Diction in singing can be the difference between your audience connecting with your performance, or not. Mumbling or distorting words prevents you from communicating the lyrics and meaning of a song. Some simple exercises can remedy this.
What is diction in music and why does it matter to your vocals? In this article, we’ll cover the definition of diction for singers, the rules for diction when singing, and some techniques which you can use today to improve your singing diction.
Diction in singing
Clear diction in singing is important for a number of reasons and should be practised alongside other vocal exercises. Pronunciation can vary from singer to singer because of regional differences in accents. However, clear diction can be achieved whatever your accent is, which is why you need to work on your diction, wherever you come from.
If you have a tendency to rush and mumble your speech you will find by working on your diction for singing that your speech will also improve. This is great for public speaking and presenting as singing will also give you the confidence to express yourself in front of a crowd.
What is diction in music?
Diction is the distinctiveness of speech. It is the act of ensuring each word is clearly heard. In music, this is very important as without it songs may lose their meaning to the listener. However, some artists may sing with less clarity but have a distinct style of diction that they become associated with.
Diction can be simply defined as the pronunciation or enunciation of your vocal expression. In regards to singing, it is the clarity or particular way words are pronounced in a song.
Why is diction important in singing?
You need to pronounce your words effectively to make sure that the audience can connect with the lyrics of your songs. When singing, you are often telling a story or sharing thoughts with your audience through your lyrics. Therefore, it’s vital that the lyrics can be distinguished in order for your listener to understand the meaning of the song.
The clarity in the pronunciation of your lyrics is referred to as ‘singing diction’ or diction in singing. If the lyrics to a song aren’t clear, then the song may be meaningless to your audience. Diction is even more important in rapping, where the words are everything, and there’s often a message.
How to improve diction in songs
When you talk you seldom squeeze or strain your vocal cords or become overly slurred and breathy. This is because you’re using your voice in a way that is most natural to you without trying to manipulate muscles to search for certain notes or add a vocal style that takes your voice way out of balance. When we sing we can get so focussed on the quality of the notes and remembering everything, that enunciation gets lost.
For some singers, words can become slurred, mumbled and lazy sounding. The most common causes of poor singing diction can be any or all of the following;
- Mouth shape while singing
- Tongue placement
- Poor control of breathing
- Strong accents and dialects
- Style choice
Note with the last reason, if an artist is choosing not to be clear in their words, this is different from having poor diction unintentionally. Establish if your song and music genre should have good diction. Do other singers perform your type of music enunciate? Or do they have a purposely slurred or mumbled sound? For most mainstream music, you’ll need to sing the words in a way that is understandable.
Enunciation in singing
Here are some golden rules for diction when singing to help you avoid this.
- Warm-up and include diction exercises (more on these shortly). This will train you to get in the habit of shaping your mouth and placing your tongue properly. It will also help warm up all of your muscles needed for singing.
- Always record your performances and if you continue to have issues with diction then a good vocal coach should be able to assist in resolving any issues and improve diction.
- Avoid tobacco and alcohol, not just for your general health, but for also your singing. They are bad for your voice and tobacco is especially bad for your lungs and breathing.
- Practice your lyrics relentlessly. The more intuitive your lyrics are, the less you’ll be focusing on remembering the words. This means you can spend more time focusing on your pronunciation.
- Watch what you eat and drink before singing. Some food and drink can be good for your voice but there are many that can affect your larynx and your mouth, which will change the way you pronounce your words.
How to pronounce words when singing
We all know the vowels of the alphabet, A, E, I, O and U. However when we are singing, we pronounce these vowels in a distinct way because of the position of where they are formed in the mouth. We can now order these vowels based on these positions, from front to back.
I – Pronounced EEE – Pronounced at the very front of the mouth
E – Pronounced AY – Pronounced in the front half of the mouth
A – Pronounced AH – Pronounced in the back half of the mouth
O – Pronounced OH – Pronounced in the back of the mouth
U – Pronounced OOO – Pronounced at the very back of the mouth
Try pronouncing these vowels in order and you will feel the sound moving towards the back of your mouth. This should demonstrate how important pronunciation is for singers and why you should focus on improving diction.
Vocal diction exercises
Here are some very simple diction exercises for singers that you can try yourself to help improve your technique.
#1 Practise your consonants
Work on improving the clarity consonants. Tong-twisters are an excellent tool to help you become a master of consonants and avoid slip-ups when singing.
#2 Practise your vowels
Poor pronunciation of vowels, while singing, can cause your listeners to miss your lyrics. To improve your pronunciation of vowel sounds, practice each vowel: ah, ee, ay, oh, oo.
#3 Combine consonants and vowels
Once you have mastered both consonants and vowels, combine the two: mah, meh, me, mo, moo. Followed by, vah, veh, ve, vo, vooh
#4 Do lip trills
Lip trills allow you to control your breathing, master the movement of the tongue and warm up your voice.
#5 Clarify your lyrics
From a performance point of view, when singing a song you are, in most cases, telling a story or sharing thoughts with your audience. Therefore it’s vital that you can distinguish the lyrics in order for your listener to understand what the song is about and what the message is – to improve diction.
#6 Get a vocal coach
Vocal coaches can help you to develop better singing diction by incorporating exercises into your voice training that will undo bad habits and start building new ones. Elements of diction that can be worked on with vocal coaches by using appropriate exercises. This will undo bad habits and start building new ones with the correct technique.
If you are working with a vocal coach, do make sure you’re clear on the style of singing that is right for you. Good diction is important across all styles. However, for some styles, it is much crisper, for example, Classical and Musical Theatre, whereas in other genres you can get away with less crisp and pronounced diction.
Examples of diction in music
Much of the success of some of the biggest artists can be attributed to the meaning found in the lyrics of their songs. Through these, the artist is able to make a personal connection to their listeners.
Some genres – like musical theatre – require crystal clear diction. While others, like metal or rock, less so.
Here’s an example of some of the best diction you’ll ever hear in music. If you’re a pop singer your enunciation doesn’t have to be so exaggerated. But this demonstrates it at its sharpest.
And here’s some examples of not so good diction in singing…
Taking all of this on may feel challenging at first. Especially if this is an area in which you struggle. However, with practice, you’ll be surprised how quickly singing diction will become second nature to you. You’ll find the tone, clarity, range and control also improves as a result of clearer diction.
- How can I improve my diction for singing?
Working on improving the clarity of vowels and consonants to improves the pronunciation of syllables. This can have a major impact on how easy singing can be. A great tip is to relate back to your own accent when you sing. This way you stay truer to your own voice while improving diction.
- How do you practice diction?
Once you have mastered the singing diction techniques we’ve listed in this article, practise breath control. Pick your favourite tongue-twister and aim to say it all in one breath. This will help you to control how much air your expel when you speak and sing.
Do you struggle with diction in singing? Which enunciation techniques do you find most helpful? Let us know in the comments below.