The Diphthong Song

Dig a bit deeper into music with some basic history, theory, and music appreciation knowledge. Discover the science that your ears and brain wire together and call music. View all

those-who-dig-logo-finalThis is about the diphthong song. Depending on your knowledge of grammar and/or lingerie, that’s either a very sexy or very confusing title. Or both. The song I have in mind is now 4 decades old, started as a country tune, but received a huge lift half-way through its lifespan and became one of the biggest singles of all time.

Alright, enough anticipation, you want to see that diphthong. What song is it? “I Will Always Love You,” first written by Dolly Parton in 1974 and famously re-recorded by Whitney Houston for the “film,” The Bodyguard, in 1992. By now you’ve probably figured out I’m not talking about lingerie.

So what’s a diphthong then? Say the word “I.” Did you pronounce it with one, clean syllable, or did it kind of morph from an “eye” to an “eee” and almost pick up a second beat? Unless you’re speaking Oxford English, you pronounced it with a change in vowel and stress. That blending and drawing out of a single vowel sound is a diphthong. Here’s the thing about diphthongs and music – changing stress and sound in the middle of a held note absolutely ruins a song. Singers are trained to use very unnatural vowel shapes and sounds as opposed to the lazy spoken vowels to avoid changing of stress on held notes. It’s not easy, and it’s something people work on for an entire lifetime.
So what does “I Will Always Love You” do differently? It works with the diphthong. Take a listen.

“And iiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-eeeeee-iiiiiiii will always love you.” That’s just about the most prominent diphthong you’ll ever hear, spoken or sung. The diphthong is turned into an actual musical gesture with a dip from her held note to the leading tone below it. Rather than working so hard to fight a natural pattern of speech, the songwriter and performer roll with it and turn it into a compelling melody.
Now that’s clever.