10 Basics of Singing 9: The International Phonetic Alphabet

For couples getting married in a church, there is some desire for a traditional wedding song. One of those songs is Ave Maria. There are many melodies that set this text, but we will explore one of those in this lesson.

The text of Ave Maria is from the Catholic prayer “Hail Mary.” The full Latin lyrics, along with the prayer, are:


Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum.
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus.
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,
ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.


Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and in the hour of our death. Amen.


The topic of translation brings up interesting problems. If the singer is not familiar with the foreign language, how does he or she know the meaning of each word, and how to pronounce the text? To answer the first question, common songs have word for word translations. This is usually different from the English translation given in sheet music. The reason is when an English translation is set to music, it has to make logistical sense, so some words are rearranged or changed to fit the music and language. Consider the word for word translation for Ave Maria:


Ave Maria                       Hail Mary

gratia plena                      [with] grace filled

Dominus tecum                the Lord [is] with you

Benedicta tu                    Blessed [are] you

Et benedictus                  And blessed

Fructus ventris tui.         [Is] the fruit of the womb of you.

Sancta Maria                 Holy Mary

Mater Dei                       Mother of God

Ora pro nobis                 Pray for us

Peccatoribus                 Sinners

Nunc et in                     Now and in

Hora mortis nostrae.    The hour of the death of us.


Although some of the text corresponds with the first translation, some are “out of order” in the English. The importance of this is for the rule of text emphasis. How can a singer know which word is most important if he or she does not know what the words mean? Some singers will sing songs in a foreign language without knowing any of the meaning. How can the singer tell the story without knowing the meaning of the text? Even a general knowledge of meaning is better than none in order to tell the story. This relates to the second question of pronunciation. If a singer knows meaning, but does not know the correct pronunciation, the story is incomplete. An audience member may know the language, and will be confused if words are mispronounced. In some languages, inflection of words changes entire meanings. How can an inexperienced singer be expected to know pronunciation of multiple languages, some of which do not use the same alphabet? The answer lies in another language, the International Phonetic Alphabet.

The International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA for short, was created to serve as a pronunciation key to any language. You may have seen it before in a dictionary (the schwa, or “ə,” is most prominent). If a singer is familiar with the IPA, and researches the corresponding IPA to whatever text is sung, no other pronunciation aide is needed. Essentially, the IPA is a collection of symbols denoted by brackets (ex. [a] ) in which each symbol is a distinct sound. Although many of the symbols look like alphabet characters, it should not be assumed the symbol sounds exactly like the letter. An example would be the English words “cat” and “cent.” The “c” in each word sounds different, the first like a “k” sound and the second an “s” sound. The IPA for “cat” would be [kat] and “cent” would be [sent]. Another example involves the vowels in the English language. Although there are 5 vowels (“y” not included), there are 23 vowel sounds. American English in particular is a difficult language for IPA due to the variety of pronunciations  (people from Rochester pronounce words differently than those in the south). There are a great many details on each sound, and the verbiage on websites about IPA can be confusing (see http://www.internationalphoneticalphabet.org/ipa-sounds/ipa-chart-with-sounds/ ). The simple explanation returns to the articulators (tongue, teeth, and lips) and what are known as voiced and unvoiced sounds.

A voiced sound occurs when the vocal cords vibrate during the creation of the sound, or phonating. Place your hand on your neck by your vocal cords, and slowly say the letter “z.” You will notice the vocal cords vibrating. Now say the letter “s” (just like the beginning of the word “snake.” This is a unvoiced sound because the vocal cords do not vibrate. Notice that when you created both sounds, your tongue moved to the roof of your mouth in the same location. One other example are the letters “b” and “p.” Closing the lips and exploding air create both, but the first is voiced and the second unvoiced. Every sound is the combination of articulators and voiced or unvoiced sounds. All vowels essentially are voiced sounds with little movement of the articulators.

When we sing, the majority of the sound occurs on the vowel. The time spent on the consonants is important to understand the words, but the vowels allow for musical expression. One important aspect of vowel creation that is problematic in singing English is singing two vowels together, also known as a diphthong. Diphthongs are prominent in many words, and go unnoticed to the untrained ear. An example of a diphthong is the word “wide.” The vowel sound is both “ah” and “ih.” Generally, the rule is to elongate the first vowel, and sing the second vowel short. In some dialects, such is Irish, the same word would be sung in the reverse, singing “ah” short and “ih” long.

Latin pronunciation of vowels is the purest form (unlike many English vowels which have some level of a diphthong sound). This chart will assist in visualizing Latin IPA and the corresponding sounds: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:IPA_for_Latin . The classical Latin is widely accepted for singing. I would recommend using the text of Ave Maria, and writing out the IPA on a separate sheet of paper to visualize the symbols and their corresponding sounds.

If a singer familiarizes him or herself with the IPA, he or she can sing in any language without fear of mispronunciation of the text. The telling of the story preserves its authenticity, and can also serve as a doorway into many music cultures throughout the world.

Supplemental Videos

Assignment on IPA

Write out the IPA for Ave Maria. You can copy/paste characters from this or another website: :https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:IPA_for_Latin

ex. ave= [avɛ]



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