Italian is a language built to be sung

Matteo Dalle Fratte, Founder of Melofonetica, explains how the evolution of the Italian language is directly linked to the birth of opera, and the key phonetic characteristics that give the language its beauty and musicality.

The Italian language is one of the most widespread languages in the world, not just because of the diffusion of Italian cuisine and fashion, but also because of the popularity of the libretti of Mozart, Puccini and Verdi’s operas.

So, what is it about the language that makes it so enjoyable to hear, particularly in its sung form? To answer this, it’s interesting to understand firstly how the language was created, before looking at the phonetic qualities and innate rhythm of the language itself.

The birth of Italian

The Italian language as we know it today was originally conceived for artistic use in the 13th century by poets. The half-Norman king Federico II di Svevia, King of Sicily was himself a poet and he spoke six languages fluently. He wanted to define a language that would be the most beautiful to hear in poetry recital, so he tasked the best poets from Sicily and the mainland (together called the ‘Sicilian School’) with devising the most beautiful form of spoken language (volgare) for use in art.

Sicily was a very multi-cultural place at that time, being an economic hotspot in the middle of the Mediterranean, with an incredible exchange of goods, culture and languages. The poets could therefore draw on the most beautiful sounding words they could find from the dialects spoken in Sicily and across the Italian peninsula, but also Latin, Provencal, Arabic and Greek. They crafted them together into a language whose written form was dictated by the spoken form, and protected as such – rather than the examples of French or English, where the spoken form continued to evolve, while the written form remained fixed.

This process of defining the most beautiful form of literary Italian continued into the 14th century and reached a peak of perfection, particularly in Tuscany, with the work of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio in Florence, who sought to elevate the status of literary Italian in art to the same level as Latin.

This form of the language is the version that was again promoted in the 16th century by Pietro Bembo to be the most beautiful language for artistic use. Unlike in other countries, where linguists were looking to modernise, Bembo chose to look to the past for the best version of the language.

The beautiful sounds of this language were already inspiring Peri, Caccini and Monteverdi’s librettists, not only for use in madrigals, but also in their new art form of acting while singing i.e., recitar cantando, or ‘reciting while singing’ – the birth of Italian opera.

Subsequently, in the 19th century, at the time of Unification, the renowned Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni confirmed that this language should become the official language of the newly unified Italian nation i.e., italiano neutro or standard 'neutral' Italian as we now know it today.

The phonetic qualities of Italian

The beauty of the sound of italiano neutro seems to many to lie in the beautiful sounds of its oral and pure vowels. But the unique properties responsible for the success of this language, especially in singing, are in fact its consonants.

Latin is a language where both vowels and consonants have distinctive duration, i.e., upon which meaning is based (phonemic). French, German and English have all inherited the distinctive duration of vowels but they have all lost the distinctive duration of consonants.

Italian, on the other hand, went in the opposite direction. It retained the characteristic of the phonemic duration of consonants i.e., meaning made by the length of consonants, not by the length of vowel sounds. Saying that you know la nona di Beethoven (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) is not to be confused with saying that you know la nonna di Beethoven (Beethoven’s grandmother) for example! Distinctive vowel lengths from Latin, on the other hand, have been lost in Italian, with vowels becoming sounds that have a phonetic but not a phonemic value i.e., they don’t change the meaning of words.

This fundamental characteristic gives Italian a specific phonetic pattern or rhythm. In spoken – and sung – Italian, the sequence of ‘staccato’ and ‘tenuto’ sounds created by long and short consonants, is also what gives Italian its musicality. This rhythmic sequence of consonants provides the framework from which the vowel sounds can be projected and shine.

‘Melophonetics’ – understanding the sounds of sung language

Melos in Greek means melody, and phonetics is the study of the sounds and signs of language. Melophonetics, or melofonetica in Italian, is a new term created as a result of my research into the science of sounds in sung Italian in opera and classical music. While phonetics applies to spoken language, melophonetics focuses on the articulation of sounds, diction and expression in sung language.

The importance of consonants in sung Italian

Looking in more detail at melophonetics in Italian, the correct articulation of long consonants is so important because it helps the singer with breath support, projection and expression.

Long consonants in Italian are approximately four times longer than a short consonant. The partial or complete obstruction of sound activated by the articulators (lips, tongue, palate and larynx) of the long consonants (in particular ‘stop consonants’), engages the muscles involved in the breathing apparatus and increases subglottal pressure, both important elements for supporting the production of the vowel(s) that follow. The effect of long consonants, and the agogic accent that they produce, also give incredible expression and dramatic tension to the text.

Understanding the phonetic structure of Italian enables the singer to identify not only the obvious double and groups of consonants written in the text, but also the ‘hidden’ long consonants. These include ‘self-geminated’ consonants that are always pronounced as long consonant sounds and don’t have a ‘short’ version, such as the z [ʣʣ / ʦʦ] sound in the word azione [aʦʦjone], and ‘co- geminated’ consonants – a rule that comes from Latin where a single consonant sound is preceded by a vowel at the end of a word and forms a long consonant sound, e.g., a casa becomes ‘accasa’; e mio becomes ‘emmio’ etc.

What about Italian vowels?

There are nine vowel sounds (vocoids) in spoken Italian but they do not translate exactly into singing. A sung operatic vowel can be anywhere on a wide spectrum of sound, depending on resonance, timbre and dynamic, as long as the sound is recognisable as one of the five pure and oral vowels. The same principle applies in spoken italiano neutro, when, the articulation of vowels in words is adapted because of speed, expression or emphasis, for example.

At a spoken level, open and closed e and o vowel sounds are variable elements. Without mentioning all the variations that exist between dialects, even in italiano neutro, when words are put together into phrases, open and closed vowels then vary according to the ictus (rhythmical or metrical stress) of the sentence.

This variability was also recognised by the great poets in the 13th century who built poetry to be recited (the maximum achievement for a poet was to have his composition recited, or eventually sung). Within the very strict and complex rules of Italian metrics, they made the revealing choice to remove open and closed vowels in rhyme, e.g., the rhyming of core (o open) with amore (o closed). In his detailed examination of Italian poetry throughout the centuries, Elwert describes distinct open and closed vowel sounds as “fonologicamente irrilevanti” i.e., phonologically irrelevant.

Achieving correct and authentic sung Italian

Looking at Italian through the lens of melophonetics, we can see that even though it is perceived as a language that’s famous for its beautiful vowel sounds, this is in fact a result of the underlying framework of consonant sounds that enable clear and resonant vowels to be well-projected and beautifully shaped.

The correct sequence and production of long and short consonant sounds is fundamental for singers to achieve an authentic Italian sound. Thanks to the innate sounds and rhythm in the language, getting this right doesn’t just mean the ability to achieve correct diction, but also to sing with greater expressivity and better phrasing.

The poets in the 13th century selected the right phonetic elements to make the language beautiful to hear. It’s important that we protect and preserve the beauty and tradition of this heritage, and recognise that not only the meaning, but also the sounds and rhythm of this language, have inspired the music of the great operatic composers across four centuries of Italian repertoire.

Find out more
You can read more about the evolution of Italian as a language built to be sung and its phonetic characteristics in the Melofonetica Method book.