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Diction for Singers: An Immersive Approach to IPA

Using Edith Piaf’s “LA VIE EN ROSE” 

What is diction and why is it important?

 

Diction is the study of  pronunciation. Diction for singers or “lyric” diction, differs slightly from a strictly spoken approach. This is because, when words are set to music, they undergo specific changes. Words become distorted ― vowel sounds are often lengthened and words are set to rhythms that don’t match natural speech inflection. Words may become further distorted when set in the extremes of vocal registers on pitches that are far outside that of normal spoken range. Diction for singers teaches specific tools that may be used in order to overcome these distortive barriers to clear communication. Possessing good diction also helps with vocal technical studies by improving intonation, rhythmic accuracy, breath control, and producing a smoother line.

 

How is diction usually taught?

 

In the realm of music conservatory training, diction for singers focuses on the study of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). At its most basic level, IPA is an alphabet of symbols that correspond to specific sounds. Students are introduced to a symbol and then taught how to properly form the sound using a combination of mouth positioning and tongue placement. Once students have developed an understanding of IPA and articulation, they are instructed on word emphasis within sentences, and how to start matching symbols to words themselves and creating their own transcripts of foreign texts. Essentially it is akin to learning a new language and can be quite time consuming and overwhelming.

 

Song  Immersion

 

For those first approaching singing in foreign languages or those interested in popular music, it is often more practical to proceed within the framework of a song that sparks excitement and continued interest. Working in this way can be classified as “song immersion.” The ability to absorb language through immersion is a skill innate to all human beings. As babies, we pick up language from our parents by hearing it spoken around us and repeating what we hear. We slowly acquire sounds, words, and meaning until we become fluent in that language. The same principles are often applied to the study of foreign languages and similarly to song immersion.

 

How does song immersion work?

 

In order to demonstrate this approach, let’s immerse ourselves in “La vie en rose” by Edith Piaf. In the first sentence of the chorus, or hook , we encounter three sounds that are unique to French — the “nasal” vowel, the mute e or “oe” vowel, and the uvular r. Other than these three differences, all of the other consonants and vowels will be familiar to you as they are found in English.

 

See the below example: The three symbols for the uniquely French sounds that we’ve just learned are listed below and then written in red within the transcription. You will see the rest of the symbols are basic vowel and consonant sounds that we already have in English. You will also notice that in some words ending in a vowel plus consonant combination, the consonants are not pronounced.

 

IPA Symbols

A nasal = ã

Mute e or mixed vowel “oe” =  ə  or  œ

Uvular r = ʁ

 

Sample Transcription 

 

When  he  takes me   in  his  arms

“Quand il me prend dans ses bras” 

    k   ã   til mœ  pʁ ã    d ã     se   bʁa

 

-> click to download the Full Transcription PDF

La-vie-en-rose-IPA-Transcription2 (1)

What’s next?

I will help you make your own transcription of your song of choice so you will not only remember how to pronounce it, but will, over time, learn IPA. For extended study, I have included a full IPA transcription and translation of “La vie en rose” below.  Becoming familiar with which symbols—either those three new ones or the ones we are familiar with from our own language—correspond with which French vowel and consonant combinations will happen over time. Therefore, working with a teacher that you trust who can guide you in proper pronunciation and evaluate the way you are forming the sounds using both audio and visual means is important.   

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