Academic journal article Journal of Singing

The Pronunciation of /R/ in German Classical Singing

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

The Pronunciation of /R/ in German Classical Singing

Article excerpt

The development of various r-allophones and their distribution in today's German classical singing


Wenn mitten in einer tragischen Rede sich

ein Provinzialismus eindrängt, so wird die

schönste Dichtung verunstaltet und das

Gehör des Zuschauers beleidigt."

- Goethe, "Regeln für Schauspieler" (1803)1

GOETHE IS CONSIDERED one of the earliest Germans to have worked out rules for the artistic use of the German language, including also to some extent the pronunciation. Anyone committed to classical singing-singers, pedagogues, devoted listeners, or even linguists dealing with this musical genre-will feel addressed by the quotation above. It erodes the singers performing credibility and thus the listeners ability to fully enjoy the song and its message, if the singers pronunciation has a dialect influence or, maybe even more important today, if he or she has a strong foreign accent. Not only is good diction important in singing, but also an authentic pronunciation, in order for the song to be conveyed to the audience without evoking irritation or frustration about the text. Good diction and authenticity require rules; but rules are subjected to change over time, and good diction and authenticity are not always one and the same thing. A good example to illuminate this is the pronunciation of /r/ in German classical singing. Earlier, the apical trill was required in all /r/-positions in singing, and this is no doubt a very prominent and audible variant. Among younger German singers today, we often hear variants that are less prominent, maybe often even hard to perceive at all, but more in accordance with the spoken German of today and thus sounding less archaic and hence more authentic to the ears of younger listeners.

There has been a rapid change in the pronunciation of /r/ in German (and also in several other languages) over the last fifty years, especially within speech, but slowly also within singing, where one seeks to approximate the spoken pattern. The result is that we have a diversity of /r/-variants among German singers, the older generation sticking more to the apical trill in all positions, the younger ones using "modern" /r/-allophones to a large degree. For young singers who want to perform a German lied, it is not easy to know when to use the more "modern" variants and when to choose the apical trill. Not only foreign singers are challenged by this, but also German singers are, and one is tempted to ask: is there total chaos when it comes to pronouncing /r/ in German classical singing today?

In this article we want to describe the development of the use of different /r/-variants in the German lied, based on an auditory investigation of a large body of recorded material, and try to present a pattern of how the distribution of these /r/-variants is today. We wish to show that there is not total chaos in the usage of /r/-allophones in the German classical singing of today's young singers, and that it is possible to formulate a set of rules for their distribution in a way that can make it easier, especially for foreign singers, to use them in a natural and authentic way.


[r]: Apico-dental(/alveolar) trill. The tip of the tongue vibrates two or more times against the upper teeth or the alveolar ridge.

[r]: Apico-dental(/alveolar) flap. This is a variant of the first one, but the tip of the tongue hits the teeth or the alveolar ridge only one time.

[R]: Dorso-uvular trill. The back of the tongue is raised and the uvula vibrates in the air stream in the narrow passage.

The development of the variants of /r/ in spoken German has first of all been a shift from the front area to the back area of the mouth, and from the tip of the tongue to the back of the tongue. Among the back variants, the fricative ("gescharrtes r") is today often considered the main variant, whereas the approximant and the vocalic /r/ are considered to be allophonic variations of the fricative. …

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