Simple Italian pronunciation rules for opera singers
Are you confident about your Italian pronunciation?
Here are some basic Italian pronunciation rules for opera singers.
Italian is known for being one of the most beautiful languages.
Learning how to properly speak Italian is all about mastering the correct sounds and pronunciation.
Learning Italian grammar and vocabulary doesn’t get you far unless you know how to properly pronounce words.
How to pronounce Italian letters
The first basic Italian pronunciation rules for singers cover letters.
Do you know how to pronounce Italian letters? That’s the basics of any language. I’ll guide you example by example.
One thing that sets Italian language pronunciation apart from other languages is that the pronunciation rules are absolutely constant. Italian is completely phonetic. This means that it is spoken the way that it is written.
Once you learn the rules, you can correctly pronounce ANY Italian word you see written down, even if you’ve never heard it spoken before! Without the need for an Italian pronunciation dictionary.
Better yet, every letter is always spoken. There are no silent letters to throw you for a loop in Italian pronunciation like there are in French!
This article will teach you the rules of Italian pronunciation so you can get started speaking this language with confidence right away.
Once you’ve spent some time practicing pronouncing words using these rules, your mouth and your mind will start to catch onto the patterns.
Before you know it, correct Italian pronunciation will become second nature. If you still need advice, book an Italian lesson with Stefano.
For self-study, I recommend the Italian language course Ripeti Con Me. Check out my review of Ripeti Con Me.
Let’s start with vowels, then we’ll move on to consonants, one by one.
Italian vowels and consonants
Vowels and consonants are sounds, not letters.
The difference between vowels and consonants. A vowel is a speech sound made with your mouth fairly open, the nucleus of a spoken syllable. A consonant is a sound made with your mouth fairly closed.
Consonants and vowels correspond to distinct parts of a syllable: The most sonorous part of the syllable (that is, the part that’s easiest to sing), is typically a vowel, while the less sonorous margins are typically consonants.
Such syllables may be abbreviated CV, V, and CVC, where C stands for consonant and V stands for vowel. This can be argued to be the only pattern found in most of the world’s languages, and perhaps the primary pattern in all of them.
However, the distinction between consonant and vowel is not always clear cut: there are syllabic consonants and non-syllabic vowels in many of the world’s languages.
This guide introduces letters first, then deals with other aspects of this language.
Italian pronunciation of vowels
The Italian pronunciation rules of vowels are particularly important because vowels are the sound that your audience hears.
Vowels are pronounced the more-or-less same wherever they occur – unlike English, in which each vowel can be spoken in several distinct ways (i.e., through vs. tough vs. though). One letter, one sound. Let’s learn vowels!
A Sound (a) – latte, da, mia
The A vowel is towards the bottom-back part of our mouth. For this, our tongue needs to come further down and further forward than in English.
This sound is slightly more open (tongue lower in mouth) and frontal (tongue closer to teeth) than the vowel sound in the American English words jot, poppa, Ana.
It’s common for people to have the tendency to close this vowel (as explained in the next section). So be sure to always exaggerate its openness by lowering your jaw as much as possible when saying this sound.
Try to exaggerate and lower your jaw as much as possible when creating the A vowel.
E Sounds (e, ɛ) – me, essere, bene
The first sound is more open (tongue lower in mouth) than the vowel sound in the English words hey, bay, say, lays. Typically, the E vowel in the words hey, bay, say, lay glide up near the I vowel.
The second E sound is the same sound as in American “everyone.”
Remember to keep your E vowels short and crisp.
I Sound (i) – piccoli, amici
This sound has the exact same tongue position as the vowel sound in the English words see, knee, he, she. Typically, it is shorter in length than in English. Remember to keep your I vowel short and crisp. It helps to smile wide when creating this I vowel.
O Sounds (o, ɔ) – domani, buono
The primary O sound is more open (tongue lower in mouth) than the vowel sound in the English words no, so, go, toe. When this sound occurs in English, it glides towards the U vowel forming a diphthong. This does not happen in Italian. The English version is also rounded, meaning you will curl your lips at the end of the sound. Rounding does not occur in Italian.
The secondary O sound occurs in English words like dog, walk, small. You will usually hear this sound at in the beginning of words in Italian such as buono (bwaw-no), vostro (vaw-stro), cosa (kaw-za).
Remember to keep the O vowels short and relax your lips (do not round them too much).
U Sound (u) – sua, tutto
The U vowel has the exact same tongue position as the vowel sound in the English words who, shoe, two, Sue.
When native speakers make this sound, it is shorter in length than in English. This sound is usually rounded in English, meaning you will curl your lips at the end of the sound. Rounding does NOT occur in Italian pronunciation.
Remember to keep this sound short and crisp and keep your lips relaxed to avoid rounding the vowel.
For vowel pairs, the same rule applies for each letter in the alphabet. They do not change at all depending on where they are in a word and will always be the same.
When spoken at normal speeds, some movement vowel pairs will be spoken so that they will blend together to make a W sound. For instance, “qua” is pronounced kwa and “dieci” is pronounced dyeh-chi. As a general rule of thumb, remember to keep these movement vowel pairs short and crisp.
After vowels, let’s look into consonants.
Italian pronunciation of consonants
The next Italian pronunciation rules for opera singers cover consonants.
Let’s learn consonants!
B (b) – bella, banda, cambio
As in English word bear. It is essentially the same as the Italian B.
C (ci) – cane, cielo
There is a “ch” C sound which sounds like English word chicken, for example. In Italian, this “ch” C occurs before I, E. Before a, o, u or a consonant, it is like the English “k”, it will have a hard sound like K.
D (di) – date, dove
D is very close to the American D in dog, but the tongue pushes a little harder against the teeth causing a somewhat more explosive sound than in English.
F (effe) – fare, famoso
F is identical to English F as in “father”, for example.
G (gi) – gatto, gelato
This consonant has two different pronunciations. When g is followed by a, o, u or a consonant, you pronounce it as you pronounce the g in the English word “good”, for example. Before e or i it is like the j in the word “jam“.
H (acca) – ho, hai
In general, H is silent in Italian.
L (elle) – balo, lungo
L is similar to English L in lake, link. But the tongue is a bit further forward in Italian (they don’t swallow their l as much as we do). English actually has two “L” sounds: the “dark L” and the “True L.” In Italian, there is only the “True L.” A common tendency for English speakers is to use both as if they were speaking English. The difference is very subtle but this nuance is definitely helpful in sounding more like a native speaker.
Some tips for this consonant:
- Exaggerate by having your jaw as low as possible
- Give more love to the consonant, dwell on the L sound
M (emme) – madre, meglio
M is pronounced the same as from the English word mom.
N (enne) – nonna, banca, gnocchi
N is like the English words new, another and pronounced the same as in English.
NG is like English “ing” in smoking, parking. Occurs when two consonants “n + c” are next to each other.
GN is not a common sound in English. It is the NYA sound in the word onion. It is always spelled GN, like in “gnocchi”, for example.
P (pi) – penna, piano
P is similar to American P in spit, sputter but different from the American P in pit or putter. Americans put a puff of air (aspirate) with their Ps when starting a word. The Italian don’t normally do this. The difference is not critical for Italian (although it is for some other languages).
Q (cu) – questo, quella
Q is always followed by a u and this combination is pronounced like the English qu in quest. Q usually silences the U vowel and turns it into a /w/ sound (for example, questo is /kwe-sto/).
R (erre) – fare, birra
The Italian ‘R’ sounds are also common in Spanish, Portuguese. It’s pronounced with the flip or tap of the tongue against the gums of the upper rows of your teeth. This is the trilled r and it is different from the English r.
This is such an important sound, we have devoted a special portion of this guide if you scroll down below.
S (esse) – casa, svelto, stanza
S is sometimes strong and hissing like the English “s” in house, set, strip. Between vowels or before b, d, g, l, m, n, r, and v it is like the English z in “zoo.” In all the other cases it is like the English “s” in “set”.
T (ti) – tardi, tutto
T is pronounced the same as in English, but no escaping of breath accompanies it in Italian.
V (vu) – vita, volgio
V is the same as in English.
Z (zede) – pizza, pranzo
Z is sometimes voiceless, like /ts/ in English words “gets” or “cats.” Sometimes it is voiced, like English /ds/ in “beds.“
In general, Italian pronunciation is quite regular. You can tell how to pronounce a word from the way it’s written once you know what sound each letter (or group of letters) represents.
Luckily, the sounds almost always match the spelling. Many speak the consonant sounds in a similar way to English. For example, the main differences are with the dz, ʎ, ɲ, r, ts sounds.
If you freeze up every time you try to order ‘gnocchi’ in a restaurant, you are not alone.
Imagine if an English word started with ‘ny’ and then a vowel. That’s more or less what ‘gn’ in Italian sounds like.
To pronounce ‘gn’ in Italian, start with the middle of your tongue place right behind your top two front teeth.
As you release the sound, move your tongue backwards, away from your teeth and towards your throat.
Gli is a masculine article, but you will also find this letter combination within other words.
It is not pronounced how it looks, but instead it is pronounced like the ‘lli’ in the English word ‘million’.
This next one is not actually hard to pronounce, but it takes time to build the habit of pronouncing it the Italian way and not like in English!
When followed by an ‘e’ or an ‘i’, ‘sc’ is pronounced the way we pronounce ‘sh’ in English.
After vowels and consonants, the next section of this guide is about the intonation of this language.
Italian Pronunciation rules: stress and intonation
More advanced Italian pronunciation rules for singers cover stress and intonation.
Intonation in Italian pronunciation has to do with the emphasis or stress of some syllables or words over others. If we keep the rhythm and phonemes the same for a phrase, a change in intonation will result in a change in meaning.
In the English phrase, “Great, we’re having steak for dinner again” I seem to be expressing a genuine feeling of excitement, but with a different tone, it seems sarcastic and perhaps suggestive of the exact opposite meaning.
Most language programs focus exclusively on vocabulary and grammar and completely overlook the question of intonation. As a result, most language-learners maintain their native intonation patterns when speaking a foreign language.
Intonation is the most characteristic element of an accent. That’s why when people make fun of accents, they tend to exaggerate the intonation more than anything else.
I know many adults are embarrassed about speaking with a foreign intonation. Our personalities are closely linked to the intonation patterns of our voice, so completely changing them requires stepping out of our comfort zone.
You might feel “silly” stepping out of your comfort zone and sounding like someone else, but trust that you will look even sillier if you don’t.
The basic unit of Italian rhythm is by syllable. When compared to the English language, Italian pronunciation has a more distinct sound and a “bouncy” intonation.
The stress usually lies on the second-to-last syllable, or the penultimate syllable (Bam-BI-ni, la-SA-gna, pre-no-TO-ri).
The exception lies in words that have either the acute or grave accent marks (perché – per-KE) or in some words that just have the third-to-last syllable as the enunciated part (MA-cchi-na, SA-ba-to).
Although you’ll need to learn some words just by rote, most of how to say these in Italian follows this general set of patterns.