Last updated

Sprechgesang (German: [ˈʃpʀɛçɡəˌzaŋ] , "spoken singing") and Sprechstimme (German: [ˈʃpʀɛçˌʃtɪmə] , "spoken voice") are expressionist vocal techniques between singing and speaking. Though sometimes used interchangeably, Sprechgesang is directly related to the operatic recitative manner of singing (in which pitches are sung, but the articulation is rapid and loose like speech), whereas Sprechstimme is closer to speech itself (because it does not emphasise any particular pitches). [1]



Sprechgesang is more closely aligned with the long-used musical techniques of recitative or parlando than is Sprechstimme. Where the term is employed in this way, it is usually in the context of the late Romantic German operas or "music dramas" that were composed by Richard Wagner and others in the 19th century. Thus, Sprechgesang is often merely a German alternative to recitative. [2]


The earliest compositional use of the technique was in the first version of Engelbert Humperdinck's 1897 melodrama Königskinder (in the 1910 version it was replaced by conventional singing), where it may have been intended to imitate a style already in use by singers of lieder and popular song, [3] but it is more closely associated with the composers of the Second Viennese School. Arnold Schoenberg asks for the technique in a number of pieces: the part of the Speaker in Gurre-Lieder (1911) is written in his notation for Sprechstimme, but it was Pierrot Lunaire (1912) where he used it throughout and left a note attempting to explain the technique. Alban Berg adopted the technique and asked for it in parts of his operas Wozzeck and Lulu .


In the foreword to Pierrot Lunaire (1912), Schoenberg explains how his Sprechstimme should be achieved. He explains that the indicated rhythms should be adhered to, but that whereas in ordinary singing a constant pitch is maintained through a note, here the singer "immediately abandons it by falling or rising. The goal is certainly not at all a realistic, natural speech. On the contrary, the difference between ordinary speech and speech that collaborates in a musical form must be made plain. But it should not call singing to mind, either." [4]

For the first performances of Pierrot Lunaire, Schoenberg was able to work directly with the vocalist and obtain exactly the result he desired, but later performances were problematic. Schoenberg had written many subsequent letters attempting to clarify, but he was unable to leave a definitive explanation and there has been much disagreement as to what was actually intended. Pierre Boulez would write, "the question arises whether it is actually possible to speak according to a notation devised for singing. This was the real problem at the root of all the controversies. Schoenberg's own remarks on the subject are not in fact clear." [5]

Schoenberg would later use a notation without a traditional clef in the Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte (1942), A Survivor from Warsaw (1947) and his unfinished opera Moses und Aron , which eliminated any reference to a specific pitch, but retained the relative slides and articulations.

Sprechgesang style talk-singing has appeared in contemporary pop, rock, punk, and alternative music since the 1960s, with artists including Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman, The B-52's, The Fall, Nick Cave, Sonic Youth, They Might Be Giants, Slint, Cake, Life Without Buildings, The Hold Steady, French Vanilla, and Billie Eilish cited as acts that have used the technique. [6] The sprechgesang vocal style is also prominent in the British post-punk scene of the 2020s, with groups such as Dry Cleaning, Black Country, New Road, and Squid featuring a vocalist that uses the talk-sing method. [6]


In Schoenberg's musical notation, Sprechstimme is usually indicated by small crosses through the stems of the notes, or with the note head itself being a small cross.

Schoenberg's later notation (first used in his Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte, 1942) replaced the 5-line staff with a single line having no clef. The note stems no longer bear the x, as it is now clear that no specific pitch is intended, and instead relative pitches are specified by placing the notes above or below the single line (sometimes on ledger lines).

Berg notates several degrees of Sprechstimme, e. g. in Wozzeck , using single-line staff for rhythmic speaking, five-line staves with x through the note stem, and a single stroke through the stem for close-to-singing sprechstimme.

In modern usage, it is most common to indicate Sprechstimme by using an x in place of a conventional notehead. [7]

See also

Related Research Articles

Alban Berg Austrian composer (1885–1935)

Alban Maria Johannes Berg was an Austrian composer of the Second Viennese School. His compositional style combined Romantic lyricism with the twelve-tone technique. Although he left a relatively small oeuvre, he is remembered as one of the most important composers of the 20th century for his expressive style encompassing "entire worlds of emotion and structure".

Musical notation Graphic writing of musical parameters

Music notation or musical notation is any system used to visually represent aurally perceived music played with instruments or sung by the human voice through the use of written, printed, or otherwise-produced symbols, including notation for durations of absence of sound such as rests.

Atonality Music that lacks a tonal center or key

Atonality in its broadest sense is music that lacks a tonal center, or key. Atonality, in this sense, usually describes compositions written from about the early 20th-century to the present day, where a hierarchy of harmonies focusing on a single, central triad is not used, and the notes of the chromatic scale function independently of one another. More narrowly, the term atonality describes music that does not conform to the system of tonal hierarchies that characterized European classical music between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. "The repertory of atonal music is characterized by the occurrence of pitches in novel combinations, as well as by the occurrence of familiar pitch combinations in unfamiliar environments".

Clef Musical symbol used to indicate the pitch of written notes

A clef is a musical symbol used to indicate which notes are represented by the lines and spaces on a musical stave. Placing a clef on a stave assigns a particular pitch to one of the five lines, which defines the pitches on the remaining lines and spaces.

Vocal music Genre of music performed by one or more singers

Vocal music is a type of singing performed by one or more singers, either with instrumental accompaniment, or without instrumental accompaniment, in which singing provides the main focus of the piece. Music which employs singing but does not feature it prominently is generally considered to be instrumental music as is music without singing. Music without any non-vocal instrumental accompaniment is referred to as a cappella.

<i>Pierrot lunaire</i> Musical setting by Arnold Schoenberg of 21 selected poems by Albert Giraud

Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Girauds "Pierrot lunaire", commonly known simply as Pierrot lunaire, Op. 21, is a melodrama by Arnold Schoenberg. It is a setting of 21 selected poems from Albert Giraud's cycle of the same name as translated into German by Otto Erich Hartleben. The work is written for reciter who delivers the poems in the Sprechstimme style accompanied by a small instrumental ensemble. Schoenberg had previously used a combination of spoken text with instrumental accompaniment, called "melodrama", in the summer-wind narrative of the Gurre-Lieder, which was a fashionable musical style popular at the end of the nineteenth century. Though the music is atonal, it does not employ Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique, which he did not use until 1921.

Recitative Ordinary speech-like singing in opera, cantata, mass or oratorio

Recitative is a style of delivery in which a singer is allowed to adopt the rhythms and delivery of ordinary speech. Recitative does not repeat lines as formally composed songs do. It resembles sung ordinary speech more than a formal musical composition.

<i>Wozzeck</i> 1925 opera by Alban Berg; Bergs first opera

Wozzeck is the first opera by the Austrian composer Alban Berg. It was composed between 1914 and 1922 and first performed in 1925. The opera is based on the drama Woyzeck, which the German playwright Georg Büchner left incomplete at his death. Berg attended the first production in Vienna of Büchner's play on 5 May 1914, and knew at once that he wanted to base an opera on it. From the fragments of unordered scenes left by Büchner, Berg selected 15 to form a compact structure of three acts with five scenes each. He adapted the libretto himself, retaining "the essential character of the play, with its many short scenes, its abrupt and sometimes brutal language, and its stark, if haunted, realism..."

Jan (Janice) DeGaetani was an American mezzo-soprano known for her performances of contemporary classical vocal compositions.

Anja Silja German soprano

Anja Silja Regina Langwagen is a German soprano.

<i>Le Marteau sans maître</i> Composition by Pierre Boulez

Le Marteau sans maître is a chamber cantata by French composer Pierre Boulez. The work, which received its premiere in 1955, sets surrealist poetry by René Char for contralto and six instrumentalists. It is among his most acclaimed compositions.

Percussion notation is a type of musical notation indicating notes to be played by percussion instruments. As with other forms of musical notation, sounds are represented by symbols which are usually written onto a musical staff.

Bethany Beardslee American opera soprano

Bethany Beardslee is an American soprano particularly noted for her collaborations with major 20th-century composers, such as Igor Stravinsky, Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, George Perle, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and her performances of great contemporary classical music by Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern. Her legacy amongst midcentury composers was as a "composer's singer"—for her commitment to the highest art of new music. Milton Babbitt said of her "She manages to learn music no one else in the world can. She can work, work, work." In a 1961 interview for Newsweek, Beardslee flaunted her unflinching repertoire and disdain for commercialism: "I don't think in terms of the public... Music is for the musicians. If the public wants to come along and study it, fine. I don't go and try to tell a scientist his business because I don't know anything about it. Music is just the same way. Music is not entertainment."

In music, voice crossing is the intersection of melodic lines in a composition, leaving a lower voice on a higher pitch than a higher voice. Because this can cause registral confusion and reduce the independence of the voices, it is sometimes avoided in composition and pedagogical exercises.

Vocalists are capable of producing a variety of extended technique sounds. These alternative singing techniques have been used extensively in the 20th century, especially in art song and opera. Particularly famous examples of extended vocal technique can be found in the music of Luciano Berio, John Cage, George Crumb, Peter Maxwell Davies, Hans Werner Henze, György Ligeti, Demetrio Stratos, Meredith Monk, Giacinto Scelsi, Arnold Schoenberg, Salvatore Sciarrino, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Tim Foust, Avi Kaplan, and Trevor Wishart.

6-Z44 (012569), known as the Schoenberg hexachord, is Arnold Schoenberg's signature hexachord, as one transposition contains the pitches [A], Es, C, H, B, E, G, E, B, and B being Es, H, and B in German.

<i>Pierrot lunaire</i> (book)

Pierrot lunaire: rondels bergamasques is a cycle of fifty poems published in 1884 by the Belgian poet Albert Giraud, who is usually associated with the Symbolist Movement. The protagonist of the cycle is Pierrot, the comic servant of the French Commedia dell'Arte and, later, of Parisian boulevard pantomime. The early 19th-century Romantics, Théophile Gautier most notably, had been drawn to the figure by his Chaplinesque pluckiness and pathos, and by the end of the century, especially in the hands of the Symbolists and Decadents, Pierrot had evolved into an alter-ego of the artist, particularly of the so-called poète maudit. He became the subject of numerous compositions, theatrical, literary, musical, and graphic.


In music, Hauptstimme or Hauptsatz is the main voice, chief part; i.e., the contrapuntal or melodic line of primary importance, in opposition to Nebenstimme. Nebenstimme or Seitensatz is the secondary part; i.e., a secondary contrapuntal or melodic part, always occurring simultaneously with, and subsidiary to, the Hauptstimme. The practice of marking the primary voice within the musical score/parts was invented by Arnold Schoenberg.

Avior Byron Israeli singer songwriter and musicologist

Avior Byron is an Israeli singer songwriter and musicologist.


  1. Wood, Ralph W.. Concerning "Sprechgesang", Tempo, new series no. 2, December 1946. (pp. 3–6)
  2. Wood, 1946: "'Sprechgesang' means a 'parlando' manner of singing, and indeed is translated in standard dictionaries as 'recitative,' whereas 'sprechstimme' in itself simply means 'speaking voice'".
  3. Griffiths, Paul, "Sprechgesang", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001).
  4. Schoenberg, Arnold. Verklärte Nacht and Pierrot Lunaire. Dover Publications. New York, 1994. ISBN   0-486-27885-9 (p. 54)
  5. Boulez, Pierre. Orientations. Faber and Faber. London, 1986. ISBN   0-571-14347-4 (From the essay Speaking, Playing, Singing, written 1963, pp. 330–335)
  6. 1 2 Schonfeld, Zach (13 October 2021). "The Eternal Cool of Talk Singing". The Ringer. Retrieved 7 December 2021.
  7. Read, Gardner. Musical Notation. Taplinger Publishing, New York, 1979. ISBN   0-8008-5453-5 (p. 288)