IPA for Newcomers
What is IPA?
Let’s say that your chorus is working on a piece in a foreign language. You look at your neighbor Carl’s score, and above “Ich bin’s, ich sollte büßen an Hände und an Füßen, gebunden in der Höll’ ” see something that looks like this: “ik bins ik zolta busan on henda unt on fusan gebundan in dir hoel.” After seeing this, you turn your head, look to the score of your other neighbor, Edith, and see above the same text, “ish bins ish zawlte boosun an handu unt an foosen gubunden in dear hōl.” Neither of these looks like what you wrote above your text. Each of you has created your own unique pronunciation guide.
The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a pronunciation guide with the same goal as yours; the only difference is this system was created by an international team of linguists, with the purpose of providing one set of symbols that can be used by everyone. This team has catalogued nearly every known spoken sound and given each one a specific symbol. Over the past two decades this system has become increasingly important to linguists, language teachers, speech pathologists, and singers.
Why is it useful?
You’ve forgotten what the “gaboondan” over the word “gebunden” in your score means, so you look over to Edith’s score again and see “gubundan.” The consonants are pretty clear, but what about those vowels? Is that first “u” like the “u” in “but” or “pull” or “music”? Is the second “u” the same sound? And is the “a” at the end as the “a” in “apple” or “same” or “all” or “are"?
In American English there are 16 vowel sounds and only 5 or 6 vowels. Therefore, trying to apply a letter to a specific sound is troublesome and can cause some confusion. With IPA, each sound has its own symbol, so there’s no need to guess what sound you’re aiming for, once you learn the basics. Additionally, an IPA transcription shows the stress in a word. For example, the noun “content” [ˈkɑntənt] has the stress placed on the first syllable, while the adjective “content” [kənˈtɛnt] has the stress placed on the second syllable.
Learning the notes and words is only the first step in preparing for a performance. The quicker and more accurately one can learn the notes and text, the more time there is during the rehearsal process for creating music. By everyone speaking the same pronunciation “lingo” during rehearsal, time is saved if a pronunciation problem arises.
Watch this introductory video on the International Phonetic Alphabet
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