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Why Bother with OP

When looking at songs from the Elizabethan era, you may notice some “problems” with the text. Perhaps the rhyme scheme for a poem or song text just doesn’t appear to work, or a word doesn’t seem to fit in a sentence when using its modern meaning. Maybe the spelling of an unfamiliar word prevents one from looking it up, or at the very least, causes issues with autocorrect! 

The first time I looked at a Scottish lute song (Kenneth Elliott’s Sixteenth-century Scots songs for voice & lute1), these were some of the roadblocks that I found myself running into. What the heck is “bruist?” Surely “bot” doesn’t mean an online software application. “Sueit” can’t possibly mean the fatty mixture we put into our bird feeders! Of course, some of these words can be “translated” using deductive reasoning, and by using the context of the sentences in which they appear. However, I found myself stuck on some words, and was certainly boggled when a rhyme scheme would suddenly fail.

I had taken a Baroque Performance Practice course in college with the renowned lutenist, Paul O’Dette, and had sung with his Collegium Musicum for years, but it had never occurred to me that the pronunciation of words could change over time. Of course, this makes total sense! We can go back to early television and hear how the pronunciation of some words has already shifted, not to mention how words are used in particular contexts. I suddenly realized that soprano Custer LaRue was using Original Pronunciation (OP) on The Baltimore Consort’s album “On The Banks Of The Helicon,” and began to listen on repeat. I started to come up with my own transliterations of what she sang, and knew I would need to find more sources on original pronunciation of various English texts. I was hooked.

We hear different accents in television and film ALL THE TIME… why don’t we hear it in song? Laudon told me about David Crystal’s website,, and from there, we made artistic decisions about some particulars. For example, when singing the word “I,” does one draw out the first sound, as singers are trained to do today, or does one close to the second sound? Let’s take a closer look. Today, a singer is taught to pronounce “I” as [ai]. Singing on the [a] vowel is common and comfortable! Using Early Modern English Original Pronunciation, the word “I” would be pronounced [əi]. WHO WANTS TO SING ON A SCHWA?! Not me! But in all seriousness, moving through the schwa and singing on the second sound gives more of a “flavor” of the accent. Other choices were simpler: for example, the letter R was almost never flipped or rolled during this time period, so we use a harder R sound in our performances. 

Suddenly, texts came to life and made more sense. Using OP, “day” and “die” rhyme. “Sky” and “victory” also rhyme. In John Dowland’s famous “Flow my tear(e!)s,” “thrown” and “gone” rhyme! What satisfaction! We also learned that the spelling of words was not yet formalized, so a word could be spelled in multiple ways. This is actually one of the ways that we can “reverse engineer” how a word was pronounced. 

Of course, there are times when using OP can be a challenge: in choral ensembles, precious rehearsal time is necessary to get all singers on the same page. Perhaps a singer is diving into Elizabethan-era repertoire for the first time, and OP just isn’t the place to start. Better to start with affect and rhetoric! Or, consider “Flow my tears” again. This piece is often given to young singers who are just learning about vocal technique. Better to sing on open vowels than to start right off the bat figuring out how to sing through a schwa. But for me, I can’t go back! OP is where it’s at, and not just for English.

  1. Elliott, Kenneth. Sixteenth-century Scots songs for voice & lute. University of Glasgow Music Department Publications. 1996.


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