vocalist on stage

Why Singers Should Learn the IPA

For vocalists in the bel canto tradition, a firm grasp of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is fundamental to success.

The IPA is used to transcribe words into a group of symbols, each representing a specific sound that can be pronounced without necessarily knowing the language. It was created in 1897 by a group of French and British language teachers. While it is Latin-based and European-language-friendly, it can be used to help with the pronunciation many other international languages.

Learning what sound each IPA symbol represents is step 1 for any serious singer. After that, immerse yourself in one language at a time and learn what symbol/sound each letter or groups of letters forms in that language. Start with a straight-forward language such as Latin or Spanish, where there are few exceptions to the rules of pronunciation. Once those languages are mastered, progress to more challenging languages such as Italian, German, and finally French. If you're a native Englisih-speaker, you may also find it beneficial to study the IPA as it relates to English diction. You may be surprised at how incorrectly you pronounce many words.

As musicians we obviously know that the underlying music is inherently important to the quality of our performance, but uniquely in vocal music the text conveys additional meaning and emotion to our audience that goes far beyond the music. If words are not understood because they are mispronounced, the song--and our performance of it--loses a large portion of its meaning. While the IPA cannot convey every nuance of pronuncation, it is an indispensable building block for establishing precise diction in virtually any sung language.

in Diction