Text Clarity

The literary text deserves the same care, the same scrupulous accuracy, in short, the same respect that is demanded by the musical text… 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.


Articulation refers to the mechanics of producing speech and involves the movement and adjustment of speech organs (lips, tongue, velum, cheeks, jaw, larynx) to produce a specific sound or phoneme. A phoneme is one specific articulatory movement, such as forming the vowel [i] or the consonant [b].  Words are formed by groups of phonemes. 

Terms associated with articulation as it relates to speech

These words are often used interchangeably, but each has a specific meaning.

Enunciation – the act or manner of pronouncing syllables, words, or sentences clearly.

Pronunciation – the act or result of uttering phonemes, syllables, words, and phrases correctly.

Diction – the use of words and comprehension in a specific language, in an understandable manner or style.

Composers are (usually) diligent in selecting song texts. It is the job of the singer to communicate the composer’s intent to the audience by understanding the poem (or prose) and using musical cues. The three terms above contribute to how one can make words understood. The poetic and symbolic nature of singing text can be a challenge for the audience (and singer) to understand. Because of this, singers are tasked with making text understandable while still producing beautiful sounds.



Vowels are produced without any vocal tract constrictions. Since most singing occurs on vowels, students begin vocal study learning to form vowels accurately. There are subtle differences in vowels that can be affected by several things:

  • individual characteristics of a vowel
  • individual differences in articulating organs
  • gender differences
  • range in the voice
  • dialects or accents
  • dynamic levels

A common issue with understanding words is simply incorrect pronunciation. Say the following words with classmates, friends, or family members. Do you hear any differences in the way a word is pronounced?















When singing vocal exercises, or vocalizing, we use the vowels ah, ay, ee, oh, oo.  The IPA symbols for these are [a, e, i, ɔ, u], which come from the Italian language, and are called pure vowels. The study of singing began in Italy, and Italian pure vowels are best for easy tone production. Other vowels may be used, and are encouraged, but mastering the five basic vowels will give you a strong foundation.

English vowels can be problematic because there are so many, and hearing the difference in vowel sounds can be difficult. Thinking back to the word list above, did you hear a difference in the way students pronounced the word “ten?”


Speak the following words one line at a time, making the vowel sounds clear, but not exaggerated. Be aware of the subtle movement in your mouth needed to make each vowel clear.

  • seat, sit, set, sat
  • cot, cold, cough, calf
  • fool, full, fill, fell
  • tin, ten, tan, ton

Vowels must be modified through slight physical adjustments when one is singing from low to high range. It occurs primarily when negotiating the transitional notes at register shifts (passaggio), especially when singing higher pitches.  Sing a scale on the vowel [i].  As you ascend into the higher range, notice the natural space that occurs. This is vowel modification. Sometimes a voice instructor will instruct students to modify the vowel they are singing in order to create more space inside the mouth. It is important that the instructor use clear language and the student understands what is being asked.


Professional singers must sing in several languages and they study diction to help them. Diction courses teach singers how to sing in different languages. This cannot replace studying the language itself, but it is a beneficial tool for singers. When studying diction, students learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to aid in pronunciation. IPA is a worldwide standardized system for transliterating speech sounds into phonetic symbols. It is also a useful tool for English singers to identify the correct way to pronounce vowel and consonant sounds when singing in their native language. You will find that the way words are spoken and the way words are sung can be quite different. The main reason is that you must sustain vowels in singing, and use more clarity in pronouncing consonants. Regional differences also affect the way words are spoken and sung. Vocal pedagogue Shirlee Emmons stated, “It is very easy to have what is known as good diction while singing poorly; the real trick is to have good diction while not letting it interfere with good singing.”


International Phonetic Alphabet symbols represent one phoneme (sound) or articulatory movement.  Although many look and sound like regular orthographic (written) letters, there are several that have unique symbols representing the sound. 


Pure Vowels

[ɑ]                    father, not, October

[æ]                   cat, add

[ɛ]                     bed, said

[ɪ]                     sit, improve, believe

[i]                     real, evil

[ɔ]                    caught, autumn

[o]                    November, okay

[ʊ]                    foot, put

[u]                    clue, tool

[ʌ]                    sun, under

[ə]                    above [əbʌv]


Notice the relationship of the symbols for the closed and open version of the vowel. Open vowels have a taller space than closed.


[i] [e] [a] [o] [u] 


[ɪ] [ɛ] [ɑ] [ɔ] [ʊ]



“Nasty” vowel

[æ] cat, mad, add

This vowel is useful for vocalizing when the tone is breathy, weak, dark, or back.  However, make sure the vowel is being produced correctly and not too tense.  Singers can gain strength, brilliance, and projection with [æ] and [e] followed by [a] or [o].


Neutral Vowel “schwa” 


This neutral vowel occurs in unstressed syllables in multisyllabic words.  Although the term schwa is German, we do use the term in English pronunciation.  Most unstressed syllables are pronounced like uh, although some are also pronounced ih.



The sound is created by movement of the articulators from one position to another. The first vowel sound glides to the second vowel sound, which is sustained.

 [j]  you [ju], music [mjuzɪk]

[w]  quick [kwɪk], want, witch

 [ɹright [ɹaɪt], rest [ɹɛst]


R-Colored Vowels 

These vowels are followed by the letter r, which affects the sound of the vowel.  Although the symbol changes for stressed and unstressed, the sound is the same.

[ər] (unstressed) father, water

[ɜr] (stressed) bird, word, early



Two vowel sounds in one syllable. Emphasis is placed on the first vowel, which is a tense/closed vowel.

[aʊ]     house, owl

[aɪ]      sight, aisle, rise

[eɪ]      weigh, able, aim

[oʊ]     own, know, sew

[ɔɪ]      joy, boil 


[ɹ]           real, strain

[k]           cat, kitchen, quick

[z]           zoo, words

[θ]           thing, path

[ð]           this, weather

[ʤ]          jar, gem

[ʧ]            chain, achievement

[ŋ]           sing

[ʃ]            shoe, sash, nation

[ʒ]            garage, collage

The following consonants are all pronounced the same as the orthographic (written) letter.



NOTE: Each consonant symbol represents all spellings of the same sound.

cat = [kæt]

kid = [kɪd]

quit = [kwɪt]


says = [sɛz]

trees = [triz]

wizard = [wɪzərd]


Consonants can be identified in different ways.  By manner of production (how they are formed) and whether voiced or unvoiced. Understanding these identifying factors help singers produce words correctly, clearly and efficiently.

  • Plosive (stop-plosive) [p], [b], [d], [t], [g], [k]

The air flow is completely prevented from passing through the mouth or nose and then released suddenly.

  • Fricative [f],[s],[v],[z],[ʃ],[ʒ],[ð],[θ]

The airflow is partially interrupted, producing a noisy sound.

  • Nasal [m],[n], [ŋ]

The vocal tract is blocked within the oral cavity, but the dropped soft palate allows air to travel through the nasal passageway.

  • Lateral [l]

The tongue tip lifts to touch the teeth and teeth ridge and the breath flows past one or both sides of the tongue.

  • Affricative (Combination Consonant) [ʧ], [ʤ]

The sound is produced by a stop-plosive followed by a fricative consonant, forming a single sound.


Several consonants can be paired in that they have a similar articulatory movement but can either have the vocal folds vibrate (voiced) or just have air pass through the glottis (unvoiced).

VOICED                        UNVOICED

[b] bust                        [p] pool

[d] ground                   [t] grout

[g] gown                      [k] clown

[z]  zoo                          [s] school

[ʃ]   shoe                       [Ʒ] garage

[tʃ] choose                   [dƷ] just

[v] voice                        [f] fool

This site provides a video that illustrates voiced/unvoiced sounds


EXERCISE: Identifying consonants by the manner of production and whether voiced or unvoiced.

Identify each consonant by the manner of production.

O beautiful for spacious skies for amber waves of grain.

/ɔ bjutɪfʌl fɔr speɪʃəs skaɪz fɔr æmbɚ weɪvz ʌv gɹeɪn/

  • voiced
  • unvoiced
  • fricative
  • lateral
  • nasal
  • plosive
  • affricative
  • glide


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