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The International Phonetic Alphabet

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I'd like to introduce you to a tool that very valuable when discussing vowels for singing - the International Phonetic Alphabet, commonly called IPA.

If you remember learning to read using phonics, (sounding out letters, etc.) you've had an informal introduction to one of the IPA's core ideas: that each spoken sound can have a written symbol. In IPA, all of the sounds of languages are assigned a unique symbol, one symbol per sound. When languages share sounds, that is, when sounds occur in more than one language, the same symbol is used to represent the sound. In this manner, someone who knows IPA can read the IPA of a text of a song in another language, and get the pronunciation very close to, if not exactly correct.

I had my first introduction to IPA as an undergraduate vocal music student, in a two-semester class called 'Foreign Language Diction'. We applied IPA to the pronunciation of Italian, German and French songs, and it worked pretty well, even for the bunch of us from the Midwest.

These days, I use the 'typewriter' version of IPA mostly in discussions of vowels. If you see /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ or /u/ in something I write, you should have no difficulty interpreting them as sounds in these English, Italian, German or French words:

  • ah as in father, caro, gestalt, par
  • ay as in pay, che, gegeben, pays (note here, not the dipthong. That takes two IPA letters.)
  • ee as in free, cosi, spiel, qu
  • oh as in blow, bello, hohe,clos
  • oo as in blue, pura, du, doux

There are many resources out in the Internet for the IPA, and simply wonderful books of phonetic readings of song texts for hundreds and hundreds of classical songs. To begin to explore this vast world, simply Google IPA, and follow any references you may find.

This essay was first published December 1, 2008 on The Modern Vocalist.com the Internet's #1 community for vocal professionals, voice health practitioners and pro-audio companies worldwide since November 2008.


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