Friday, September 21, 2012

Diphthongs: What Are They?

What the Heck Are Diphthongs? And, no, they don't have anything to do with Victoria's Secret. They're the two part vowels we probably learned about in the third grade and promptly forgot by the time fourth grade rolled around. Stuff we were certain we would never have any use for.

Well, singers, we were wrong.

A diphthong is a sort of "uber" vowel, in that it has two different and sequential vowel sounds instead of one. Although exactly which specific vowels fall into this category is hotly contested, and may have something to do with regional accents, I think the following five vowel sounds are generally accepted as being true diphthongs:                          
ay, ai               Eh-ee        as in Say
I, y                  Ah-ee        as in Lie
oh                   Uh-oo        as in Go
ou, ow             Ah-oo       as in Out
oy                   Uh-ee        as in Boy

The percentage of time allotted to the first part of the word is about two thirds, with the second part finishing the remaining one third. These percentages are very arbitrary. American English is a complex amalgam of influences and depending upon where we live, some of us have probably gone through life without ever following through with the second part of the vowel!

But when you link like sounds together you can very clearly hear the double vowel effect. From childhood we might remember the little jingle: "How Now Brown Cow?" Or this song from the Broadway musical My Fair Lady: "The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly on the Plain."

So why is this important for a singer to know?

There is (0r should be) an uninterrupted flow in the singer's vocal line. Like a river, it takes twists and turns and may even disappear underground for a while but it never ceases to flow.

All too often we singers fail to include the tail of this double vowel in the musical line; instead, we let the tone drop down and out of its place in the line. We lose control of the resonance because it drops into our throat momentarily as we swallow the tail of the note. The tone after this happens gets muddy for a second, pitch suffers and the lyrical line becomes unwieldy and stiff. You have momentarily dropped out of your resonance zone.

Be careful not to over-do it in the other direction though, and put too much pressure on the second half. Simply remember the tail is an important part of the singer's line and is not to be ignored.

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