Taxonomy of Word Sounds
This post is most directly for the singers in Magenta, as it recaps some of the ideas we were playing with in this week’s rehearsal. But I’m sharing it with the rest of the universe as we’re not the only people to whom it’s relevant!
Word sounds can be categorised quite systematically in a hierarchical structure. The structure is useful because it makes it easier to remember the different types, and knowing the types is useful because you can then make generalisations about how to treat different types in ensemble singing.
I’m using indented lists here to make the different levels of the structure visible.
- Vowels are formed when you sing with nothing interrupting the airflow once it’s left the larynx. The different vowels are formed by changing the shape of the vocal tract (= throat and mouth – i.e. the tube the vibrating air travels through on its way from the layrnx into the outside world).
- Consonants are formed when something interrupts the airflow. The interruption is made by contact between some of: lips, tongue, teeth and hard palate.
- Voiced consonants are produced when the larynx makes a sound while the airflow is interrupted. To check, you can put your finger on your larynx, and when a consonant is voiced, you can feel a vibration there. Old-fashioned short-hand used thick lines as opposed to thin lines to differentiate between the consonants formed by the same type of air interruption with or without the voice: e.g. B vs P, G versus K.
- SUSTAINABLE VOICED CONSONANTS are produced when it is possible to maintain the airflow through the mouth parts that interrupts it to produce a sustained sound e.g. m, n, ng, l.
- SHORT VOICED CONSONANTS are produced when the mouth parts interrupting the airflow prevent it being sustained, so the voice either has to stop, or (what we usually do), the interruption is released onto a vowel. E.g. b, g, d.
- Unvoiced consonants are produced when the larynx is not involved. The sound is produced solely by the mouth parts interrupting the airflow. Unvoiced consonants are therefore the only sounds we make while singing that do not carry a sung pitch.
- SUSTAINABLE UNVOICED CONSONANTS are produced when it is possible to maintain the airflow through the mouth parts that interrupts it to produce a sustained sound, e.g. s, f, sh.
- SHORT UNVOICED CONSONANTS are produced when the mouth parts interrupting the airflow prevent it being sustained, so the voice either has to stop, or (what we usually do), the interruption is released onto a vowel. E.g. p, k, t
Now, there are some immediate conclusions we can draw from this
- Since vowels are the only time the airflow is completely uninterrupted, we want to maximise the time we sing them. We already knew we wanted nice long vowels, but this is why.
- We can sing on sustainable voiced consonants, but since the airflow is interrupted to form them, they need more energy than vowels if they are to carry as far.
- Short consonants (whether voiced or unvoiced) stop the sound, so if you sing them early, you’ll run out of music until it’s time for the next note. (This is another way of saying nice long vowels please :-)
And, knowing the different categories of word sound allows us to make some general rules about how we articulate them as an ensemble:
- Sustainable consonants (whether voiced or unvoiced) want to come just before the beat.
- Short consonants (whether voiced or unvoiced) want to come on the beat.
- Sustainable voiced consonants want to be sung on the note previous note, so that the new note arrives with the vowel.
- Short voiced consonants followed immediately by a vowel (e.g. ‘Go’ or ‘down’) want to be sung on the same note as the new vowel.
- If a syllable starts with both short and sustainable consonants (e.g. ‘dream’), rule 3 applies, i.e. everything is sung to the previous note until the arrival of the vowel.
Right now, this may seem a tad boggling. My prediction is that it will take about 2 months to feel normal, and that by this time next year it will be second nature to the extent that we will only need to give it conscious attention for trouble-shooting.