Tag Archives: French sound

“Hein?”* The world of French “nasal” vowels.

*Hein [ɛ᷉]: one of the most common interjections in French, with a wide array of meanings from “huh?” to “what?” to “isn’t it?”…

Nasality in spoken French is a very obvious feature of the language, one that makes French sound, well, French. As proof of this, I give you the brilliant Catherine Tate in this little sketch (the segment relevant to our discussion starts at 0:45”, but the whole thing is only 2’48 and well worth the time investment)

I  know that nasal vowels can be the bane of the existence of many a young singer, and that there is a lot of confusion associated with them. The aim of this post is therefore to try and clarify some of the issues and address the difficulties one might encounter when faced with them.

So let’s first take a look at what two of the main authorities have to say about this:

Pierre Bernac, in his landmark The Interpretation of French Song writes: “…the [nasal] vowels should have a nasal resonance.” and further: ” The sounds should be rich and full, and carefully blended with the sound of the pure vowel”
Thomas Grubb, in the great reference book Singing in French writes: “…one third of the vocalic flow is allowed to resonate in the nasal cavities, right above the soft palate and behind the nose.”

Well, I am not sure how to measure a third of the vocalic flow, but the important part to remember here is that one should not “over-nasalize” the nasal vowels. In fact, if we could have a do-over, I would probably name them something else entirely, in order to remove the focus on “nasal”.
So, what are some of the issues here?
Since a picture is sometimes worth a hundred words, I offer you the following diagram:


Nasality happens when the velum (more commonly known by singers as the soft palate) is lowered slightly, which obviously goes against most principles of lyric sound production, that normally emphasize space and a raised palate. Here then are some things to keep in mind:

– The most important task for the singer is to establish clearly and focus mainly on what I call the underlying vowel, that is, the vowel when all nasality is removed. From there, a small amount of nasal resonance may be added, but in most cases, no nasality is required. This may seem like an odd idea, and I remember being very skeptical about it myself when I was learning about French lyric diction, but I can promise you that it is true. I can also promise you that it will come as a great relief, particularly in musical contexts where the lowering of the soft palate is really impossible to achieve without a significant loss of quality and resonance in the sound.

– It is important to remark at this point, that the level of nasality in spoken French is quite high, and certainly not a good gauge of how much nasal resonance should be used in singing. One must always remember that lyric diction is not spoken diction, and that its goal is to emulate speech while accommodating all the technical aspects of sound production.

– What then are those “underlying vowels”? Here is a nice little phrase to remember them, involving wine (we are talking about French diction after all):

“Un bon vin blanc” [œ᷉ bo᷉ vɛ᷉ blɑ᷉] (a good white wine)

It is interesting to note that spoken French has pretty much lost [œ᷉] and replaced it with [ɛ᷉], further reinforcing the idea that spoken diction and lyric diction are not the same thing.
In order establish the right vowels here, this little phrase should really be understood as [œ bo vɛ blɑ], with the focus on the underlying oral vowels.
Here is what this phrase sounds like with “spoken” nasality: (Click here)
And here is what it sounds like with “lyric” vowels: (Click here)

– Finally, I would like to emphasize that, like any other vowels in French, the “nasal” vowels need to remain pure for their whole duration. The [n] and [m] that accompany the spelling of these sounds have to remain silent, and cannot, under any circumstance creep in. In my experience, they do creep in regularly, for two reasons: 1) Our brain seems to want to pronounce them whenever it sees them, and 2) the anticipation of the next consonant might articulate an [n] or an [m] on the way to the next syllable. In both cases, the result is French that sounds Italian, or more accurately, Provençal, which is the accent of my native Aix-en-Provence, and while very charming, and still French, not appropriate for lyric diction.  To illustrate this last point, I’ll leave you with this scene from the great classic Marius by the famed provençal writer Marcel Pagnol…