Patter songs and good diction

An image of accurate lip and jaw placement for patter songs and the perfect diction

I’ve always been a fan of patter songs – the type with speedy text or long lists of items. Think “Modern Major General” (G&S), or one of the most difficult written for a woman – “Not Getting Married Today” (Sondheim). I’ve sung them and I’ve coached them for years.

The thing you don’t do when singing patter songs is to produce machine-gun diction, strong volume, or big jaw and lip movements. These are all things that the beginner singer thinks get the words across, but in reality, they make the song less intelligible.

So isn’t good diction at speed all about getting every consonant and syllable clear and projected? And shouldn’t you have to work your articulators extra hard so that the audience hears every part of every word?


Everything depends on execution

This is the difference between good diction and good intelligibility. To get the stories and images in patter songs across to the listener, you have to be understandable. And if the human ear hears machine-gun consonants delivered at the same level of importance throughout, the human brain gets mesmerised and doesn’t ‘translate’ the sounds into words. If you’ve ever watched the UK tv show Miranda, you’ll see Miranda getting mesmerised by a word to the point where the word doesn’t make sense any more.

So the art of the patter song is to choose certain syllables and de-emphasise the rest. Once you accept that, it’s just a case of working out which are the essential syllables and which ones you can throw away.

It’s time to get to work

Here’s an example. Recently I gave an online coaching session to a soprano on the song “I love the way” from the show Something Rotten. It’s a duet, but we’ve created a solo version. There are four high-speed lines of text in the song (quavers in a speedy 3/4), so we broke down the rhythm and the critical words.

Bear in mind that the following technique isn’t ‘this is how this line must go’ – I always apply the technique to each singer individually and often we choose a different pattern depending on the singer’s voice, energy and the shape and control of their personal articulators (tongue, jaw, lips and soft palate).

Excerpt from “I love the way” from Something Rotten

Link by link

The first line is straightforward: “Every time I hear a perfect rhyme I get all tingly”. The important syllables are on the first beat of each bar – Ev and Per – and you can get rid of the rest. And rather than singing the rhythm with robotic accuracy, hold those two important syllables a little longer and rush slightly through the rest.

However, that “on the beat” pattern doesn’t work for the second line: “That to find a perfect rhyme is not an easy thingly”. Usually, you’d go for That and Rhyme since they’re on the first beat of each bar, but you end up tripping over the other words. Using Per and Not gives you a better flow, even though those syllables are on rhythmically weak beats. (Your other option is to use Find and Not which are both on beat 2 in the bar). The first time you’ll find this tricky, but your audience will understand the whole sentence much more easily, and you don’t have to work as hard.

Piece by piece

The third line is different again: “(I) love a lilting line of lyrical alliteration”. The main beats are Love and Lyr, but the tricky bit is getting your tongue around all of the back-and-forward consonants (l, t, ng, l, n, l, c, l etc.). This needs a 2-part solution.

First, practise saying the six syllables “lyrical alliter…” without moving your lips or jaw in any way. Let the tongue itself do all the work. This is a ventriloquial exercise, and it’s why I recommend all patter song singers read the ventriloquism chapter in our book This Is A Voice. It contains many useful exercises for separating the movements of tongue, jaw and lips!

Second, put a slight emphasis (and a hold) on the syllables Lil and Lyr (beat 2 and beat 1 respectively).

Putting it together

Once you’ve put those two solutions together, the line just trips off the tongue.

The fourth line is “when the phrases come together like a consummation”. The main beats are When and Geth, but it helps both the intelligibility and the comedy if you emphasise and linger slightly on the Come and Con.

Adding up to make a work of art

This entire coaching sequence with my soprano took just 7 minutes, and by the end she was very comfortable singing the song. It’s now gone into her portfolio for other auditions.

If you want to find out more about the difference between diction and intelligibility, and you want help with lilting lines of lyrical alliteration in your songs (or your student’s songs) book an online coaching session with Jeremy.

PS If you’re wondering where the headings come from, it’s Sondheim’s “Putting It Together” from Sunday In The Park With George