative, alveolar, palatal, glottal, etc. have been borrowed from linguistics. While it's true they may not be the most important thing you'll ever learn in a diction class, they can be quite informative. All of those terms refer to how or where a sound is formed. So if you're having trouble making a certain sound, check out its description, follow the "directions" and see if the sound improves. Often it will.

Q: What are the differences between articulation, pronunciation, enunciation and diction?

A: You've probably heard all of these terms before, but have you ever thought about what they really mean? To a certain degree these terms are interchangeable, especially when one considers the definitions below, from The New Webster's Dictionary of the English Language: Deluxe Encyclopedic Edition. USA: Delair, 1984:

  • Articulate is derived from "joints." It means "to utter by intelligent and appropriate movement of the vocal organs; to enunciate, pronounce, or speak clearly" (p. 57).
  • To pronounce is "to articulate, as phrases or words; to utter, as letters or words, in a specified manner" (p. 763).
  • To enunciate is "to utter or pronounce, especially in a particular manner" (p. 328).
  • Diction refers to "one's manner of voicing sounds in speaking or singing; enunciation" (p. 278).

In studio voice training, you've probably been told to change a word's pronunciation, or to enunciate more clearly. In studying voice diction, you'll also hear a lot about articulation and of course, diction. The best definition I've found comes from Charles Lindsley's Fundamentals of Singing:

"The term articulation refers to the actions of the glottis, lips, tongue, teeth, hard palate, velum (soft palate), and jaws that combine to form word sounds. Diction is the precise formation and arrangement of these sounds into language patterns that accurately convey both the literary and the musical meaning of a song. If a song is sung with poor diction (faulty articulation of vowels and consonants), much more than the literary meaning is lost; the quality of the singing voice is also impaired, resulting in a musical loss" (p. 62).

Q: What is IPA?

A: IPA stands for the International Phonetic Alphabet, a vast collection of linguistic symbols in which each symbol represents a single sound. An IPA transcription is a visual representation of a sound, word, phrase or (for our purposes) a songtext. For instance, the word cat would be represented or transcribed in IPA as [k ae t], and IPA phoneme sets exist for nearly all the world's languages. Singers and teachers of diction use a small set of the symbols or phonemes from the International Phonetic Alphabet to transcribe foreign language texts for study and polishing of pronunciation.

Q: Why should I bother learning the IPA symbols, especially the funny-looking ones? Why not just write words the way they sound to me?

A: Sure, some of the IPA symbols look pretty strange, but there are some definite advantages to using them. First, other people will be able to read and make sense out of them -- people like voice teachers and coaches, linguists and other language specialists. In other words, IPA communicates. Second, the IPA is consistent. A symbol always stands for the same basic sound, regardless of context or language. Third, it's clear. What a word "sounds like" to you today may not make any sense to you later when you try to remember what you meant by a bunch of strange scribble. At least you can always look up what your transcription should sound like.

It's true that the IPA is not a shortcut, as so many people claim. Sometimes the transcription is longer than the original word. But it's the best way we've found to communicate some pretty complex ideas about sounds.

Q: Why should I study all this phonetic stuff? Can't I just learn from hearing my teacher, or from a recording?

A: Most voice students begin learning about diction from their studio teachers and/or recordings. But then you're only as accurate as your sources, and you're limited to what's available.

Non-phonetic sources can be helpful; that's why so many of them have been included as references in The Diction Domain. But IPA is still the tool of choice for most diction classes and professors. I've known too many singers who were "coached" through every song or opera text they ever sang -- what a waste of everyone's time. Coaches, when you're lucky enough to have access to them, should be helping you to fine-tune your pronunciation or accent, not playing what we call Polly Parrot. Also, the day will come for most singers when they get an opportunity to sing something unusual, perhaps a Russian art song, a Parisian ballad, ancient music or "new music," for which coaches may not be readily available. A phonetic transcription can be a professional lifesaver, or at least a timesaver, in these cases.

I encourage my students to think of all aspects of voice training (including diction!) as a tool belt -- gather up all the tools you can, because someday you'll have to do most of the work yourself.

Q: How do I display IPA fonts on the Internet?

A: You have three options:

IPA Display Options
  Method Technique Pros & Cons Instructions & Additional Information
1 Display the phonemes in Unicode. The IPA phonemes are displayed and placed on the page just like regular alphabet characters, using whatever font size is needed.

Pros: IPA and non-IPA characters flow together naturally; very professional-looking results; the most flexible and accessible option.

Cons: Installing the fonts and keyboard software can be awkward; tedious to enter invidual phonemes; all readers must have a Unicode-compatible IPA font installed on your computer.

Excellent instructions are provided by Professor J.C. Wells.
2 Display the phonemes using their ASCII-equivalents. This method doesn't use the actual IPA phonemes but rather approximations that can be typed in the standard Western/Latin alphabet (A through Z, a through z, plus a few punctuation characters).

Pros: Can be read without any special fonts installed; quick and easy to type.

Cons: Does not use the true IPA phonemes; can be confusing to anyone not familiar with this system.

The Diction Domain provides an ASCII Equivalency Scheme specifically for singers. Four additional systems for ASCII-equivalents are available from Dr. H. Quene.
3 Display the phonemes as image screen captures. After you complete the IPA transcription on your computer (using method #1 above) you create image files of each sound/word/line and display those files to your readers.

Pros: Does not require readers to have special fonts installed.

Cons: Text does not flow; complicates web page layout; even more tedious than Method #1.

See the instructions for Method #1. You will also need some mechanism for creating image files of the final product, such as Snagit for Windows or the built-in capabilities in Mac OS X.