How good Italian diction benefits singing technique

A number of renowned methods of singing in Italian point out the link between good diction and good singing technique. But what exactly are the benefits of correct Italian diction for singers?

Good diction is integral to the much desired ‘Italianate’ way of singing because it requires the vocal apparatus to behave in a way that is beneficial to operatic singing.

In Italian, good lyric diction is dependent on the correct articulation of short and long consonants. These are so important that we call them ‘the backbone’ of sung Italian. It is long consonants, in particular, that, when well articulated, bring a range of technical benefits.

Our work with singers over the years has consistently shown that when a singer correctly articulates a long consonant, they find that the subsequent vowel is better supported, easier to produce and more comfortable, particularly in challenging passages with top notes. Listeners also notice a better projected, better pitched and more resonant vowel.

Let's look at why this is:

1. Activation of the breath support

When long stop consonants are correctly articulated, with length rather than strength, they help the singer to engage and manage the breath support.

Long stop consonants (b, c, d, f, g, p, t, q and z) require constant subglottal pressure to be generated by the respiratory system, which activates the muscles involved in breath support.

The long sibilant consonants s and sc [ʃʃ] allow the singer to check that the abdominal muscles are engaged and that the air is flowing, while the long sonorant consonants m, n and r also help the singer to build awareness of breath management.

2. Optimisation of tongue position and pharyngeal space

Good lyric diction in Italian involves the correct articulation of a continuous sequence of long and short consonants. This requires such control that the singer’s back tongue (the rear area on the upper surface of the tongue, between the centre and root) must be in a high resting position in order to stay active.

This Italianate setting of the tongue is conducive to operatic singing because it avoids constriction of the pharyngeal space. Long stop consonants are particularly helpful in this regard because they lift the soft palate and relax and enlarge the pharynx.

There are also various long consonants in Italian that help to reduce tongue root tension, including long nasal m and the long rolled r, a sonorant trill, which creates freedom in both the pharynx and tongue muscle.

3. Location of the best formant frequencies for operatic sound

The larger pharyngeal space encouraged by consonant production in Italian optimises the resonance space for operatic singing. The larger the resonating space, the lower the formant frequencies (the peaks of acoustic energy that give each resonant sound its characteristic quality).

The long nasal consonants gn [ɲɲ], m and n help the singer to find lower formant frequencies, since they resonate through the nose rather than the mouth i.e. through a longer tract than oral vowels.

The long lateral consonants gl [ʎʎ] and l are created by the tongue forming two curved pipes on each side of the mouth, so these consonants also have a longer resonating space than oral vowels.

Additionally, the long (grooved constrictive) s is articulated in Italian with a larger groove in the tongue than the English s. The Italian articulation creates more resonating space for the outward airstream and therefore lower formant frequencies. Similarly, the long grooved constrictive consonant sc [ʃʃ], which is produced with a sublingual cavity and protrusion of the lips, adds length to the vocal tract, also helping to lower frequencies.

Furthermore, long nasal and lateral consonants, in particular long gn, create a 'sound-damping' effect giving the singer a greater awareness of their own sensation of resonance and a better control of their sound.

Find out more

You can find out more about the topics discussed here in the Melofonetica Method book, which contains a section dedicated to the technical benefits of long consonants.

You may also be interested in joining our next Sung Italian in the Body workshop dedicated to exploring the links between correct articulation and healthy, resonant singing.

For any queries, you can also get in touch here!