Italian Diction for Singers
In this post, you’re going to learn about Italian diction for singers.
This means we’re going to go through the sounds of Italian but with a focus on music.
Here’re some sounds we’re going to work on:
- Italian vowels
- Italian diphthongs
- Italian consonants
- Italian double consonants
Before we start, have a look at this video. It’s L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love) sung by the great Italian opera singer, Luciano Pavarotti.
Don’t worry if you don’t understand what he’s singing.
Just focus on the sounds and intonation. Look at his mouth and facial expressions.
Italian has 5 written vowels but, in terms of actual sounds, there are 7 vowels in Italian.
Vowels are very important in music because they are the sounds that give the melody to a piece of music.
They can go high and can go low.
We can combine them to make different, endless sounds.
If you open your mouth and say the first sound that comes to your mind, it’ll probably be a vowel.
Sound it for a while.
You’ll notice vowels can be sustained, which means we can pronounce them for an extended period of time without interruption. This is very common in opera for example.
In other words, vowels are very important when it comes to singing.
The written vowels are like the English ones: a, e, i, o, and u.
Let’s now listen to the actual sounds.
The sound a is pronounced like the “a” in the English word “father”.
Here’s a video with the sound “a” in the Italian word casa (“house” or “home”)
The sound e, in theory, has two different sounds: open and closed.
Some people pronounce the “e” differently depending on the word. However, some other people don’t really make this distinction.
For instance, in some regions of northern Italy, the “e” tends to be rather open.
In southern regions, the “e” is usually closed.
Anyway, let’s first focus on the open “e”. Here’s a video with the word vento (wind).
Here’s the word vero with a closed “e”.
Here’s a video containing the sound “i” in the word sì (yes).
Here’s a video with a closed “o” in il vino bianco (white wine). Just focus on the sound “o”.
If you check the pronunciation of the word negozio (by clicking on ), you’ll hear an open “o” in the first “o” and a closed “o” in the second “o”.
Here you can listen to the sound “u” in the word ultimo.
Now try pronouncing or, even better, singing them to start getting used to these sounds. If you keep practicing, you’ll be ready to sing an opera full of vowels.
When two vowels appear together within a word in Italian, both are pronounced, producing a diphthong, which is a single sound made of two vowels.
In other words, you can’t split these two vowels, otherwise, the word would sound weird.
It’s like with the word “one” in English, which is pronounced as “wan”. You can’t pronounce it like “w-an”, because it would just sound odd.
Let’s have a look at some common diphthongs:
- ai like ‘ai’ in “fight”
- au like ‘ow’ in “brown”
- ei like ‘ay’ in “say”
- eu doesn’t exist in English, run ‘e’ and ‘u’ together
- ia like “ya” in “yard”
- ie like ‘ye’ in “yes”
- io like “yo” in “yogurt”
- iu like “ew” in “few”
- oi like ‘oy’ in “boy”
- uo like ‘wo’ in “won ton”
Now, it’s your turn to practice these Italian diphthongs!
Invent a melody and add these diphthongs.
This way you’ll end up mastering them in a fun and creative way.
Italian consonants are dryer than English consonants.
In general, we say that they are non-aspirated.
To understand what we mean, try putting a lit candle or a lighter in front of your mouth and pronounce the word “poem”. You’ll see the candle flickers because you’re aspirating the consonant “p”.
Now, try saying the Italian word poema without aspiration. This way, you’ll notice the candle won’t flicker when you pronounce the consonant “p”.
So, Italian consonants don’t have that extra sound that we, sometimes, hear in English after a consonant.
This is important if you’re going to sing a song or an opera in Italian because we’ll notice the aspiration straight away and, when it comes to music in Italian, it doesn’t sound nice.
We’re not going to show you videos of every single consonant because there are too many.
For this reason, we invite you to pay attention to the phonetic sounds (represented with these signs: /…/) next to each orthographic consonant and check the corresponding sound on the IPA (international phonetic alphabet) website:
C: /t͡ʃ/ or /k/
G: /g/ or /d͡ʒ/
N: /n/ or / ɲ/
R: /r/ or /ɾ/
S: /s/, /z/ or /ʃ/
Z: /t͡s/ or /d͡z/
Some consonants have two or three possible sounds. This depends on the sound or letter that either precedes or follows it.
But don’t worry about this for now.
Just listen to and practice the sounds of Italian consonants.
Italian Double Consonants
In Italian, there is a big difference in sound between single consonants and double consonants.
You’ll usually find double consonants in the middle of a word. But you can also find them when a word ends with a consonant and is followed by a word beginning with the same consonant.
To give you an example, an English speaker would pronounce the word “pappa” like this: /papa/.
An Italian would pronounce it like this: /pappa/.
If you wonder how to make the p double, just keep your lips pressed for a bit longer and you’ll notice it.
In fact, double consonants are pronounced much more forcefully than single consonants.
Here are some rules:
- With double f, l, m, n, r, s, and v, the sound is prolonged.
- With double b, c, d, g, p, and t, the stop is stronger than for the single consonant.
- Double z is pronounced as “ts”.
- Double s is pronounced as “ss” in “essay”.
Attention to these details is crucial to making yourself understood.
In fact, there’s a big difference between the following words in terms of meaning:
- casa (house) vs cassa (till)
- fato (fate) vs fatto (done)
- pene (penis) vs penne (the type of pasta)
Now, go find Italian words with double consonants, invent or choose a melody and sing a song with those random words just to practice them.