Academic journal article Journal of Singing

The Singing Qualities of the French Language

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

The Singing Qualities of the French Language

Article excerpt


SINGING EXPERTS IN NORTH AMERICA such as Thomas Grubb have long praised the musicality of the French language. "But listen to French! It sings, it floats, it groans, it purrs, and it titillates the ear with its crisp, clean consonants, its pure, highly resonated, frontal vowel-sounds."1 Richard Miller also has commented on the "singability" of French.

French, generally acknowledged as the most "musical" of Western languages, with its expansive palette of vocal colors, makes greater demands that vocalized sound be closely bound to speech than is the case in any other European school of singing. The French language already sings . . .2

Other researchers not involved in the music field have also remarked on the musicality of French. "The French language," writes Tsur, ". . . is felt to be especially musical, thanks to the nasal vowels that abound in it and to the affricates /ts/ and /pf/ that are absent from it . . ."3 Tsur's discussion brings to light the individual's propensity to judge the quality of sounds themselves and to assign them a musical character, but, in fact, without defining musical criteria upon which to make a judgment. What indeed makes a French nasal vowel more musical than other vowels, and why are affricates accepted as less musical?

Others have used musical and singing vocabulary in a metaphoric sense, often redefining musical terms according to the researcher's interest and then discarding the identifying features that determined their original meaning. Noulet, for example, redefines "tone" not as a manifestation of sound, but as the musicalization of thought.4 The renowned scholar Paul Zumthor, whose research was concerned in part with the sung performance of troubadour poetry, opens his discussion on the nature of Voice in the metaphoric context of the inner resonance or consciousness unique to each human being, rather than the outer physical production of voice as spoken or sung sound.5 Fortassier, in a discussion of the singing nature of poetry, speaks of "l'orchestration [des] sonorités," noting that key words in the poetic text "sing" in the listener's consciousness, thanks to the repetitive placement (or "orchestration") of the keywords' vowel and consonant sounds in the preceding verse lines. In fact, Fortassier is metaphorically equating singing with comprehension.6

Comments such as these underline the difficulty of assigning a musical value to a language based on the individual's personal interpretation of what constitutes musicality. Such observations directed me in my research to seek a concrete basis for the relationship of the French language with the necessities of singing production, and to conclude as a result that French is a language that readily lends itself to the singing situation. This is a language whose singability is encouraged by specific linguistic structures that determine its oral delivery. These include, first, the French preference for open syllable structure which leaves the vowel free to be extended in duration. To this end, the French speaker employs the process of enchaînement (of which liaison and elision are variations) to convert closed syllables to open syllables and so free the syllabic vowel from the articulatory breath constrictions of a final stop or continuant consonant in the same syllable. Second, the delivery of rhythmic durations in French encourages the speaker and singer to employ what Fónagy calls "une stratégie expiratoire";7 that is, the French speaker exhales the breath in a groupe de souffle (breath group) which is durationally directed to the end of the phrase. This articulatory practice obliges the speaker to pace the release of breath in an arc of rising energy which must take into consideration the delivery of the whole phrase.8


The linking process, applied only to the articulation of closed syllables in French, contributes additional open syllables to a language in which the consonant-vowel arrangement is the preferred syllable structure. …

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