Words Matter-Word Matters

Five Quick Keys To Improving Choral Diction

     Choral music is unique in its nearly exclusive use of language to carry its message. I say ‘nearly exclusive’ as a nod to certain art music that may utilize nonsense syllables for effect within the context of a choral presentation. These specific choral works typically do not depend as strongly on intelligibility as standard choral works both sacred or educational.


     So, we will not deal with those types of pieces in this article. In most cases, however, the lyrics contained in most choral works carry specific messages conveyed by the composer(s) through the presentation of the ensemble to its audience. It is the conductor’s job to sensitize, and train the choir to handle the song’s lyrics with precision and intentionality. To that end, here are five simple reminders to us all as we strive for wonderfully precise and unified choral diction: 

1. Diphthongs and Thriphthongs

     A Diphthong is a sound combining two distinct vowel sounds, as found in words such as “life” pronounced [l a i f ]. A triphthong combines three distinct vowel sounds, as in the word, “sound” pronounced [s a o u n d ].

     These additional vowel sounds are typically treated as consonants in choral music, where the initial vowel sound is held as long as possible, with the diphthong or triphthong added at the very last moment. Consistent work with our ensembles will yield uniformity of technique, and precise execution. 

2. Attacks and Releases

     Inaccurate and non unified attacks and releases are easily noticed by nearly everyone in our audiences and congregations. We must Invest plenty of rehearsal time teaching our singers to breathe together, sing together, and release together. Remember, our art exists in time rather than space, so we only have one shot to execute attacks and releases succinctly. Work with intentionality to train the singer’s ear to accept nothing but perfection in this area. 

3. Vowels Bring Beauty

     Vowel uniformity and purity are essential in creating tonal unity in any vocal ensemble. Watch out for subtleties between ‘dark a’ and ‘bright a’ and [i] and [ɪ]. Lack of ensemble agreement on the pronunciation of these can result n intonation problems and decreased intelligibility. Develop and implement vocal exercises featuring vowel work to be used at each rehearsal.

4. Consonants Bring Intelligibility

     It takes time to train the singer’s ear to distinguish between G/K, D/T, S/Z or B/P. But what a difference these subtleties make to the listener when performed accurately. The mispronunciation of these final consonants can change the meaning of a song instantaneously. A simple mistake with a final “z” can lead an audience to think you’re singing about “ice” instead of “eyes.”

     Continuants are those consonants through which sound may pass uninhibited in the middle of a word, specifically L, R, M and R. These must be emphasized and practiced consistently to ensure the natural flow of sound, especially during a time when unnecessary glottal stops are continually being placed in the middle of certain words as part of regional speech patterns.

5. Double Consonant Sounds

     Double consonant sounds and neutral syllables within the middle of a sung word call for extra care and attention. Once the ear is trained to hear what is expected, we need only keep the ensemble sensitive to such occurrences in each piece they present/perform. Pay careful attention to words like "button" and "mitten" to make sure your singers are enunciating all double consonants with clarity.

 John Parker is a conductor, composer, clinician, author and publisher residing in Austin, TX. He can be contacted here.

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2 comments

  • Extremely helpful article. Thanks!

    Dave Foley
  • Great article, John!!! So pleased to see you doing this. Is this new to the program?

    Kathy Sturgis

    Kathy Sturgis

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