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  • Writer's pictureA SINGING TEACHER'S BLOG

DICTION (or singing so that people can actually understand you!)

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

Where do I start? One artist today epitomises bad diction and that is Sia. Now don’t get me wrong, I like some of her songs, particularly “Sledgehammer”, which she wrote for Rihanna (it was used on the latest “Star Trek – Beyond” film in the end credits (fantastic film, by the way!), BUT whatever you think of Sia, she is most definitely slurring her diction to the point of incomprehensibility. Some of her fans seem to think that she does this on purpose. Really?!! No, it’s just sloppiness and it sounds appalling (I’ve seen too many students over the years doing the same – until I correct them - simply because they hadn’t noticed they were doing it).

Let’s make something clear here: one of the functions of any singer is to convey the meaning and emotion of the lyrics they’re singing because if they don’t, audiences (whether on a recording, or at a live performance) can’t understand them. This in turn means that the audience cannot then engage with the song emotionally - and it’s frustrating not to be able to connect in that way, let alone on a basic level of comprehension!

I have noticed a huge deterioration in the quality of diction for some years. I think it took a pretty sharp dip downwards when r’n’b became more popular (so I’m talking at least ten years or so ago). Perhaps the singers felt that slurring their lyrics made them seem cool/sophisticated (or as I’ve said above, just didn’t realise what they were doing), well it didn’t and it still doesn’t – it just sounds stupid. Obviously, if somebody has a speech impediment then that’s an entirely different matter, but you tend to find that people who have speech problems are trying their hardest to speak clearly and to be understood!

Most contemporary music is sung with an American accent (and I’m not talking about a hillbilly accent or anything like that!). It’s simply a case of softening “t” sounds on certain words into soft “d” sounds which has the overall effect of making the music sound less formal, so that it flows better. Jazz of course started this trend, but it is prevalent throughout modern music. The exceptions are things like Brit Pop, or particular artists like Lily Allen who purposefully put on an accent to sound like a Cockney – and of course this gives a more jerky sound to the lyrics.

As a general rule though, all modern music is sung in American. All classical music is sung in “received” English (like the Queen) if in English of course, folk music is sung either quite formally or in a dialect (which tends to be the case if the singers concerned aren’t really singers!).

Whatever accent is used, however, the meaning of the lyrics should be easy to understand. What is the point of being unclear? Why would anyone even want to be unclear? Think Freddie Mercury, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald – all singers from bygone days, but all with very clear diction (and we’re still singing the songs they made famous today as a result – mind you, they were great songs).

I hear you asking: so how do you improve diction then? Well, it’s quite simple really. You need to do what clear speaking people do. We don’t generally smile whilst we’re speaking. Instead, our mouths move up and down. In singing, this is obviously more pronounced and more important, as we’re singing a melody over the words, so dropping the jaw is crucial to both good diction and tone. When I say dropping the jaw, I mean in an oval sort of shape, not a big wide smiley space. Keeping the mouth “forwards” aids good, clear diction, no matter what style of music you’re singing.

With singers today, it’s sadly harder to pick out clear diction, although there are singers who sing in a reasonably clear way (meaning you can understand the words!) e.g. Ellie Goulding, Lucie Silvas, Mindy Smith, The Weeknd (although I’ve only listened to “Earned It”, if I’m honest), Evanescence, Michael Buble, Beverley Knight, Sting, Jamie Cullum, Diana Krall, Adele BUT I still don’t think their diction is actually quite as clear as the older artists I’ve mentioned above. Perhaps style has won over clarity but I for one don’t understand why we can’t have both.

I admit I’m a stickler for clear diction whatever the music genre - and audiences obviously do appreciate it (even if some singers don’t think it matters) as my daughter and I regularly get audience members coming up (it happened two days ago) and saying how much they appreciated being able to understand the lyrics! As such, if you sing, don’t get sucked into bad trends like sloppy (read incoherent!) diction.

Anyway, just to push the point well and truly home, by all means have a go at attempting to understand what Sia is singing in “Chandelier” (without watching the lyric video!). Personally, I’ve absolutely NO idea!

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