Clear diction is critical when singing – for a number of reasons – so it should be focused on when developing your voice. If your lyrics are clear, you connect, and keep connected, with your audience. But do you know how to improve diction in singing?
Diction is the style and clarity with which you pronounce words or sounds. It makes a huge difference to your performance as a singer, but it requires ongoing practice. So we’ve compiled 7 quick and simple exercises you can use to improve diction.
Not only will these particular exercises make you communicate better as an artist, they have a host of other benefits for your career. So whether you’re singing live or in the recording studio, read on to find out what you need to do, if you want to improve diction and stand out from the crowd.
Simple exercises to improve diction
We’ve put together 7 simple exercises that everyone can do to improve diction. Not only will these help you sing lyrics more meaningfully, but you’ll also sound far better (both on stage and in the recording studio). Plus, the exercises will even help with your image, keeping you looking – as well as sounding – on top form. Read on to find out how they can help you in more ways than you’d imagined.
#1 Break it down
This isn’t just a cue for some awesome dance moves, or a remix kicking in. When we’re thinking about enunciation in singing, it’s really useful to break down the words in the lyrics. Go slowly to begin with. Separate out the different types of sounds, including the consonants and vowels – even writing them out and noting where they change.
Speak, then sing each through carefully, making sure every sound is clear and distinct. Over-articulate as you go, exaggerating far more than you would in a performance. Gradually start to speed up, but without losing any of the crisp quality you achieved when you started. Then once you’re hitting each and every sound, you can dial it back a bit in terms of the exaggeration but keeping that clarity.
It’s also well worth taking this a step further and learning the International Phonetic Alphabet. The IPA is a widely used resource for actors and singers alike. It provides a series of symbols to represent sounds, rather than just the English alphabet. This is especially valuable in diction for classical singers. But it’s also a handy tool for people – like Sigrid – who regularly sing in a language other than their native tongue.
#2 Twist that tongue
Tongue twisters for singers are a simple way to improve diction. They use a run of words with very similar sounds but requiring completely different placement of the tongue. This gives your tongue and lips a full workout. Using a variety of exercises ensures you work all the different areas of your mouth.
These tongue exercises for speech articulation will help you be top of your game when it comes to great diction:
- “Red leather, yellow leather”
- “Mummy made me mash my M&M’s”
- “Who washed Washington’s white woollen underwear, as Washington’s washer went West”
- “Rubber baby buggy bumpers”
Practice saying each of these every day, a few times over and always before you perform. Don’t just go through the motions though. Make sure you’re articulating each sound and activating the tongue and the lips fully. They should feel tired – but invigorated – after. You’ll be surprised at the difference this habit makes to not only your singing but your overall speech – ideal practice for interviews and speeches!
#3 Practice facial yoga
Did you know there’s such a thing as yoga for your face? It’s most often used to combat the signs of ageing, tighten up saggy areas and help you look rejuvenated. But keeping your facial muscles toned will not only have you looking radiant, but it’ll contribute to improved diction.
This is definitely not an exercise for the train (unless you’re in an empty carriage), as it looks mighty strange to an onlooker.
Danielle Collins is a leading face yoga expert. Here’s her guide to a quick and easy workout that’ll have your face and neck more supple than ever.
#4 Level out a lisp
A sibilant ‘s’ – or lisp – is a common diction problem encountered by many performers. Freddie Mercury is a mega-famous example of a singer who worked to reduce his very sibilant s.
It’s often described in the industry as a ‘splashy s’. The sound occurs when the tongue is placed too far forward behind the teeth, when making the sound of the letter ‘s’. Mics don’t cope well with them and they can cause distortion when recording. But your splashy s can be easily remedied with regular exercises that practice placing the tongue in the correct position.
To find the right spot, place the tip of your tongue slightly further back in the mouth, so it has to curl back very slightly. It should almost be touching the hard palate (the roof of the mouth). Then slowly repeat the letter ‘s’, taking this position. The result should be a much crisper sound. Here’s a couple of phrases that are useful to repeat and really help you get into the swing of your new tongue placement.
- “Six socks sit in a sink, soaking in soapsuds”
- “She sells sea shells on the seashore”
Keep practising daily and being intentional about your ‘s’ and you’ll find your sibilance disappears. You may feel like a snake in the process, but it has the advantage of also improving your mic technique. Any hissing can distort the sound. There are some artists, like Canadian singer-songwriter Grimes, who embrace the sibilance. If you want to do the same, it’s worth spending time on the 6 other exercises extra hard. It’ll only work if the rest of the sounds are super clear, otherwise, your audience might start losing lyrics and your intention.
#5 Exploding plosives
Some letters of the alphabet are known as plosives. In phonetics, they’re referred to as stops or oral occlusives. They’re placed into the categories of voiced and unvoiced. T, k and p are voiceless, whereas d, g and b require the use of the voice. This is useful information because it helps you know what to do with them when you’re working to improve diction.
Plosives will have already come into play in the over articulation exercises. But they will benefit from someone on one treatment, as they can be lost or swallowed, especially if midway through a line or word. To check your plosives are perfect, try this simple exercise to improve diction.
Hold your hand just in front of your mouth and say the following:
- “Project Gutenberg is the producer of the first and biggest collection of online books”
As you say the letters in bold, you should feel a burst of air hitting your hand. If you can’t feel it, place more emphasis on the letter. Over exaggerate at first to get into the flow. Then take it back just enough to achieve a tiny burst.
It would be unnatural to constantly sing with this degree of emphasis. But by practising this exercise regularly, you’ll get a clearer sound when you perform. The exaggerated version can be incorporated to achieve emphasis in a song – a tool with which rappers are very familiar.
#6 Anytime, anywhere exercises
The exercises listed so far are fine backstage, in the studio, at home, in the car or in a rehearsal space. But what happens when you need to warm up in a public place, walking to a venue before your big singing audition, or on the bus? Well, if you need to get in some tongue exercise for pronunciation, the good news is that it couldn’t be easier or more convenient. As long as you’re maintaining your diction work the rest of the time, you can use this easy workaround to get everything moving and crystal clear before you start. Try this exercise next time you’re bored during a commute:
Keeping your lips together, open your jaw to create a small gap between your teeth. Point your tongue to the roof of your mouth, then across to the left cheek, the right cheek, then to the very bottom of the mouth. Speed up, keeping the precise placings as you do so. Change direction and the order of the placings.
Try drawing a figure of 8 shape in your mouth with your tongue. Then to get your cheeks, jaw and teeth active, pop in a piece of gum and have a really good chew.
See which of the tongue twisters you can manage without moving your lips (remember to take the gum out first!).
- Tip: keep away from those plosives to stay under cover.
No one will even know what you’re doing. So no excuses not to skip this one! Not only will you have achieved a very basic secret warm up, but you’ll also be honing some ventriloquy skills too! The caveat to this exercise is that it really mustn’t be your only form of attack. Do this much more than the others, and your lips – a vital part of good diction – will become lazy. Anytime, anywhere exercises should be kept for times where it’s the only viable option. It certainly doesn’t cover all the rules for diction when singing. Make it up when you get home with plenty of plosive and lip-smacking exercises.
#7 Record and playback
It’s cringe time. Yes, listening to and watching yourself back after a performance can be squirm-inducing. However, it’s a necessary part of growth and a fantastic way to accelerate your development. If you’re new to this, don’t worry, it does get easier with time. Try to be as objective as possible and imagine you’re one of the Open Mic UK music industry judges. Can you hear all the lyrics? Does the way you’re pronouncing the words work? Take notes as you watch back and pause each section, as you evaluate where you can improve.
If you discover that diction is a really weak point in your performance, then you may need to consider some speech improvement lessons. There are lots of fantastic online resources, workshops and courses to learn how to improve diction in singing. Here’s an example of one from singing teacher Liz T.
It may that you’d benefit from working with a vocal coach to improve diction. In these sessions, you’ll use appropriate exercises to undo bad habits and start building new ones with the correct technique.
If you are working with a vocal coach, do make sure you’re clear on the style of singing that is right for you. Good diction is important across all styles. However, for some styles, it is much sharper, for example, Classical and Musical Theatre. Whereas in other genres you can get away with less crisp and pronounced diction. We would always recommend you work with a professional, to improve your technique and discover the many benefits of singing lessons.
Although doing these exercises may feel difficult at first, with practice you’ll be surprised how quickly the new techniques become second nature to you and therefore vastly improve diction. You’ll find the tone, clarity, range and control also improve as a result of clearer diction.
Why is diction so important?
The two main areas to consider when you improve diction are performance and technique.
From a performance point of view, when singing a song, you are, in most cases, telling a story or sharing thoughts with your audience. Therefore it’s vital that you can distinguish the lyrics in order for your listener to understand what the song is about and what the message is – to improve diction.
If the lyrics to a song aren’t clear, then the song becomes meaningless and forgettable. This puts you at great risk of losing those who are watching and listening. Instead, what you really want to do is engage the audience.
Some artists make a style to choose to adopt more unusual and unique pronunciations, particularly with vowels. Or a vowel substitution is made to change the sound to achieve a better tone (‘ee’ is often modified, particularly for opera and power ballads).
But wherever your artistic decisions lead, make sure you’re incorporating diction practice for singers into your routine.
Improve diction technique
From the technique side, for some singers words can be slurred, mumbled and very lazy sounding. The most common causes of this can be all of or any of the following: mouth shape, tongue placement, external muscles around the jaw or internally in the larynx, the way you’re breathing or style choice.
Improving the clarity
Working on improving the clarity of vowels and consonants and therefore the enunciation of syllables can have a major impact on how easy singing can be. A great tip is to relate back to how you speak, so you stay true to your own voice and improve diction.
When you talk you seldom squeeze or strain your vocal cords or become overly slurred and breathy. This is because you’re using your voice in a way that is most natural to you without trying to manipulate muscles to search for certain notes or adding a vocal style that takes your voice way out of balance.
If you have a tendency to rush and mumble your speech you will find by working on your diction for singing that your speech will also improve.
What is diction in music?
Diction in music has the same meaning as diction in singing. It’s not to be confused with diction in writing though. In this context, it refers to the words and style a writer chooses to represent the tone and characters.
What is the difference between diction and enunciation?
Diction is a broader term than enunciation. It includes enunciating, but also covers the overall presentation of words. Enunciation, on the other hand, is purely the act of clear articulation and pronunciation.
Are you experienced at teaching English diction for singers and have tips you’d like to share here? Have you had success since working to improve diction? If so we’d love to hear more. Post your tracks and tips below, telling us what you changed and how.