Nine Singing Rules for 18th Century Singers

Singing was a popular activity in the 1700s. One writer noted that when there was a large group of singers, the worst singer was often the person who got the greatest pleasure from the activity. To ensure people got the most pleasure out of singing, numerous song books were published. Among them was one that maintained when a person was in society, it was the person’s duty to be “conformable and good-humoured.” To accomplish that, there were nine singing rules for 18th century singers.

The Note A or La. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

    1. Pronounce Articulately and With Proper Emphasis – Mispronouncing words was said to be proof of ignorance, and it made songs unintelligible and sometimes even caused pain for the listeners. Thus, this rule was one of the most important as “a singer of good taste will not only avoid making errors himself, but will correct or soften those of others.”
    2. Open the Mouth and Give the Sounds Free Utterance – If a person did not do this it was suggested that a good voice would be spoiled “and bad one made worse.”
    3. Do Not Pronounce Words that Began with A Vowel as If They Were a Consonant – This rule supposedly occurred because bad singers shut instead of opening their mouths thereby turning vowels into consonants. For example, close your mouth and say “and.” You will see it comes out either “mand” or “nand.” 
    4. Never Sing Beyond Voice – Many singers believe they sing better if they sing loud. Yet, singing loud supposedly produces a dissonant bawling that is out of tune. It was maintained that if care was given and a person articulated distinctly, the most feeble voice could easily be heard, even in the largest room. Moreover, “by singing within the voice, the power will remain of swelling occasionally, of giving peculiar force to certain passages where the passion requires it, and of executing all the little niceties and delicacies which have so charming an effect when well performed.”
    5. Sing from the Chest Not From the Throat – This rule was said to take extensive practice to accomplish and when done correctly, resulted in a certain roundness and sweetness of tone. To accomplish this rule singers were to swell the chest, retain the breath, and fetch the sound from the bottom.
    6. Do Not Sing Through the Nose – No sensible singer did this and this rule was claimed to be “too obviously ridiculous.”
    7. Avoid Vulgarity of Manner – This rule included such actions as affecting a roll, aspirating in the middle of words, bawling as loudly as possible, and all the previous recommendations given above. It was noted to be a frequent fault and “almost universally imitated.”
    8. Do Not Be Too Fond of Trills, Graces, and Divisions – These were to be used sparingly as they were not the chief purpose of any song. Moreover, when executed properly and delicately trills, graces, and divisions could be executed in a pleasing manner and serve as a surprise for listeners.
    9. Sing Naturally and without Affectation of Any Kind – This rule summed up all the previous eight rules. “To be simple and unaffected in voice, manner, and expression, to fall naturally into the passion of the song, let it be of what kind it will, and to execute it feelingly, without affectation, grimace, or any apparent efforts but such as are proper to passion, is to be an excellent singer.”

Anatomical diagram of the vocal cords. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


The Convivial Songster, 1782.

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