The nose — is there a point?

If we’re talking Pinocchio, freshly baked bread and good perfume then when it comes to the nose, there is a point. If we’re talking about a flatulent spouse then no thanks! As the nose isn’t exchangeable, we’re stuck with it. We’re also stuck with it in singing terms. Join us as we uncover the role of the nose in singing and how to work on problematic nasality.

It lives on

The belief that the nasal cavity is significant in voice lives on like any old wives’ tale. The truth is that much of singing advice passed down over the centuries has been “verified” by coincidental outcomes that may or may not be due to said advice. This includes advice on the nasal cavity and it’s significance in singing.

The Nasal “Resonators” Tubes contain resonances. These resonances provide positive reinforcement to sound waves of certain pitches, which in turn give the voice clarity and power. The nasal passages, along with the sinuses, are also tubes with spaces branching off them. They will have their own natural resonance capability. However, due to their complex nature they don’t behave like our main resonators; the throat and mouth. In fact in terms of resonance the nasal passages don’t offer much if we’re looking for a significant vocal improvement. In fact nasality tends to rob your voice of precious power, resonance and efficiency.

The science-y bit

In his book Vocology, Dr Ingo Titze describes nasal resonance as almost entirely absent in good singing, contributing only a “dull murmur”.

In a 1957 study (when they were probably still smoking in labs) Warren B Wooldridge recorded a group of subjects singing open vowel sounds on a variety of pitches. Then he did the same experiment, but this time the subjects had loads of cotton wool blocking and damping the vibrations in their supposedly resonating nasal cavities. Sounds lovely.

After analysis of the normal and blocked noses, Wooldridge’s spectrogram results determined there was “no part of the vocal tone which could be described as being a result of nasal resonation”. In other words: there was absolutely no difference. Even the researcher was surprised by this, as nasal resonance had long been championed as being “the key to singing success”. When they played back the recordings to a panel of random listeners and asked them to identify the subjects with the cotton blockers none could do it successfully.

Why would we feel it in the nose?

There are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. Vibrating air particles (sound waves) can make other things vibrate, including bone and tissue. The sensation of “voice placement” or vibrations in the nose and face are the result of sound waves being reinforced and permeating their way through your hard palette and into your squidgy little face. The truth is it’s all happening in your mouth. In order for facial vibrations to be experienced as a person sings the vocal folds need to be connecting in a balanced and clean manner, along with a good amount of airflow and energy. Historically, singing teachers have focussed on the ‘result’ as a guide to help singers get to placement nirvana. This is why so many singers try to get their sound into their face, and then think they’re failing if they don’t feel it. Rather teachers should be focusing helping the singer find more efficient vocal fold, air and larynx adjustments to generate the correct kind of energy.
  2. You could be shaping your instrument in a way that actually redirects sound into the nose. This could be due to either a low hanging soft palette, leaving the opening to the nose very accessible. Or due to a high tongue which reduces the space between it and the palette redirecting the sound waves through the nose and where their journey ends. Consonants like “m”, “n” and “ng” are supposed to be nasal so will always be felt in the nose. They have their own SOVT exercise benefits as air flow restrictors #geekzone.

In both these cases, sound waves literally die *sad face* in the nose. What a horrible death, covered in mucous.

How to test for nasality

This is easy. As you sing, hold your nose and block the nasal passages. If you hear your voice change, as if you have a cold, then there’s nasality present. Ignore the sounds that are supposed to be directed through the nose, like “m”, “n” and “ng”. Focus on listening to vowels and sustained notes.

If we asked Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder or Barbra Streisand to pinch their nose then we might hear nasality. Does that mean we would bust their butts to correct it? Hell no! That’s not the point of any of this stuff. These artists have a signature sound that needs to be preserved. Changing their nasality could alter their signature tone too much and we’d be back in the “vocal coach for hire” classifieds. We can still train the voice by focusing on the vocal folds and their relationship with breath flow. So we could actually help Ray without changing that awesome “honky” quality that everyone loves him for.

Reducing nasality

If you have some nasal tone going on and you don’t want it, like it, or it’s causing you vocal distress you can reduce it. Let’s start by thinking about why it’s there in the first place:

Exercise 1. The tongue – Flexibility and control of this powerful muscle is the key but sometimes we need to help it. Start by singing your exercises, vowels and even entire lines of lyric with the tongue hanging out. Does it improve your tone? You’ll obviously sound like a complete idiot in terms of pronunciation, but focus on nasality here.

A nose pinch will help you decide if you’re not sure. If sticking the tongue out helps, then the next step is to slowly introduce the tongue back into the mouth whilst still preserving the improved tone. You may feel your voice differently to how you’re used to, and that’s fine. It takes time to adapt to this new coordination. Check out Episode 41 of the Naked Vocalist podcast on tongue tension where we give more advice on getting it under control.

Exercise 2. The larynx – this is tongue related really. The larynx and the tongue are mates. They usually want to go places together. Bit like us two really. When a singer’s larynx is raised it usually pushes up the tongue too. Temporary use of a dopey or hooty sound (like a Homer Simpson or Droopy Dog voice) will lower the larynx and bring the tongue away from the soft palette enough to allow sound to enter via the mouth instead. Combine this with Exercise 1 for a short while and you will go some way to breaking up the counterproductive larynx and tongue bromance.

Exercise 3. The vowel – back vowels are a point of interest here as they can inherently put the tongue into a nasal position, such as the vowels from words such as “cool”, “awesome” or “hot”. Use your best British accent please! French speakers may find this tough as some vowels as in the words “dans” and “un” are supposed to be spoken with nasality.

Say the back vowel AH (as in father); can you feel more vocal resonance? Notice the tongue’s position at the back of the mouth. Now say EE (as in bee), did you notice it has a more forward position in the mouth? Go back to saying AH but this time see if you can keep the forward position of EE as you say it. That should adjust the opening at the back of the mouth for the better, but it takes a lot of experimenting to be able to sing entire phrases with this positioning and not to sound odd. When you can, it’ll benefit many aspects of singing. Not just nasality.

Exercise 4 The Jaw – sometimes the tongue is pressing against the soft palette because the jaw is too closed. This pushes the tongue upwards. Opening the jaw a little more as you articulate and lowering it consciously as you sing lyrics and sustained notes may be the only adjustment you need here.

Exercise 5 The soft palette – there’s a lot of advice out there on the soft palette. For nasality it might be useful for you to practise raising the soft palette. Here are some popular ways to do this:

a) The “inner giggle”
b) The I’m-so-bored-of-this-guy-type “yawn stifle”
c) The “pleasantly surprised” approach

You will eventually be able to isolate the movement of the soft palette and then keep it raised during phrases if you wish to use the vocal quality it provides.

Another more functional way of feeling it raise is to sustain an MMM hum. Mid hum, turn your MMM into a B without stopping your voice. Your soft palette will rise naturally in this exercise giving you a chance to experience its movement.

Be aware that lowering the larynx often impacts on soft palette movement. You’ll notice this on a yawn. We would rather you moved on from lowering the larynx and use the raised soft palette during this specific exercise. You’ll know if you you’ve gone too far with the raised soft palette because your “m” and “n” consonants will sound like you have a cold or blocked nose.

A necessary sacrifice for some

There is some research into the use of the nasal space in classical singing. Voice scientist, Johan Sundberg uses the words “heavily damped” when describing the resonant properties of the nasal cavities, especially when combined with the sinuses. That word… “damped”. Wet. Rag. Need we say more.

For singers who need to produce incredible amounts of volume, the party pooping aspect of nasal resonance can influence how the vocal tract resonances behave. We’re talking un-amplified opera singers here. This kind of high-energy vocal behaviour needs a way to take off the edge, and to help with the passaggio. The nose could be one way.

It is possible to have too much power; so some damping could be of use. If a singer wants to get used to less energy in their vocal tract, to avoid yelling for example, it might be useful to use a Nasal sound, such as N, NG or M. A slight nasal opening may also help the singer access the “singer’s formant” (this is mostly a classical requirement) and hence harness some powerful harmonic energy, but none of it is written in stone.

Let’s talk contemporary

We believe that scientific evidence, along with our teaching experience, brings us towards the idea that a nasal resonance may be superfluous to the modern vocalist. Singers are amplified most of the time and our voice use and volume requirements are very different to those of singers hundred years ago when classical vocal pedagogy began taking root. We desperately need to update the approach in contemporary singing, we’re pretty sure all this nose business is irrelevant to a pop singer. So, for now let’s presume that nasal resonance plays little-to-no part in our vocal clarity or technique. If you happen to become a queen of the aria then it might – or might not – be an option for you. Until then, no need to worry about it.

Chris Johnson and Steve Giles are both experienced vocal coaches working in Southampton and London. They are with the Vocology In Practice teacher network and specialise in training clients in advanced vocal technique, style and improvisation. They are co-founders and presenters of the popular iTunes singer’s interest podcast The Naked Vocalist. As well as coaching and podcasting they are also in-demand performers and manage their own successful soul acts.