The three musical effects in sung Italian
Matteo Dalle Fratte, Founder of Melofonetica, shares insight into the musicality of the Italian language:
As part of my research into sung Italian, I’ve come to realise that while the beauty of the sound of the language may seem to lie in the sound of its oral and pure vowels, it is, in fact, the pattern of consonant sounds – and the effects they create in combination with vowels – that create the unique musicality of the language.
To understand this, firstly we need to understand that in Italian, meaning is made through the length of consonants. For example, if we say mamma with a long m, this means mother, while m’ama with a short m means he or she loves me. Unlike in English, German or French, lengths of vowels don’t change the meaning of words in Italian. The correct sequencing of long and short consonants is therefore fundamental for meaning in Italian – but it is also what gives Italian a specific phonetic pattern and musical rhythm.
The correct sequencing of long and short consonants is therefore fundamental for meaning in Italian – but it is also what gives Italian a specific phonetic pattern and musical rhythm.
Within this phonetic pattern, we find three specific musical effects: tenuto, martellato and staccato – terms that are well known in the instrumental world. While we can now identify these instrumental effects in the language, it’s interesting to note that at the time when opera was born (in the 16th and 17th centuries), instrumentalists were in fact seeking to imitate the complex sounds of the voice! As Barthold Kuijken says, “Instrumentalists were always required to take singers as their model, and indeed they will have needed to listen attentively to the singer in order to imitate or accompany well at appropriate places”.
Tenuto effect: a vowel followed by a short consonant
Examples: Coraggio; Un’aura amorosa
In Italian, short consonants allow the preceding vowel to be as long as the whole length of its note; the short consonant is then very short and pronounced very quickly at the beginning of the following note. The short consonant is so fleeting that there seems to be almost no interruption between the two vowels in the sequence. This effect is called tenuto, which means ‘held’. The first vowel sound is sustained and smoothly connected to the subsequent vowel sound via a very short consonant. This tenuto effect, when it occurs across a downbeat in music, creates an elegant way to sing through the important beat with an almost imperceptible articulation. Drawing a parallel to visual art, this would create a curve instead of an angle.
Martellato effect: a vowel followed by a long sonorant consonant (e.g., long l, m, n or r) or long sibilant consonant (e.g., long s or f)
Example: Gli anni assieme
Martellato literally means ‘hammered’; if you think about the way we would imitate a hammer, we would use a sound such as ‘tang’ or ‘pang’. These sounds end with an ng that is a diminuendo, like the reverb of a hammer’s sound. This effect is what happens when we hear the sudden diminuendo of a sonorant or sibilant consonant following the active and supported preceding vowel.
Sonorant consonants are formed by a voiced sound and sung without any interruption, such as long l, m, n or r. Sibilant consonants are formed by a ‘hissing’ unvoiced sound with no interruption, and include long s and f.
Staccato effect: a vowel followed by a long stop consonant
Example: Tutto acceso
Staccato is the most common effect in Italian, and the one that adds the most colour to the musicality of the language. It is simply created by a stop consonant which creates an occlusion, i.e., a stop to the airflow. The preceding vowel is interrupted by the onset of the stop consonant. The staccato effect is one of the easiest effects to identify in sung Italian because of the clear difference between sound and silence. In a group of consonants, a martellato often combines with a staccato effect to create a martellato-staccato effect, for example, in the word quanto.
Putting it all together
Let’s take the well-known line Bella siccome un’angelo. This includes a martellato effect on the double ll in bella, a staccato cc in sicc followed by a tenuto in ome, a combined martellato-staccato in the ang of angelo and finally another tenuto with the short l in elo.
The right pattern of musical effects comes naturally into place in Italian when singers learn to correctly articulate Italian sounds and, in particular, distinguish correctly between short and long consonants. However, an analysis of the text to find these different musical effects is a useful way to identify mistakes and polish the diction in order to achieve idiomatic and even more expressive sung Italian throughout the piece.
 Barthold, Kuijken, The notation is not the music: reflections on early music practice and performance, Indiana University Press, 2013, p.41
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