pop diction

I am a huge diction nerd. My students learn IPA symbols every semester, and they have made schwa a running joke in my rehearsals. So I was tickled to read an article from Atlas Obscura about diction in pop punk music.

The article describes weird pronunciation (habits of diction that don’t conform to any single regional accent) by singers in bands like Offspring and Blink-182. I admit I felt some condescending admiration for the author, Dan Nosowitz. Alas, he doesn’t use IPA to transcribe the diction; but it’s cute to read him explain with wide-eyed pleasure that there are established technical terms for the things he observes like “rhotic R” and “/u/ fronting” (which he calls “oo fronting” — how cute is that?). I feel sure that this is how scientists feel about stuff I write about psychology and physiology, etc. So, fair enough.

It’s written by an expert in the genre, includes an interview with an expert in linguistics, and only at the very end gets to the perspective of someone actually involved in making the music: Christopher Appelgren, who is a former punk singer and label owner. He talks about his experience of singing; and not surprisingly, he’s the only one who gets close to the heart of the matter. From Appelgren’s description, Nosowitz draws the conclusion, “maybe the punk voice is nothing more than a weapon, a nasal arrow in a snotty quiver that a singer can pull out to demand that his or her voice be heard.”

To put it another way, singers maximize resonance.

There are lot of factors that guide individuals toward the resonance that they establish as their own — cultural, educational, physiological — but in the end, they don’t sing like they talk.

That’s the problem with the linguist’s perspective. She keeps looking for conformity to spoken accents, and is intrigued that someone’s sung diction is different from their spoken diction. Because, except for truly expert orators and actors, speakers don’t use diction for the same purpose as singers. So, of course their singing isn’t the same as their speaking.

Classically trained singers learn rules that have been codified over centuries. I, for example, took a standard three-semester series of diction classes in undergrad. Really thoughtful singers use diction strategically as a tool for expressivity, increasing or decreasing the presence of diphthongs and offglides, the placement and duration of consonants, etc. Without training, pop singers intuit their way to a sound that carries adequately. If their intuition guides them to push with their laryngeal muscles to create volume rather than focus their resonance, they will have short careers and nodules on their vocal folds. If they instinctively discover forward resonance, even if it comes in the form of a whiny nasality (as it often does in the un- and undertrained), they save their thyroarytenoid muscles from abuse.

But in the end, singing is singing. Resonance is resonance. Pop or classical, singers have to accomplish the same task: maximize resonance, and use the sound of your voice as an expressive tool.

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