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Improve Your Diction

Diction is defined as the choice and use of words and phrases, as we do this when we speak, write or sing. For the vocalist diction is one specific style or a number of styles, of how words are articulated and intonated during singing. To work on diction as a vocalist means to gain control about the way we produce tone, brightness, and clarity of the words we sing.

Though this control means in a way to be able to command the specific anatomic parts in our vocal mechanism, like e.g. the shape of our mouth, the placement of our tongue, the tension on our lips, and the stiffness of our cheeks, it means in no way that we should focus only on these components. Diction is also produced by being aware of the meaning of the lyrics, as well as by our feelings that are triggered by this meaning.

During our journey in life beginning in the early years as an infant and child we have been educated to control the tone, volume, and melody of our voice in unison with our mother tongue, and the overall accepted ritual of speaking in our society. When we sing and we want to develop our very own unique style we eventually break with this heritage and allow new elements taking over. Same happens if we dare to sing in a foreign language. As much as the control of our own physical body is desirable, we should not neglect the importance of our hearing and our subconscious mind triggering emotions during this process.

Just as wind and water shape the canyon, so do tongue and mouth shape diction.

Just as wind and water shape the canyon, so do tongue and mouth shape diction.

The Benefits to Practice Diction

The benefit of striving to improve on diction is not only the development of ones style, but gaining new or better abilities that will be helpful to grow as a performer. Per example a better diction will allow an audience to understand and therefore hear you better in a live situation. Many music styles including vocal music and most contemporary music like pop, rock, soul, r&b, etc. depend on the lyrics to transport the story and topic of the songs presented. It is essential to help the listener to understand what the music is about, even if the listener is not paying full attention to the lyrics. Especially during repeat listening an understood word will create familiarity with the music, and trigger either the listeners imagination or understanding which will encourage participation in the audience.

How can a vocalist improve diction?

Being conscious about diction, and putting some attention on it during performance can be of significant help. You can do this during daily practice of your repertoire, though paying attention to song choice can be of benefit. Songs that you are already mastering well, and that leave you enough time to breathe properly are to prefer. If you consider learning a new song and have the practice of diction in mind, you may choose one which is performed in a noticeable dialect or foreign language. Imitating the performer closely may help with your general understanding of diction, and you will gain consciousness.

Singers, who want to or are asked to perform a song in a foreign language which they aren't necessarily familiar with, can find additional help with the use of phonetic instruction tables, which are based on a publication of the IPA (International Phonetic Association), the International Phonetic Alphabet. This notational and world-wide accepted standard dates back more than 125 years and is frequently modernized for the use of phonetic representation of all languages.

Another means of practising diction are specific exercises, that address the pronunciation of vowels and consonants. We have selected a few exercises here to get you started. The idea behind all those exercises is to give the singer more control over the own vocal anatomy and to help improve upon the pronunciation, expression and clarity of each performed word.

It is to mention that as seen in a book by Donald R. Mathis, vowels transport the beauty of your voice while consonants transport the beauty of language. In terms of pronunciation and in the context of modern contemporary music you'll find that vowels usually start right on the beat, while consonants (especially sustained ones) are preferably placed before the beat. Consonants should be sung at the pitch of the vowel they are attached to, and are stretched in length depending upon the drama of the musical part.

With all the anatomic details in this literature, never forget to listen to your performance and evaluate the meaning behind the lyrics as well as the emotions of the performance. Use common sense to find the correct balance and allow yourself to develop an own personal style.

Exercises for Vowels


^ The "Ah" Vowel

Position your mouth in a rather wide open, oval shape. If you can place both fingers (the pointing and ring finger) between your top and bottom teeth you will have sufficient space to produce a good sound. Make sure to stay relaxed, especially in your jaw and tongue region. During any exercises, look into a mirror memorizing and controlling the position of your mouth. After a while close your eyes and try to maintain that position. Open your eyes while you sustain or hold the sound to see if you remained in position.

As an exercise you can start with a simple "haaa", first spoken in a matter of relief and later sung in a comfortable and easy tone. Keep the pitch within the comfortable zone of your vocal range. If you get bored you can exercise with other words containing the "Ah" sound, such as father, fall, call. The ideal position described above should be maintained during the production of the vowel excluding the preceding or following consonants. Try to avoid a smaller opening of the mouth while approaching the consonant.

^ The "Eh" Vowel

Rest the tip of your tongue lightly against the bottom front teeth while keeping the tongue relaxed, resting in the bed of the mouth. You don't necessarily have to touch the teeth, but you likely will when forming words which contain additional consonants. Form your lips as if you are at the very beginning of a smile. You can memorize and control the shape of your lips with help of a mirror.

Start singing a "meh", and sustain or hold the "eh" sound for a while. During the process and with the help of the "mm" at the beginning you should be able to feel a light vibration. Go through a few words as an exercise, singing words like met, red, blend, tent in a comfortable tone and volume.

^ The "Ee" Vowel

The position of tongue and lips are similar to producing the "Eh" vowel, though both go into more extreme shape. Your tongue will be much closer to the roof of the mouth, called the hard palate. In fact it's in the closest distance compared to all the other vowels, which is why exercises with "Ee" vowels are often used for the beginning of voice warm ups. Your lips almost form the smile now, and you can feel them stretching below your cheeks, which gentle rise upwards.

To practice the correct position of lips, cheeks and tongue start singing a "mee". Pay attention to the vibrations, and use a mirror to control your position. Take your time to do this right, and when bored, move on to other words, such as leave, see, sweet, and chief. Keep the tone of your voice soft and warm.

^ The "Oh" Vowel

Shape your lips to form a round opening similar to the alphabet "O". The opening should be wide enough to accommodate your pointing finger leaving a tiny bit of space between finger and lips. Keep your tongue relaxed in a centred position. Put some concentration on the form of your mouth, especially when the "oh" is part of a full word. Failing to form your mouth into the correct position will make an "uh" out of the "oh", or otherwise influence your sound.

Start your exercise with the "oh" alone, and move on to words like per example blow, though, row, cold, and no.

^ The "Oo" Vowel

To produce the "oo" vowel you may need to push your lips forward in addition to your tongue bending upwards to bring it in a more backwards position. Think of preparing yourself to give somebody a kiss. The movement of your lips depend in part on the length of the "oo" to produce.

You may begin your exercise with the "oo" alone, and them sing words like per example do, too, tune, soon, and new.

^ Additional Vowels in English Language

Beside the primary vowels we just discussed, one can find seven more vowels in our English language which define themselves by its specific pronunciation in the context of the surrounding consonants. These additional vowels are produced in a similar matter than their close neighbours. To demonstrate this we could think of a two dimensional chart that shows the position of our tongue (we reference to the back of the tongue) from front to back, and from up to down.

Tongue front middle back
up ee (beat) er (nerd) oo (loom)
  ih (fit)   oo (look)
middle ay (fate) uh (mud)  
  eh (set)   oh (load)
down aa (mad) ah (sob) aw (call)

When you practice diction with exercises that include the additional vowels of the English language, pay special attention to the "er", "aa", "ah", and "aw" sounds. You need to make sure to open your jaw wide enough by dropping the jaw down to achieve a good pronunciation. Hear the difference using the tip of your fingers placed at the jaw bones below each cheek to press your jaw down. What happens when you sing an "er"?

^ Diphthongs

When analyzing words for exercises to improve on diction, you'll sometimes find words which combine two vowels in a single syllable. In phonetic language this is called a diphthong, which roughly means "two tones". Examples for such words are coin, oil, cloud, frown, shroud, aim. In general those words are pronounced keeping one vowel longer, and the other short. Singing those words you will usually find yourself sliding from one vowel to the other, and if you wish you can practice them beginning with just the single vowels, like per example "oh-oo" used per example in toe, low, sow.

The English language also knows words combining three and even four vowels, consequently called triphthongs and quadthongs. If you practise those words make sure to gradually increase your speed or shorten your notes for a better improvement. Examples for triphthongs are fire, power, your, and for quadthongs are choir, plier, child.

Practising Consonants


^ Types of Consonants

Consonant sounds can be sorted into a few different categories by examining their sound properties. Let's break this down step by step. We have 21 consonants in the English alphabet, but phonetically we sometimes combine consonants with other consonants or vowels to different sounds. Some of these consonant sounds are voiced out loud, and others are whispered. Within each list the consonant sounds can be further broken down, per example into short spoken and longer (sustained) sounds. Voiced out loud sounds, which have a longer duration, can be sung on a pitch.

Here is a sorted list of all consonant sounds, as we know them from use of the English language.

^ Whispered Consonants

Explosives, spoken short

  • "P" (pet)
  • "T" (toad)
  • "K" (kiss)
  • "CH" (chin)

Whispered, spoken sustained

  • "F" (fist)
  • "TH" (thing)
  • "S" (sun)
  • "SH" (sugar)

Aspirants, spoken sustained

  • "H" (hound)
  • "WH" (who, when)

^ Voiced Consonants

Sub-Vocals, spoken short

  • "B" (bad)
  • "D" (done)
  • "G" (giant)
  • "J" (June)

And these are the consonants, that can be sung on a pitch.

Tuned, spoken sustained

  • "V" (victory)
  • "TH" (thunder)
  • "Z" (zone)
  • "ZH" (measure)

Semi-Vowels, spoken sustained

  • "M" (mad)
  • "N" (need)
  • "NG" (wing)
  • "L" (lung)
  • "R" (car)

Pseudo-Vowels, spoken sustained

  • "W" (wait)

^ Behaviour

Additionally we can observe the following behaviour:

  • Short spoken consonants always precede a vowel sound.
  • Short spoken consonants, aspirants and pseudo-vowels do interrupt the flow of the sound.
  • Explosive sounds do not have a pitch.
  • Sub-Vocals and whispered sounds have only a very brief pitch.
  • Whispered consonants are produced with help of the vocal cords.
  • Semi-Vowels can be sung on a pitch, and the length they are held will give an emotional emphasis to the word.

^ Exercising consonant sounds

The production of consonant sounds during singing is slightly different from speaking them. The consonant sounds should have more intensity to create the correct balance to the vowels. This is achieved by raising the amplitude of these sounds, though consonants are in general kept less loud as vowels. Therefore we consider practising consonant sounds as much important as practising the vowels. Another benefit of practising consonants is the gained flexibility which is needed to inherit style and emotion.

Sung consonants do usually not have a different length than in the speaking process, unless it is done intentionally by the vocalist to introduce drama to the performance. A clearly served consonant with raised amplitude will support understandability and flow of the sung lyrics; a benefit, that especially shows in live environments. If a singer achieves to produce his consonant sounds with greater richness, he will benefit from an increase in overall resonance and vocal power.

When you start exercising the different consonant sounds, pay attention to how each of the sounds is produced, and depending on category play with volume, pitch, and length. Per example the "D", "T", "L", and "N" is produced by placing your tongue touching the alveolar ridge close to your upper front teeth, while for "S", and "Z" you would place your tongue touching the alveolar ridge close to your lower front teeth.

Here now are a few example words for practising each of the consonant sounds:

    • "P" (pie, piece, pack)
    • "T" (to, toe, tab)
    • "K" (cool, coast, cab)
    • "CH" (chew, chair, chip)
    • "F" (few, fair, fed)
    • "TH" (the, though, that)
    • "S" (sip, sap, sing)
    • "SH" (shoe, shame, shed)
    • "H" (he, heart, hat)
    • "WH" (who, whose, whole)
    • "B" (be, brain, bat)
    • "D" (do, doe, dab)
    • "G" (gee, giant, gym)
    • "J" (jet, joint, jam)
    • "V" (vet, vouch, vast)
    • "TH" (thin, thought, thank)
    • "Z" (zip, zap, zing)
    • "ZH" (beige, casual, rouge)
    • "M" (me, main, map)
    • "N" (new, no, nab)
    • "NG" (ring, young, hang)
    • "L" (lie, low, lab)
    • "R" (are, rare, rap)
    • "W" (we, wound, wax)