Vocalic Harmonization in French Singing

What is Vocalic Harmonization?

Maybe you have heard this term before, or perhaps it is new to you. When I coach people for the first time, it always seems like they are familiar with Vocalic Harmonization, but they are not sure how to use it. It is a term used in linguistics when applying the rhyming of closely related vowels in the same or words that follow each other. It is also known as “vowel harmony”. The practice of vocalic harmonization is most often used in the French vocal repertoire for linguistic refinement and ease of vocal production. Most frequently in French singing, we harmonize [ɛ] with [e] and [œ] with [ø]

For example:  “aimer” [ɛˈme] becomes [eˈme] or Heureux [œˈrø] becomes [øˈrø]

As you can see in the examples above, the unstressed, open vowel-sound closes to rhyme with the following stressed, closed vowel, not the opposite. Remember, it is the final syllable that is stressed in French, except when that syllable is a schwa-sound [ə] because a schwa can never be stressed. In this case it is the syllable before the schwa that gets the stress.

les, tes, ses, mes, ces…

the possibility of vocalic harmonization also exists in closing the [ɛ] in short words such as les, tes, ces, etc. (these are articles or possessive adjectives). When a closed vowel immediately follows these, they can be closed to an [e].

For example: les étés [lɛz‿eˈte] would become [lez‿eˈte]

The article “les” is harmonized to the closed [e] in “étés”

These harmonized syllables must never be accented or overly closed, and at times they only are slightly closed on the way to their closed neighboring vowel-sound, and over-closing the harmonized vowel can result in obscuring the text. The idea is that it should feel natural and sound authentic since vocalic harmonization occurs in everyday speech but not deliberately. Many native French speakers do not even realize that they are doing this.

Some French words are almost always harmonized. For example, the following words would have all open vowels in the first syllable if we followed the diction rules, but they are sung and spoken with vocalic harmonization:


aimer (to love) [ɛˈme] becomes [eˈme]
baiser (to kiss) [bɛˈze] becomes [beˈze]
heureux (or heureuse) (happy) [œˈrø] becomes [øˈrø]


Vowel harmonization should not be systematic. It is a completely optional choice left to the singer. In cases where it can help the legato line, it is recommended to harmonize the vowels as sometimes it is easier to get through a phrase with fewer vowel changes.

For example:

Let’s take a look at “Lydia” by Fauré. In this text we find this line: “Laisse tes baisers de colombe”

The “tes baisers” can be sung as all closed [e] but the “laisse”” remains an open [ɛ] because the vowel following it is not a closed vowel.

[lɛsə tɛ bɛˈze] becomes [lɛsə te bɛeze]

Speak it out loud both ways and see the difference for yourself.

I would also go further and say if you have an article or possessive adjective (les, des, mes, tes ses) and the following word begins with a closed [o] or any vowel that has a closed feeling such as [i], [ø] [õ] [y] or [o], you can apply vocalic harmonization.

Again in in “Lydia by Fauré:

“Lydia, sur tes roses joues” you can harmonize the “tes” which would typically be [tɛ] to a closed [te] to match the closed [o] sounds of [rozə]. But, the “mes” in “mes amours” in the same song stays [ɛ] because a closed vowel-sound does not follow it.

Here is the text of Fauré’s Lydia where I will highlight the vocalic harmonizations:

Lydia, sur tes roses joues
Et sur ton col frais et si blanc
Roule étincelant
L’or fluide que tu dénoues;
Le jour qui lui est le meilleur
Oublions l’éternelle tombe
Laisse tes baisers de colombe
Chanter sur ta lèvre en fleur.
Un lys caché répand sans cesse
Une odeur divine en ton sein;
Les délices comme un essaim
Sortent de toi, jeune déesse
Je t’aime et meurs, ô mes amours,
Mon âme en baisers m’est ravie
O Lydia, rends-moi la vie,
Que je puisse mourir toujours!

In this recording of Véronique Gens and Roger Vignoles, you can hear the use of vocalic harmonization as highlightede above.

Véronique Gens and Roger Vignoles

Try not to over-use vocalic harmonization. Remember, it should not obscure the text, and it should be helpful to the singing. If you are not sure if something should be harmonized or not, ask your French diction coach, or listen to several recordings to see what the consensus is. Just know that some coaches don’t apply vowel harmony and there are differing opinions on the matter. Since it happens in everyday speech, and I have seen it help so many singers in their legato and ease of singing, I generally encourage vocalic harmonization when appropriate.

The French “h”: What’s the deal?

One of the most frequently asked questions I get during a coaching session on French repertoire is: “What do I do with the “h”? My regular students can recite this rule at any time in any place. It is one of the rules that I drill into them!

The French language went through changes phonologically between it’s origin, Latin, into what we know now as Early Old French. One of the major changes was the loss of the “h” consonant. It briefly made a comeback when germanic words were introduced into the French language, but the aspirate h ceased to be pronounced once more in either the 16th or the 17th century and this hasn’t changed since then.

Since the phonological behavior of aspirate h words cannot be predicted through spelling, usage requires a considerable amount of memorization or a bit of research. In the past, the misuse of the “h” was often used to size up someone’s education and social status. In modern usage, the knowledge of how we treat the “h” in “liaison” is more indicative of formal French, but it is not so present in less guarded speech. In general, the use of “liaison” is also losing ground in the less formal or slang use in the French language all around.

Interesting facts about the “h”

  • In all French words that begin with h, the following letter is a vowel.
  • Most aspirated-h words are derived from Germanic languages, for example, La haine (hatred) [laǀɛnə] Note: a tiny stop is recommended before the word “haine”
  • The h is generally not aspirated in words of Latin and Greek origin, for example, hystérique (hysterical) [histeˈrikə]
  • There are numerous exceptions, and etymology often cannot explain them satisfactorily. This makes it very difficult to find a pattern.
  • When in doubt, look it up in a French dictionary. When you do, you will see an asterisk (*) next to the word, and this indicates that the “h” is aspirate.
Dictionaire Larousse en ligne

What is the difference between aspirate and nonaspirate

It is important to note that the “h” is never sounded in the French language, not in speech, and not in singing! So why do we have to know if it is aspirate or nonaspirate? In French, the letter “h” permits or forbids “liaison” furthermore its presence can mean a slight soft reattacking of the vowel-sound.

Example:

Qui dans les halliers humides te cueille! (Who in the damp thickets gather you!)

IPA: [ki dɑ̃ lɛ| aˈliez ͜ yˈmide tə kœjə]

Note that before the word “halliers” there is a slight stop and no liaison because the “h” is an aspirate h. Before the word “humides” there is a liaison because this “h” is nonaspirate.

Sound file

As stated above, in normal everyday speech, a native French speaker would probably opt out of using a liaison, and most words which are nonaspirate, as they already instinctively recognize them and link them. While singing, however, it is very important to use the appropriate diction. When in doubt, just look it up in the dictionary for the asterisk (*), and remember the rule: It is forbidden to make a liaison on a word beginning with an aspirate “h”!

The French Semi-Consonants

What is a Semi-Consonant?

When you speak (or in our case sing) in French, there are 36 sounds to master:

  • 15 vowel-sounds
  • 18 consonant-sounds
  • 3 semi-consonant sounds (also sometimes called semi-vowels or glides)

In today’s post, we will focus on the semi-consonant-sound.

The Semi-Consonants

Semi-consonant [ɥ] 

Model word: nuit [nɥi] (night)

The corresponding sound for the [ɥ] is the phonetic [y] as in the word “lyne” in French

The Yod [j]

Model word: Dieu [djø] (God)

The corresponding sound for the [j] is the phonetic [i] as in the word “midi”. We often refer to this one specifically as a Yod. Think of saying the word “you” in English, that first glide is our [j].

Semi-consonant [w] 

Model word soir [swar] (evening)

The corresponding sound for the [w] is the phonetic [u] as in the word “tout”. Think of saying the word “we” in English, the first glide is our [w].

All of the French semi-consonants have these three things in common:

1. They are always before the vowel-sound of the syllable.

In French syllabification, each syllable can only have one vowel-sound per syllable, some vowel combinations make a vowel sound

Example:

  • aimer (to love) has two syllables ai/mer. The first “ai” makes one vowel sound and the last “er” make one vowel sound and they are seperated by the “m”
  • In the word “nuit” (night), there are two vowel sound and no consonant seperating them, also, there is not combination of “ui” which makes one vowel-sound, so there is no syllabification. The semi-consonant is created: [nɥi]

2.  They are introductory closures that open into or glide into the more open vowel sound, which in turn occupies the duration of the note-value.

You should never sing or elongate the semi-consonant, the glide should be made swiftly as you always aim for the vowel following the glide. If we look at the IPA for “nuit” [nɥi] the most important vowel to sing is the [i] which comes after the glide.

3.  They never, in themselves, constitute a syllable.  When they become vowel-sounds (and/or when they are assigned a note) they lose their qualities as semi-consonants, each being transformed into a particular vowel-sound.

Because we never elongate the semi-consonant, it cannot be a vowel-sound UNLESS they are assigned a note in the text:

In the example above, the first “curieux” has two notes, and clearly, you would have to use the glide to get to the [ø]. In the second example, the [j] loses its glide quality and becomes a vowel thanks to the composer who gave it a note value.

Be careful not to add a glide when it is not supposed to be there!

In the spoken French language, when a word ends in a vowel + mute “e” (a.k.a schwa), we do not pronounce the schwa.

For example “joie” (joy) is spoken without the last “e” [ʒwa], but many French composers gave a note value to the schwa, so that when you sing the word “joie” you would have to sing this otherwise mute “e” [ʒwaə].

Setting the mute “e” as accurately and elegantly as possible was always a goal for the French composers:

  • Setting the mute “e” on the weaker beat
  • Setting the mute “e'” on a lower pitch
  • Giving the mute “e” a shorter note value than the preceding syllable
  • Sometimes suggesting that we drop the mute “e” by setting it on a note tied to the preceding syllable.
  • The music determines whether or not we sing the mute “e”

So when you sing the aria “Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle” from Roméo et Juliette by Gounod, you will see the following:

Looking at these two excerpts from the aria, you notice a note value given to the schwas in the words “proie” and “joie”. The danger here is the temptation to insert a [j] between teh [wa] and the [ə].

The correct way to sing this is as follows:

Laisse-là ces oiseaux de proie, Tourterelle qui fais ta joie

[lɛsəˈla sɛz‿waˈzo də ˈproiə turtəˈrɛlə ki fɛ ta ˈʒwaə]

And not

[lɛsəˈla sɛz‿waˈzo də ˈprwajə turtəˈrɛlə ki fɛ ta ˈʒwajə]

Believe it or not, I hear the addition of a Yod quite often, and sometimes from established singers. It is probably not because they mean to do it; gliding cleanly between these vowels takes a lot of practice. Not to mention that if you glide between the vowel and the schwa, you will create a stress on the mute “e” which is not allowed…You have all seen the meme:

Be like the schwa…never stressed

Adding a glide between these vowels, creates confusion because it does not sound like the right word, and it is a dead give-away that you are not French. The transition between these vowels must be seemless. Happy gliding!

How to Sing the French Mixed Vowels

The French language has fifteen vowel-sounds. I say this every year at the start of my French Lyric Diction class as the students’ eyes widen. I can almost hear them thinking “Fifteen? How is that possible? How can I sing fifteen different vowel sounds?” That seems like a lot and it can be quite daunting if you are a singer starting out singing in this language. The three vowel-sounds that I would like to focus on in this little French Lyric Diction post, are the three mixed vowel-sounds [œ] [ø] and [y].

When I say “vowel-sound” I don’t mean a pure vowel. The vowels we all know from when we first learn how to read are a, e, i, o, and u. Think of all the french vowel-sounds as derivatives of these. Some vowel sounds are even based on the derivatives of the derivatives. A mixed vowel is when you take two characteristics of two different vowels and as you combine them you create a whole new vowel. They are called “mixed” because their formation is dependent on the simultaneous positioning of the tongue and the lips.

In the chart above, we see the vowels in the tongue position, and the vowels in the lip position, in the middle are the mixed vowels.

The Phonetic [y] vowel-sound:

  • Phonate the [i] sound, as in the French word “midi” [miˈdi] (noon) or if you wish to come from the English language the [i] in the word “we”.
  • Now, sustain this [i] sound, as you do so, form your lips to the shape of a closed [o] as in the word “rose” [rozə] in French (or English) all the while not changing your [i] tongue position.
  • You now magically have the phonetic [y] vowel as in the French word “lune” [lynə] (moon).

The o-slash vowel:

  • Phonate an open [ɛ] as in the French word “tête” [tɛtə] (head) or from the English language, the word “feather”
  • Again, sustain this [ɛ] and as you do so, form your lips to the shape of a closed [o] while not changing your tongue position.
  • You now are making the sound of [ø] as in the word “feu” [fø] (fire).

The o-e vowel is a little different:

  • Start out in the same way you did with the o-slash: phonate on an open [ɛ].
  • While sustaining this vowel, you will form your lips into an open [ɔ] as in the French word “homme” [ɔmə] (man) or from the English you can think of the word “on”. So this is less of a closed [o] formation than we used above. (If it starts sounding like [ø], turn back you have gone to far towards a closed vowel with your lips!)
  • You now have a perfect o-e vowel, and you can now perfectly sing the word “coeur” [kœr] (heart)
  • Nota bene: the Schwa [ə] sound is equivalent to the [œ]. They have the same sound, the difference is that the schwa can never be stressed while the [œ] can be stressed. Example: émeute [eˈmøtə] (riot) while singing this word, the stress is on the o-slash and you would sing the schwa unstressed if it has a note value.

As you sing, if you think about the vowel that you are making with your tongue and just adjust your lips, you can avoid going too far between sounds, and your singing and legato will feel easier, especially depending on the tessitura in which you are singing.

Example:

Intonate these words, all the while keeping your tongue in the [i] position while forming your lips into a closed [o] when reading words with [i] or [y] sounds.

Tu dis qu’il a une fille unique. (You say that he has an only daughter.)

[ty di kil a ynə fij ynikə]

Looking at the phonetic transcription, you have only 2 vowels ([a] and [i]) and two vowel-sounds ([y] and [ə]). The [y] and [i] are the ones you want to practice here. Glide to and from these vowels, see how it feels to not change the tongue position. Try it on different pitches to practice. Do the same with the other mixed-vowels until you master singing them, it will feel easier and your voice will most definitely respond!

Singing in French can be a very scary thing. I am not going to lie to you and tell you that it is easy. But with a few tools, it can definitely be more singer-friendly and as you practice, you will really learn to enjoy singing in this beautiful language.