Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Phonetic Transcription-What It Doesn't Tell Us

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Phonetic Transcription-What It Doesn't Tell Us

Article excerpt

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MUSICIANS HAVE BECOME ACCUSTOMED TO A more or less standard form of phonetic transcription of vocal texts, based upon the International Phonetic Alphabet. Whether it be encountered in a lyric diction textbook, a monograph devoted to the song or aria texts of a specific composer, in a journal article, or online, a high degree of uniformity in lyric diction transcription policy is encountered and expected by the reader. This uniformity is not entirely consistent with policies employed by authors in scholarly reporting in the field of linguistics. Moreover, the understanding of phonological science generally held by musicians, understandably based as it is upon the existing literature in the musical arena, is in some ways decades out of date compared to the methods employed by linguists today. Terminology such as vowel, consonant, glide, and diphthong are still employed by linguists, but are now subsumed under, and in some cases redefined by, the contemporary generative approaches to phonology in general linguistics. The present author has alluded in passing to such disparities on occasion in previous articles in the "Language and Diction" column, and one of the thrusts of the articles that have appeared (by several contributors) in this column has been to bridge this disparity, when it can serve to improve the understanding of sung text.

The systematic, rigorous linguistic description of the sound pattern of any spoken language quickly becomes very technical, and resists easy comprehension by readers less familiar with the basic principles of generative phonology. The generative approach was formulated-now more than fifty years ago-as a tool, more precise than earlier phonemic approaches, to enable a comprehensive exegesis of all aspects of the phonological behavior of a particular language. A variety of generative approaches were developed by authorities after about 1960, as the new approach quickly gained favor. Concomitant with this, a bewildering array of new terminology emerged. The word "feature," for instance, was no longer a convenient generic term as employed by the layman, but had a specific, carefully defined meaning. The new discipline-specific jargon demanded a further learning curve, one that applied musicians would be unlikely to commit to. Jargon with very specific meaning, such as "sonorant," "obstruent," "coronal," "continuant," "strident," "feature hierarchy," "distinctive feature," "natural class," "deep structure," "dependency tree," "systematic gap," "suprasegmental," "redundancy," "underlying representation," and "rule ordering," will be familiar to readers possessing undergraduate-level linguistics, but remains largely outside the domain of lyric diction.

To those writing about lyric diction for practicing musicians, such study has seemed both daunting and largely unnecessary for musical purposes. Describing the phonology of a language from a comprehensive, technical, linguistic approach serves different aims than equipping a singer to perform well in a variety of languages. When the goal is to pronounce and enunciate a language in song or opera with the greatest clarity, accuracy, fluency, and intelligibility, the more traditional approaches anchored in earlier twentieth century language study appear to be quite adequate to the task.

It is not the intention here to summarize the basics of generative phonology. Such study does, however, provide a window into aspects of articulation often overlooked by a strictly IPA transcription based approach. As in life itself, where what is deliberately or inadvertently not said is often more interesting and crucial than what is said, the IPA transcription methods familiar to musicians lure us into a preoccupation with the information provided, while at the same time blinding us to that which is ignored.

Take, for example, the English phoneme /t/. …

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