A nasal sound in singing could result from the singer wanting to add a particular color or tone to their singing. It could also be more pronounced due to a vocal imbalance or how the singer's anatomy or facial features are built. But generally, there are ways to minimize this sound or dial it in if you want to add this tone color to your singing by understanding how your resonance chambers work.
Nasal Sound Causes
In singing, when singers think they are nasal, in most cases, they actually are not. True nasality in singing is when the singer is driving all of the sound into the nose, which is rare in singing.
Quite often, nasal resonance is caused by singing with the larynx a little too high, so more sound waves end up in the nasal tract.
Another thing to consider is that some languages, such as the French language, tend to use nasalized vowels more. In contrast, the English language does not use as many nasal sounds.
But let's break it down a little further. There are two types of causes for nasally voices:
The first is "Hypernasal Voice," where too much air leaks out through your nose while you speak or sing. As a result, the nasal airflow gives the sound too much resonance in the nasal tract.
This nasal voice results from air and sound waves not being easily passed through the vocal tract and mouth. Therefore, nasal resonance is not created at the voice box or vocal cords; it is a result of where the sound waves resonate.
A hypernasal sound can also happen when the tongue is up against the soft palate or partially blocking the air as it travels through the vocal tract, and the sound waves are pushed towards the nasal cavity.
Try this: Put the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth. That’s your hard palate. You drag it back, and you’ll feel it gets soft. That’s your soft palate. So when the back of your tongue meets and presses against the soft palate, and you try to make a sound or sing through some notes, you will hear those nasal tones.
Now say the word "hung" and hold the "ng" sound. This "ng" nasal consonant sound is what creates nasal sound quality. Also, notice where the back of your tongue meets the soft palate when making this sound.
Hypernasality can also be caused by the back of the soft palate or velopharyngeal valve not fully closing to the upper walls of the pharynx during speech. This velopharyngeal insufficiency leaves the nasal cavity open and causes nasal air emission during speech sound. Again, this is considered a speech disorder rather than sound quality in singing.
The other cause of sound with a nasal quality is called "Hyponasal Voice." This is when too little air pressure gets through your nose while speaking. As a result, the sound started at the vocal folds doesn’t have enough resonance in the nasal cavity. This happens when you have a cold and nasal congestion or some sort of blockage in the nasal passages restricting airflow during speech or singing.
Medical conditions or a genetic syndrome can also cause both hypernasal and hyponasal speech. A disorder with nasal speech can include a cleft palate or even a traumatic brain injury. A speech pathologist or an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor would diagnose speech disorders or medical conditions.
Many conditions that cause a nasal voice are very treatable. In some cases, a language therapist would be recommended.
But with singing, if it is a nasal quality sound in your singing that you want to reduce, there are ways to adjust it.
How to Reduce a Nasal Sound
To reduce nasal quality sound from hypernasality (sound waves resonating through the nasal passages), we need to separate the tongue from pressing into the soft palate. The soft palate needs to rise, and the tongue needs to drop. You need to create resonance in the oral cavity and let the sound waves out through the mouth.
So what I’ll often have students do to have an awareness of this feeling is to say "ng-uh" and feel the tongue snap away from the soft palate. Another sound you can make is "guh, guh, guh." That hard "G" will let you feel the tongue against the soft palate, and then when you go to the "uh," you’ll feel the tongue drop and separate from the soft palate.
Another way to feel this awareness is to take a deep, almost surprised breath in, and you will feel the tongue drop. So what I will do with students is to have them take a deep breath, feel the back of their tongue drop, and then have them sing with this feeling.
If a high larynx is causing a thinner, more nasal sound, what you can do is practice vowel sounds on simple scales that are more towards an "uh" sound. For example, "buh, buh, buh" but keeping it sounding like the word "book" but without the "k" at the end. This "uh" sound will help to keep the larynx from rising with the pitch and closing off the sound or pulling chest as you work through your notes. Watch that the sound does not shallow out and turn to "bah" as you go up through the notes.
We have four mechanisms to control resonance and vocal color, and when you are singing, try to develop awareness and what you hear around the following:
- Lips - are they wider or more rounded and smaller?
- Jaw - are you dropping the jaw or not when singing notes that sound nasal?
- Larynx - is the larynx rising as you sing higher or staying up while singing?
- Tongue - are you dropping the tongue, or is the back of the tongue rising up and closing off the sound?
Take time to experiment with different vowels, vowel tuning, and placements of your resonance controlling mechanisms to see if you hear a difference in the tone. What adjustments did you make to create a more or less nasal sound?
If you would like to learn more about my books, courses, and John's Singing School, please visit johnhenny.com. And if you are interested in online vocal lessons, you can reach out to our front desk at [email protected], and we would be happy to answer your questions.