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International Phonetic Alphabet

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is simply a phonetic or pronouncing alphabet with each symbol representing one specific sound.  Not all languages are phonetic--meaning they sometimes spell differently than they sound.  But IPA, as the title suggests, is phonetic.  the sound of each symbol is constant, allowing IPA to cross all languages and study.  We now have a system of communication to help our study and performance of music in any language.

As we discuss the symbols and the sounds they represent, remember each individual symbol is encased in brackets to distinguish it from regular letters.  Secondly, each symbol represents only one sound.  


Click the link to find recordings of each individual sound.


Every vowel (excepting [a] and [æ] ) has an open and closed version of itself.  For our purposes, we only need to reference open and closed for distinction.  The simplest comparison is that open vowels have more space in the mouth and by contrast, closed vowels have less space, or a higher tongue.  The symbols for vowel sounds are below.  Speak each example word to hear the vowel sound.  (*Hint...always speak words in a normal speaking speed.  Slow speaking starts to sound weird)

[a] [ɑ] [æ]

[ɑ] father or not

[a] brighter "ah"

**This sound doesn't exist in English except in [aɪ].** 

[æ] cat or that

Open Vowel Sounds

[ɛ] bed or dead

[ɪ] fit or knit

[ɔ] bought or caught

*this sound is not [ɑ]. It must

have o-ness.*

[ʊ] look or cook

Closed Vowel Sounds

[e] chaotic 

[i] bee or deed

[o] donate or gold

[u] do or food

*[e] and [o] do NOT have a dipthong at the end of the sound.

There are also four neutral vowels (think of the vowel in the word "the").  They fall into categories of stressed and unstressed syllables.  All but the schwa only occur in English. How do you tell the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables?  If you walk in rhythm, the syllable on which you step is stressed.  Or much more fun, Kathryn LaBouff suggests in her book Singing and Communicating in English, imitating the count from Sesame Street.  The longest and loudest part of the word is the stressed syllable ("FIFteen...ha...ha...ha...").

The neutral vowel symbols are below.  Again, speak the example words to hear the sound.


[ʌ] fun or done

[ɝ] purr or whir

*this is neutral plus "r color"


[ə] about or around

[ɚ] father or bother

*this is a schwa with "r color"

[ɨ] pretty or funny

*final "y" endings. This only occurs in English.

vowel examples


Consonant sounds divide into four categories.  Plosive, Fricative, Nasal, and Glide.  At the risk of over simplifying, plosive consonants are created by air exploding from the articulators.  Similary, fricatives are created by friction of moving air between the articulators, and nasals are created by vibration through the nasal passages.  Glides are neither vowels or consonants but more the connective tissue between vowels and consonants.

Plosive and Fricative consonant sounds have voiced and unvoiced partners.  Both sounds are made the same way but the voiced sounds have the addition of pitch.  If you can sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" on the consonant sound, that sound is voiced (examples being v, or z).  It's impossible to sing on an unvoiced consonant sound without adding a vowel.  

Consonant sounds are listed by category, as well as voiced and unvoiced.  Thankfully, many of the consonant sounds match their written letter.



[b] boy or bought

[d] dog or fed

[g] go or grand 

[dʒ] joy or jump


[p] please or pod

[t] treat or feet

[k] talk or  cot

[tʃ] cheese or reach



[v] love or vacuum

[z] zoo or lose

[ʒ] azure

[ð] the or this


[f] fish or lift

[s] sleep or fuss

[θ] thought or fifth

[h] house or hat

[ʍ] which or what

Nasals and Glides


[m] moon or drum

[n] noon or fan

[ŋ] sing or thing

Glides and "L"

[w] witch or with

[j] you or young

[ɹ] red or rough

[r] flipped r

*this is not used in English

[ɭ] lovely or full 

consonant examples
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