Category Archives: Diphthongs

Rather Be: a Victoria Sponge of a song

Before you sing a cover of Clean Bandit & Jess Glynne‘s Rather Be, think of this:

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Shout? Or shout?

If vowel sounds are clipped in your native language, be careful not  to trim your vowels too close when you sing in English. Think of English vowel sounds as something like accordion bellows. They need to expand and contract when you sing.

Take the word shout. Such a small word but so many ways to sing it. Listen to Roland Orzabal with his 1985 Tears for Fears‘ song Shout. Notice shout’s diphthong sound. Why does Roland intensify and expand it? What’s the effect?

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Bang Bang

The English ng is a sound that doesn’t always come naturally to speakers of other languages. Check that you’re using the right part of your mouth to make it here. Without that springy English ng at the end of bang, you sound something like a singing sheep. Sorry.

Listen to Nancy Sinatra bouncing on a perfect ng:

Thanks to David Guetta and Skylar Grey, the song Bang Bang has returned to public consciousness. Sadly, it’s all too easy to sing that short word, bang, horribly wrong.  Without knowing it.

Bang bang, you’re dead” is the traditional cry of English-speaking children playing with toy guns. As adults, English speakers have a strong, childhood memory of the ‘right’ way to sing the words bang bang. The song plays on that memory.

Bang is onomatopoeiac. That’s important. Sing baa, bah, ban, ben or anything else confusing and you’ll lose your audience.

Another thing to think about: the lyrics of Bang Bang are simple, short words. Beware. Just because they’re short words, don’t take them for granted

Check that you’ve got these right:

  • Shot – Shot is the past tense of the verb to shoot. It’s the only word that makes sense here. You’ll confuse your audience if you’re singing something that sounds like shut or shoot instead. The vowel sound of shot is this. Watch the BBC 30 second video to check that you’re singing it clearly. It’s 30 seconds well spent.
  • He wore black and I wore white : make sure that I and white share this vowel sound.
  • The ore of wore (and the or of horses) is a smooth vowel sound. This vowel sound. It’s the same vowel sound as the aw of awful. Smooth and rounded. The same sound should echo through the song.
  • Check that you’re doing justice to the full diphthong sound of down, sound, ground. They should all rhyme like this. Diphthongs add depth and interest. Treat them with respect.
  • Shade the emotional weight of the song: Bang Bang is a song about the shifting of power between two people, from the time they were children together until the present day.
  • When you’re singing a succession of short words, it’s important to mark the end of each one clearly. Otherwise your audience will get distracted, lost and confused. You need to decide whether to ghost or to pronounce each final consonant clearly, so that you can lead your audience safely through the meaning of each little word. If you’re not clear, your audience will get lost.

Remember, remember: the bang of Bang Bang is the bang, bang of children playing Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers. It’s the slow, deliberate sound of a pretend revolver, not the compressed, rapid rattle of a machine gun. Think of that when you sing the word. Or think of The Goons and the Ying Tong Song.

If you’ve got 5 minutes to spare, listen to Vanilla Fudge and their 1968 punk mysterioso cover of Bang Bang. It ends with a bump, but is mesmerising in the middle:

What can we learn from this? That as long as you get your diphthongs right and your beard trimmed, you can go on stage in a jacket that looks as if it’s made of wallpaper.

© Sing Better English, 2014

Time in a Bottle: say goodbye to the bonsai I

Singing well in any language calls for thoughtful choices. You alter the mood of a song through choosing how you pronounce individual letters in individual words. It’s the butterfly effect.

Listen to Jim Croce singing Time in a BottleWhy do you think he chooses to sing the I as a long, strong diphthong? What effect does his choice have on you as a listener?

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