April 4, 2017

Pure Tone & Diction

FOR the last few years, every now and then, some earnest student writes this question to a journal devoted to musical art: “What do people mean by pure tone?” and another equally persistent student will write to know “What is carrying power?” Either of these subjects, or both, could be demonstrated to the questioner in three minutes by the cultivated artist. How? By simply singing in that way. But to write or speak for the benefit of others, and enlarge upon tone per se so that they can understand one, is indeed a difficult task; for, as it is something you cannot hear from my speech, nor see in written words, you will have to take it upon faith that what I say is the truth, and faith is the one thing necessary in this art.

Language in Its Relation to Tone Quality

Clara Brinkerhoff c. 1865
To begin with, all singing is based upon some kind of language, and language is the representative of the people who are born to the tongue. The tongue as we know, represents the condition, geographical position, and climate of each and all peoples. Language is embedded in our very bones, viscera, muscles, blood and nerves. That is why diction—pure and clear speech—is vital to good singing. Allowing that to be the case, it follows that the breath of which tone is formed, and breathing in and out, follow the same law of nationality; so, for no cause whatever, except that of birth and heredity, we find certain peoples, both in speech and song, have breath in tone, or what is called breathy voice; using it thus, even though the teacher may caution the pupil till his head and heart ache at the thankless task, day by day. These faults can be cured, but never by singing, although some pieces sung may seem to be free from this difficulty, or so far as to seem only a veiled voice, as this defect is sometimes called; yet it is there, and breath passes through tone, obscuring its color, or timbre, as fog does the sun—and is one cause of disease of the mucous membrane, a permanent hoarseness ensuing, by inflaming the pharynx, being, as it were, an imitation of bronchitis.

Energy of Tone

Now, as breath or air has not one quarter of the energy of pure, undeflected tone, you can see why the carrying power is so much smaller, if more breath or hindrance enters tone, than the pure tone produces by its natural energy properly focused, although the bulky tone, to the ear of the person singing seems of much greater force, and louder to him, from this rush of breath into voice; but it is only the narrow stream of pure tone which travels well through a hall; there is no impulse to carry farther, as would be the case if all were sent as arrow from a bow. These hoarse “breathy” singers and speakers always begin with exhaling the breath instead of on the inspiration, as certain other nationalities do. The breathy singer uses mostly upper lungs and shoulder support, both in speech and song; and that brings us to what is called school or method; meaning all that relates to tone and diction in singing.

Schools or Methods

The purely German method produces a very deep breath but gutteral tone; and large volume is generally produced, also largely breathy consonants; and is what it is because it is taught by Germans, who have their peculiarities by heredity. The French school or method represents to us in voice and dramatic action just what this language can and does give; small volume in speech and song, through narrowed larynx. The ear and larynx being formed by its use give them mostly light, narrow nasal sounds for brilliant execution, and screamy ones if highly dramatic action is required for the subject. Well, so far, we do not seem to find a model for American singers; in fact, you can have the last-named method in New York, by paying for it at one of the conservatories which import their teachers from Belgium and France. What is called modern Italian or Garcia is more than half the French method of La Porte, and has many errors that should be crushed. The old Italian method is free from any of these errors, being based upon nature's laws, and language itself, for controlling voice and obtaining beauty. Fortunately, the English language with all its apparent consonantal difficulties yields well to this school, so soon as we know exactly how to form all the consonants in the right way and place the impulse for consonants and all the vowels at their own home of resonance. For instance: I claim every one can sing naturally the common scale of two full tones and one-half, first register, and three full tones and a half, second register; they are placed, as in a scale in movable doh according to grade of voice:

By making the sound of hard c at the sounding of the vowel, you will notice, as for instance, firstly, o is in the centre of roof of the mouth, hard palate; do not sing its vanish. E is found at once just above upper teeth. All sounds, (no matter where the natural home of their vibration) must touch the lower lip* (made firm by muscle under it which connects with diaphragmatic action) when it passes to outer air for its fine artistic timbre of clear tone and carrying power. Patti was taught this when a 1ittle child; so was I. Children imitate without difficulty. And this brings us to carrying power.

Carrying Power 

When a voice fails to carry and is not breathy, it is as if it were half fog from being made sombre, or deflected by the form of mouth-opening used for singer's voice, which is produced by lack of knowledge, causing the tone to glance backward towards softer portions of the throat, which artists often use, but not accidentally, by a carom, as it were, made at the hard palate because the tone struck the cushion made for it by the form of mouth-opening; something like that of an East India ginger jar. Most people know what it is to pocket a billiard ball by scientific cushion-stroke. Just so the tone is pocketed. Improper holding of consonants will do the same thing; as a raised tongue for n. Just learn that all sounds are controlled by the same laws and one of the great difficulties will have passed away.

Fine singer's diction and carrying power will result from observing these laws.


Diction is a word in general use at this time and takes the place of the term prosody; though this latter word is much more comprehensive, teaching as it does, true grammatical stress, and pronunciation of words, accent, quality, emphasis, pause, and tone, as well as the laws of versification.

Singer's Diction

Singing diction varies from speech in the fact, that so much foreign translation is adapted to music with unsingable words, or unsingable accent, with the notes set to it. For instance, a syllable is called short when the accent is on the consonant, as in hu-nger which occasions the vowel, in speech, to be quickly joined to the succeeding letter. In singing, the vowel u can be held longer, and the consonant forwarded later, to push on the last syllable—hu-nger. A long syllable is one where the vowel is slowly joined, in pronunciation, to the following consonant, as mood.

All this work in the various languages must come to the teacher of singing (no teacher of languages can do this work) who marks in the brain of the pupil the grammatical stress, or tone color, in order to make enunciation perfectly understood, and suitable in expression in the various languages.

The Vocalist, September 1896, Page 355-9.

*The sharp-eyed reader will note that Brinkerhoff's teaching on the lower lip resnonates with that found in Huckel's text which can be found on the download page.

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