How Proper Pronunciation and Enunciation Will Enhance Your Vocal Performance
Have you ever wondered why singers pronounce words differently to how they’re usually spoken? Have you found that you can sing your scales during your vocal warm-ups much better and more easily than actual songs? Have you ever listened back to a recording of yourself singing and struggled to understand certain words and phrases you were singing?
The secret to unlocking all of these secrets and more comes down to one simple word: diction.
Read on to find out why diction is important for singers to understand, the differences between diction used when speaking and diction used when singing, and, most importantly, how you can use your knowledge of proper pronunciation and enunciation to enhance your vocal performance:
What is diction?
Open up your dictionary, and you’ll find that, like the book it shares its name with, the term ‘diction’ is concerned with conveying the meaning of words. Diction can refer to both your word choice (‘what you say’) and your pronunciation and enunciation of those words (‘how you say it’) – and it’s the latter that we’ll be focussing on in this guide.
What’s the difference between pronunciation and enunciation?
When you pronounce a word properly, this just means you’re making the correct sounds the word is made up of. When you enunciate a word properly, this just means you’re making those sounds in a clear, distinct way.
So you could be making the right sounds for a word, but not making them clearly enough to be understood; equally, you could be making the wrong sounds, but doing so very clearly indeed!
Take the word ‘pronunciation’ itself – you could pronounce it correctly, but not enunciate it clearly, giving you something like ‘pruh-NUN-syay-shun’. Conversely, you could pronounce the word incorrectly, but enunciate it beautifully, giving you something like ‘pro-NOWN-see-AY-see-on’.
While it’s much easier to understand what’s being said in the second example, it’s still not the correct way to say it – so finding a middle ground between the two is what we’re aiming for.
Why is diction important for singers?
Most songs you’ll be singing will tell a story or express a feeling – and, just as when you’re sharing stories and feelings when you speak, your main goal is for your audience to understand what you’re saying. While it’s true that in music, there are many other factors at play which can help you convey certain moods, it’s down to you, the vocalist, to make sure your audience can understand – and then hang off – your every word.
Furthermore, diction is agreed by most singing tutors to be one of the five main components of the human singing voice, which you can read more about in our article. In this sense, diction is about how your singing muscles work together to enable you to produce different sounds.
As you know, our language is made up of two types of sound: vowels and consonants. But how your approach to making these sounds when singing will affect your performance requires a basic understanding of how you produce them in the first place:
- Vowels – these are produced by partially or totally opening up your vocal tract, then vibrating your vocal folds
- Consonants – these are produced by partially or totally closing your vocal tract, then vibrating your vocal folds for some, and not vibrating them for others
You produce different vowel and consonant sounds by using different combinations of mouth shapes, tongue positions and other muscles involved in the production of your singing voice – and some are harder to sing than others. Before you start practicing these different sounds, we recommend getting your lips and tongue ready by practicing our top vocal warm-ups to whip your singing voice into shape.
Let’s start by looking at the different vowel sounds…
How do vowels affect my singing?
The sound of a vowel is achieved by pushing air up through your vocal folds. When you practice singing your scales and arpeggios, the notes you sing are actually vowel sounds.
You can change the sound of the vowel you are singing by changing the position of your tongue and your lips. You can hear the effects of this yourself by singing an ‘ah’ sound, then changing this to an ‘ooh’ sound.
When you sing an ‘ah’ sound, you can feel your tongue flat against the bottom of your mouth with the tip against the back of your teeth, and your lips in an open, relaxed position. Change the ‘ah’ sound you’re singing to an ‘ooh’ sound, and you’ll feel your tongue move higher up and further back in your mouth, and your lips rounden.
Change your ‘ooh’ sound back to your ‘ah’ sound and notice how your tongue and lips change back to their original position. This time, change your ‘ah’ sound to an ‘ee’ sound, and you’ll feel that your tongue stays at the front of your mouth but moves higher up as with an ‘ooh’ sound, and your lips stay unrounded.
Use this chart to see how each of the main five vowel sounds are produced by different arrangements of your tongue and lips:
|Vowel||I (ee)||E (eh)||A (ah)||O (oh)||U (oo)|
This is important for you to understand as a vocalist, because some vowel sounds don’t lend themselves to effective singing as well as others. Anything that gets in the way of your airflow when you’re singing is basically going to make it harder for you to sing, so when your tongue is higher up in your mouth, it’s effectively blocking your voice as it tries to come out.
How should I sing vowels?
The golden rule for singing vowels is: stretch them out as long as you can. For every breath you take, you want to spend as much of it as possible on vowels.
The way we pronounce vowels is different to how we pronounce vowels in speech – we speak a lot quicker than we sing, and we use a much smaller amount of breath on each spoken word. Here’s another table to show you how to stretch out each of the five main vowel sounds to make them easier to sing:
|Spoken vowel sound||Spoken word||Sung vowel sound||Sung word|
Furthermore, vocalists often modify the way they sing vowels in order to stretch them out, allowing them to maximize the amount of airflow they push up through their vocal folds. As we saw in our first table about the tongue and lip position of each vowel sound, a more open ‘ah’ is easier to sing than a more closed ‘ooh’ or ‘ee’.
With this in mind, you can modify the way you pronounce certain vowel sounds to open them up. Let’s use a song everyone knows for our example.
Sing the phrase ‘happy birthday to you’, and pay close attention to how your lips and tongue change position for each syllable. You should find something like the below happens:
Now try singing the phrase again, only this time modify the closed vowel sounds to their more open neighbours. This would make the phrase sound more like:
HAH PEH BAHTH DEH TOH YOH
That might sound a little too different from the original pronunciation, but it will also keep your mouth and throat more open, making it a lot easier to sing each syllable louder and for longer.
But what about vowel sounds that change halfway through, we hear you ask?
How should I sing diphthongs?
A diphthong is a vowel sound made up of more than one of these core vowel sounds. For example, when you say the word ‘plate’, the ‘a’ sound is not a straightforward ‘ah’ sound as it might look on paper, but a combination of the ‘eh’ and ‘ee’ sounds, giving us ‘pleh-eet’.
This is important for you to know as a vocalist, because the second half of the diphthong in the given example is a more closed vowel sound than the first. This means that, as you get towards the end of the vowel sound in the middle of the word ‘plate’, your airflow starts to become more obstructed – even before you reach the total closure that is the consonant.
All you need to do is put a greater emphasis on the more open vowel sound, because that’s the part you’ll be able to sing the strongest. Going back to our example, sing the first line of ‘Happy Birthday’, but this time pay close attention to the diphthongs present in the syllable ‘day’:
HAH PEH BAHTH DEHee TOHoo YOHoo
Try to spend longer and put more emphasis on the more open ‘DEH’ of ‘day’ than on the more closed ‘ee’, and you should find you’re still able to push out more air, but you’re also able to modify the sound of the vowel to a more closed position as you reach the second half, bringing it closer in line to its spoken sound. The same goes for the ‘OH – oo’ and ‘too’ and ‘you’.
Now we have familiarized ourselves with the vowels, let’s move onto the consonants.
How do consonants affect my singing?
The sound of a consonant is achieved by cutting off your airflow in different ways, and to different degrees. Since your airflow is the basis for all your singing power, it stands to reason that you’d want to cut it off as little as possible!
While vowels are the actual part of the words we sing, consonants are just as important for good diction. Where vowels give the words you sing their power, consonants give them their definition – without clearly defined consonants, the vowels ‘OH OH EE’ from the phrase “don’t phone me” could just as easily mean “so lonely” and give your audience completely the wrong message!
As important as all consonant sounds are, the way some of them are produced makes them more difficult to sing than others. A good starting point is to put consonant sounds into groups depending on how their sounds are produced.
There are many ways to classify the different consonant sounds, but in terms of how they affect your singing voice, we can put them into two main categories: unvoiced and voiced consonants. Here’s how you make each of these consonants sounds:
- Unvoiced consonants – these are produced by stopping your airflow
- Voiced consonants – these are produced by vibrating your vocal folds, then stopping your airflow
By their very definitions, we can see why we’d have a much easier time singing voiced consonants than the unvoiced consonants. Each time we add an unvoiced consonant to what we’re singing, it interrupts our flow of air; by contrast, because a voiced consonant requires some airflow at the start of its sound, it can easily be added into a sung phrase, using the vowel sound that comes before it.
Several unvoiced consonants share the same arrangement of singing muscles as voiced consonants, the major difference between them being that your vocal folds aren’t used to produce them (hence the name ‘unvoiced’). This is why they are often placed in pairs, as seen in the below table:
|th (as in ‘thistle’)||th (as in ‘this’)|
|sh||ezh (as in ‘vision’)|
In simple terms, this means that every unvoiced consonant included in the above table has a voiced counterpart. You can test this for yourself by adding a ‘voice’ to each unvoiced consonant – try to sing a ‘p’, and you’ll find your mouth trying to make a ‘b’ sound!
How should I sing consonants?
Similarly to how vocalists modify their vowel sounds to make them easier to sing, you can also ‘soften’ your consonant sounds to help maintain your air flow. Using the table above, we can soften the unvoiced consonants into their voiced counterparts.
Let’s return to our previous example ‘happy birthday to you”, and soften whichever of its unvoiced consonants are paired with voiced consonants. The ‘p’ sound become a ‘b’ sound, and the ‘t’ sound become a ‘d’ sound:
HAH BEH BAHTH DEHee DOHoo YOHoo
While this might start to look unrecognizable as the song we started out with, the fact that we’ve substituted in these voiced consonants means that you don’t have to cut off your air flow.
How do I sing other consonants?
Some consonants don’t fit into the voiced/unvoiced pairings, so it’s important to know how to approach these when you’re singing. The ‘h’ sound, for instance, is unvoiced, but since there isn’t a similar-sounding consonant to swap it with, most vocalists just try not to over-emphasise the ‘h’ sound, and some drop it altogether.
Consonants such as ‘m’, ‘n’ and the combination ‘ng’ all start in your nose, which means they use what is called ‘nasal resonance’. In general, it is agreed that relying too much on your nasal resonators can restrict or ‘tighten’ your singing voice, and singing ‘m’ and ‘n’ sounds in the same way that you speak them can lead to this.
Fortunately, there’s an easy workaround that you may well be familiar with already. If you’ve ever caught a cold, or have ever tried ventriloquism, you will have noticed that trying to pronounce these consonants without engaging the nasal resonators or moving your mouth is not possible.
Rather than being a product of an illness or a magic trick, you can deliberately substitute ‘b’ for ‘m’, ‘d’ for ‘n’ and a solo ‘g’ for ‘ng’. So take the word ‘harmonizing’, and it becomes ‘har-bo-di-zig’, which you can sing with an open throat without much nasal resonance at all.
Another group of voiced consonants which require a special approach includes ‘l’, ‘r’, ‘w’ and ‘y’. When these consonants follow a vowel, they’ve already got the sound they need, but when they follow a consonant or fall at the start of a word, they can be made easier to sing by placing a vowel sound in front of them, as such:
|Spoken consonant||Preceding vowel sound||Sung consonant|
So take the phrase “would you really listen?” and add the preceding vowel sounds to each word. This gives us:
ooWOULD eeYOU ooREALLY ahLISTEN
Combining the endings and beginnings of words
Now let’s put what we’ve learned about vowel sounds and consonant sounds into practice, bearing in mind that you want to keep your throat as open as possible, and your tongue flat along the bottom of your mouth and against your teeth wherever you can.
Since the vowels are the part of the word you actually sing, that’s the part you want to spend as much time on as you can. Therefore, whenever you’re studying a phrase that you’re learning to sing, in addition to modifying any difficult vowel and consonant sounds, look for ways you can minimize the amount of time you spend on consonants – such as combining the consonant at the end of a word with the consonant at the beginning of the next word.
A good place to start with this is to separate the vowel sounds and the consonant sounds. Take the beloved hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’; the modified vowel sounds (including a diphthong or two) are as follows:
OH – EE – AHee – EH – EE OO – EE – OO
These are the parts you’ll actually be singing, so these are the parts you want to spend most of your time and effort on. Between each of these vowel sounds, we’re going to spend a split second on combined consonant sounds which will define which words the vowel sounds belong to (remember – we’re also modifying the consonant sounds where we can):
OH -lth- EE -gsb oor- AHee -d- EH -ndb EE OO -d- EE -v- OO -l
How will modifying my vowels and consonants help my diction?
For all the different vowel and consonant modifications we’ve explored in this article, it’s important to understand that, while at first they might not sound anything like the words you’re trying to sing, they will help you project your singing voice with great, unobstructed power. However, for the purposes of being understood by your audience, it’s important not to sound like you’re actually singing different words!
Use your singing practice to explore your diction, and use this guide to help you overcome difficult passages. As you practice modifying your vowels and consonants, you’ll find that, as you gain confidence, you can start to change them so they’re nearer to their original sounds.
Remember: the vowels give your words power, the consonants give them meaning!