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Nasalance and the Tenor Passaggio.


THE NEGOTIATION OF REGISTER TRANSITIONS has been an integral aspect of teaching singing for centuries. Pedagogues Richard Miller (1) and William McIver, (2) among others, have described the importance of efficiently negotiating register transitions when teaching tenors. Studies and articles by Donald G. Miller, (3) Katrin Neumann et al., (4) and John Nix (5) have examined the formant tuning aspect of these tenor transitions, while additional studies by Stephen F. Austin, (6) McIver and R. Miller, (7) Linda Fowler and Richard Morris, (8) Jori Jennings and David Kuehn, (9) and Peer Birch et al. (10) have examined the employment of nasalance during classical Western singing. With these studies as a foundation, the investigator of the current project measured the percentage of nasalance during classical Western singing in differing registers of the tenor voice. The data were then compared to acoustic measurements of the same exercise to determine whether prevalent nasalance had any effect on the expected formant tuning as reported in previous studies.


For centuries, nasality has been a pedagogic quagmire largely due to the aesthetic quality with which it can influence vocal tone and beauty. The 17th century master teacher Francesco Tosi (c. 1653-1732) is quoted as saying,

Let the master attend with great care to the voice of the scholar, which, whether it be di petto or di testa should always come forth neat and clear, without passing through the nose or being choked in the throat (which are the two most horrible defects in a singer, and past all remedy if once grown into a habit). (11)

This viewpoint has been echoed in a recent article in this journal by Scott McCoy, who encouraged singing teachers to make their pedagogic goal a minimum of nasality in classical Western singing. (12) Despite these historical and contemporary warnings against nasality, there have been proponents of the technical advantages that nasality can bring to a voice. In a historic study on nasality, Enrico Caruso was x-rayed demonstrating a completely closed velopharyngeal port (elevated soft palate). He was so outraged by the results that he refused to be identified as the subject. (13) Austin and Gregg, in an article reporting on nasalance, stated that "high, light tenor voices seem to be able to use nasality as a part of their singing without dire professional consequences." (14)

Nasalance was a term first discussed in the literature by Fletcher et al. in 1974. (15) They described nasalance as a ratio to describe the balance of acoustic energy between the nose ([A.sub.n]) and the mouth ([A.sub.o]). As a percentage nasalance is then measured as [A.sub.n]/([A.sub.n] + [A.sub.o]). There have been several studies investigating nasalance in singing over the past two decades as voice science equipment has become more affordable both for the studio and the laboratory. Miller and McIver investigated the effects of nasal consonants on vowels using a nasometer. (16) They found of their male undergraduate voice students, twelve of fifteen sang [i] with nasality; conversely, no women sang [i] with nasality. Two of fifteen men showed nasalance on [e] and [u], and four of fifteen men showed nasalance on [a] and [o]. This study was conducted using pitches that were all in a comfortable middle register.

In a 1997 study Austin used a photodetector to measure movement of the velum. (17) He observed that the four female singers in the study had far less velopharyngeal opening (VPO) during singing than speech. Also, as pitch increased from low to medium to high, VPO decreased on a sung sentence. When the subjects merely sang the five cardinal vowels, each indicated no VPO at any pitch. Austin noted the fact that a lack of VPO occurring in the vowel series is evidence that the sensation of vibration in the area of the hard palate or nose has been misinterpreted over time as nasality. Similarly, a study by Fowler and Morris measured nasalance in thirty-six trained female singers at three frequency levels. They found that nasalance scores were much higher for front vowels, and that nasalance scores were higher at lower frequencies and lower at higher frequencies. (18) They claimed this confirms the practice of training singers to elevate the velum when singing higher pitches.

More relative to this project were two studies on nasalance by Jennings and Kuehn, and Birch et al., respectively. According to Jennings and Kuehn, male subjects were found to have had increased nasalance as frequency increased. (19) They reported that in the subject's higher ranges of pitches ([C.sub.4]-[G.sub.4]), the baritones had a higher mean nasalance (17.9) than their tenor counterparts (12.8). The investigators noted that while the baritones increased nasalance as they ascended through secondo passaggio, the tenors may not have, due to the possibility that they had not yet reached secondo passaggio. A study by Birch et al. revealed a related finding in tenor subjects. (20) Three tenors sang an ascending A major triad, in which they each demonstrated VPO on the pitches [C.sup.#.sub.4] and [E.sub.4], which were cited as passaggi. The combined results of these two studies lead to the possibility that tenors are employing some degree of nasalance as they transition from secondo passaggio and into operatic head voice.

Resonance and registration have been greatly investigated by Donald G. Miller. He claims the most frequent problem area of male registration is the primary register transition (PRT). In the upper limit of the male chest register (zona di passaggio) the first formant (F1) of open vowels (600-750 Hz) engages the second harmonic (H2). (21) This H2/F1 tuning produces the highest sound pressure levels in the chest register, which is easily identifiable on a power spectrum display. If this resonance strategy is employed through the PRT into head voice by the raising of the larynx, it will produce an incorrectly "open" sound, which Miller refers to as a "register violation." (22) The trained singer overcomes this "register violation" by "covering" with a combination of lip rounding or protuding and laryngeal lowering. (23) Miller's strategy for open vowels results in F1 releasing its tuning of H2, and thus allows a possible tuning of F2 to H3 once the fundamental frequency ([F.sub.0]) has ascended from the chest register to the upper extension. (24) Around [A.sub.4], D. Miller cites another resonance strategy for the male upper extension, that of moving the dominant resonance to a higher formant or the Singer's Formant." (25)

It is important to note that the use of these resonance strategies is for vowels containing a high F1 such as [a]. McCoy states that low F1 vowels, such as [i], [e], and [u], are much easier for men to ascend on without conscious effort as they transition from chest to head. (26) D. Miller's findings have recently been tested and confirmed by Neumann et al., also finding that on open vowels, the lock between F1 and H2 is broken and a tuning of F2 to either H3 (open vowels) or H4 (closed vowels) does occur, as the transition from chest to head is managed successfully. (27) Additionally, Nix is in agreement with this theory, citing Luciano Pavarotti and Alfredo Kraus as good examples of F2 tuning in head voice. (28)


Subjects used for this study consisted of seven professional operatic tenors. Professional, as used here, is defined as having classical singing provide a majority of one's income. The subjects were of differing operatic Fachs and included a leggiero (a Rossini specialist), a light lyric (a Mozart specialist), a lyric (a specialist in the traditional Italian and French repertoire), a character tenor, and a lirico spinto (a specialist in the dramatic Italian repertoire). Subjects were recruited via personal email correspondence or via personal introduction; they were identified as T1, T2, T3, T4, T5, T6, and T7.

Nasalance readings were collected with Glottal Enterprises Nasality Tutor System, the same system used by Birch et al. in their study of VPO. (29) The system uses a divided oronaso mask or a divider plate that separates airflow between the nose and mouth. For comparison, the acoustic signals were processed and analyzed using VoceVista Pro version 3.2 to identify formant tuning and register transitions. The sung samples on Voce-Vista were recorded with a head mounted electret condenser microphone placed 15 cm away from the mouth. The microphone was provided by EGGs for Singers. To make subject recruitment possible, recordings were conducted in various acoustic conditions in studios in New York, Houston, and South Florida.

The tenors were asked to sing the words pinti, panta, and puntu separately at three pitches: [B.sup.[flat].sub.3] (chest), [F.sub.4] (passaggio), and [B.sup.[flat].sub.4] (operatic head voice). They were asked to sing them full voice, as they would sing the pitches in an operatic aria. The word choices were duplicated from the Birch study.30 The three separate pitches allow for a comparison of the degree of nasalance on a chest tone, a transitional passaggio tone, and a full head tone. As indicated earlier, Austin noted that women reduced nasality as they ascended in pitch. (31) From the Birch study, the expectation was reinforced that tenors do the opposite for certain vowels. (32) The word choice is also calculated; the three separate words provide forward [i], middle [a], and back [u] vowels. In regard to formant frequencies, [i] and [u] have a relatively low F1; however, [i] F2 is high and [u] F2 is low. The consonants also are chosen to incorporate a plosive [p] at the beginning of the word, and a nasal [n] medially. The [n] will give the observer a marking point on the nasogram with over 90% nasalance.

The next part of the procedure asked the tenors to sing three [B.sup.[flat].sub.3]s, one on each vowel of the "pinti sequence" [i, a, u]. Immediately after each vowel, they were asked to vocal fry while maintaining vocal tract position of the note they just sang. D. Miller subscribes to the use of nonperiodic phonation (vocal fry) in order to estimate F1 and F2. (33) A final measure required the tenors to sing a B[flat] major scale from [B.sup.[flat].sub.3] to [B.sup.[flat].sub.4]. This was used to examine the moment in the scale where the resonance strategy of these tenors changed from a stronger chest voice resonance (H2/F1) to a predominant head voice resonance (H3/F2, H4/F2, or Singer's Formant dominant)--or, in pedagogic terminology, the point in the scale where these tenors "turned over."


Each vowel was examined on the three pitches of the "pinti sequence" in order to ascertain the degree of nasalance. This determined whether these tenors sang with more nasalance in their passaggio (on the pitch [F.sub.4]) than in chest voice or head voice, as was found by Birch et al. (34) While singing the [i] vowel, T1, T5, and T6 all showed a higher percentage of nasalance on the pitch [F.sub.4] than on [B.sup.[flat].sub.3] or [B.sup.[flat].sub.4]. This confirms the finding by Birch et al. that demonstrated all three of their tenor subjects employed more nasalance around their passaggio. (35) Here, however, in contradiction to their study, T2, T3, and T4 showed the exact opposite, singing with higher nasalance levels on [B.sup.[flat].sub.3] and than on [F.sub.4]. T7 followed neither of these patterns, but showed consistent nasalance in chest voice and passaggio with a reduction into head voice.

The [a] vowel results were similarly split, but with different nasalance percentages. Here, the Birch et al. finding that tenors sing with more nasalance in the passaggio is not present. T1 and T2 showed a lower level of nasalance on [F.sub.4] than [B.sup.[flat].sub.3] or [B.sup.[flat].sub.4]. One of these tenors was a subject who sang the [i] vowel in the same manner. The other five tenors all showed a consistent increase in nasalance as the pitch rose. Finally for [u], an increase of the nasalance percentage in passaggio returned for T1, T5, and T6, similar to [i]. T2 and T3 both had a slight reduction of nasalance in passaggio as compared to chest and head voice. T4 remained quite consistent throughout, and T7 showed an increase in nasalance in passaggio as compared to chest voice, but was consistent in his nasalance percentage between passaggio and head voice. The behavior of all tenors on these pitches confirms that men do not behave in the manner women were shown to behave in the Austin study. The four women in that study demonstrated a significant decrease in nasalance as pitch rose. (36) Tenors in the present study generally showed an increase in nasalance as pitch ascends, at least with regard to the [B.sup.[flat].sub.3] (lowest) and the [B.sup.[flat].sub.4] (highest; Table 1).

One final examination of nasality within each individual tenor was that of the percentage of nasalance demonstrated during the [B.sup.[flat]] scales. The [i] vowel showed differing results. The most common result was a decrease in nasalance prior to passaggio, followed by a steady increase through passaggio and into head voice. This was true for T2, T3, T4, and T7. T1 showed the same pattern, but with a decrease in nasalance upon the transition to head voice. T5 showed a slight increase in nasalance at first, but then demonstrated the most consistent nasalance of all subjects through the scale. T6 was the only tenor to show no increase in nasalance; in fact, he showed a general decrease in nasalance as the pitch ascended. It should be noted, however, that this tenor sang already with high levels of nasalance on this vowel (consistently near fifty percent). This subject made mention that his goal, while working with his teacher was to attain as much nasal resonance as possible for "ping" (Figure 1).

The [a] vowel revealed the most consistent sample of all compiled data. T1, T2, T3, T4, T6, and T7 all showed a slight decrease in nasalance at first, followed by an increase in nasalance generally starting at the transition from [E.sup.[flat].sub.4] to [F.sub.4] that continued through into head voice. T5 did not execute a clean transition for this scale, and due to a near voice crack he demonstrated a spike in nasalance on [F.sub.4], the pitch where this tenor tended to "turn-over" (Figure 2).

For the [u], a similar result to [a] was discovered. T1, T2, T3, T4, and T7 all sang with consistent or generally increasing nasalance from [D.sub.4] to [A.sub.4]. This reiterates the increase of nasalance through passaggio. T6 again demonstrated decreasing nasalance similar to his [i] vowel, but here too had generally higher levels of nasalance than all other subjects. T5 is again the anamolous subject who demonstrated an increase in nasalance from [B.sup.[flat].sub.3] to [E.sup.[flat].sub.4], and then generally decreasing nasalance for the remainder of the scale (Figure 3).


This section demonstrates the results of the major scales, and notes the favored formant tuning strategy of each subject. Chest voice resonance strategies included Singer's Formant ([F.sub.S]) dominance and H2/F1 tuning, while head-based strategies included H4/F2 tuning for closed vowels and H3/F2 tuning for open vowels, as well as FS dominance. Upon reaching head voice, H4/F2 tuning was the predominant strategy as demonstrated by T1, T2, T5, T6, and T7. T6, with his very high nasalance percentages switched to a [F.sub.S] dominant strategy, as did T3 and T4, although of these subjects, only T3 was able to tune H4/F2 as well (Figure 4) The [a] vowel had varying results. T4 and T5 both favored an FS strategy as their dominant resonance, whereas T1, T2, T3, and T7 showed more H3/F2 dominant tuning in head resonance. T6, with his high levels of nasalance, demonstrated neither H3/F2 tuning nor a strong FS in head resonance. He remained H2/F1 dominant for much of the scale, leading to the conclusion that, according to the literature, this scale was not expertly executed (Figure 5). The [u] vowel produced equally differing results. T2, T6, and T7 all demonstrated H3/F2 tuning, although T6 made a second adjustment to an [F.sub.S] strategy as he moved to [A.sub.4]. T1, T3, T4, and T5 transitioned to a head resonance with [F.sub.S] dominance as their strategy. Of those subjects, T5 also was able to track tuning H3/F2 from [E.sup.[flat].sub.4], the entire way to [B.sup.[flat].sub.4]. Figure 6 demonstrates this scale with averaging on to clearly show the strength of [F.sub.S] in this subject's voice.


The most compelling pattern found in the data was the nasalance of the [a] scale. Six of seven subjects demonstrated an average 10% increase in nasalance between the pitches [F.sub.4] and [G.sub.4]. This is the moment in the scale where most subjects tended to "turn over." Not only was this audible to the listener's ear, but the realignment of formant tuning strategy changed most often from [F.sub.4] and [G.sub.4]. T3, T4, and T5 all transitioned here. T1, T2, and T6 all demonstrated a more significant change in resonance from [G.sub.4] to [A.sub.4], where T2 and T6 both employed a further increase of nasalance by an average 9.5%. T1 had the highest level of nasalance for all subjects on [G.sub.4], and it is possible any further increase may have distorted the sound. It

appears the tenors began to prepare for this transition by increasing nasalance as they ascended from [E.sup.[flat].sub.4] to [F.sub.4]. All but one subject (T4) increased nasalance here, with an average of 7%. T5 did not transition on [a] as smoothly as his other vowels, but to compensate for his poor resonance adjustment, had an 18% increase of nasalance on [F.sub.4]. This doubled his nasalance from the prior pitch. It is possible that employing the higher nasalance allowed him to continue into full head voice without any noticeable voice "crack." T6 was anomalous in terms of formant tuning strategies, lacking both H3/F2 or [F.sub.S] dominant tuning. Yet, he did increase nasalance consistently from [E.sup.[flat].sub.4] to [B.sup.[flat].sub.4] and was able to sing the climactic [B.sup.[flat].sub.4], despite the lack of appropriate formant tuning.

When comparing the scale data with that of the separate pitches, a similar pattern occurred for the [a] vowel. All subjects employed nasalance on average 12% higher on [B.sup.[flat].sub.4] than on [F.sub.4]. Five of the seven displayed continually growing nasalance from the lowest to the highest pitch. It should be noted that the two subjects who performed [F.sub.4] with lower nasalance when isolated, did show a relative nasalance on [F.sub.4] both isolated and in the context of the scale. As with the scale findings the data agreed with that of Birch et al. (37) and with the conjecture of Jennings and Kuehn. (38) These data were opposite those of the female classical singers from the Austin study. (39) It does lead to a conclusion that continually asking tenors to raise (lift) the soft palate through the transition into full head voice could be counterproductive and lead to laryngeal tension.

Given this data, it seems likely that for the vowel [a] these tenors are making slight adjustments with the velum to ease their transition into full head voice. This phenomenon was suggested by Birch et al. (40) and predicted by Jennings and Kuehn. (41) Adding a slight increase in nasalance as tenors prepare to "turn over" may be a useful pedagogic tool while training tenors. The addition of the nasometer in the voice studio could prove to be additionally valuable both in finding an appropriate increase in nasalance for passaggio and in decreasing excessively nasal tone. The author would like to echo McCoy's view that nasal tone in classical Western singing is not ideal, (42) and that to this point, there have been no correlative studies aligning perceived nasal tone with nasalance. Nasal tone will continue to dwell within the realm of aesthetics, but for the moment, it seems that nasalance could be a useful pedagogic concept.

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(1.) Richard Miller, Training Tenor Voices (New York: Schirmer Books, 1993), 105-117.

(2.) Elizabeth Blades-Zeller, A Spectrum of Voices (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2002), 47.

(3.) Donald G. Miller, Resonance in Singing (Princeton, NJ: Inside View Press, 2008).

(4.) Katrin Neumann, Patrick Schunda, Sebastian Hoth, and Harald A. Euler, "The Interplay Between Glottis and Vocal Tract During the Male Passaggio," Folia Phoniatrica et Logopaedica 57, no. 6 (September-December 2005): 308-327.

(5.) John Nix, "Voice Research and Technology: Vowel Modification Revisited," Journal of Singing 61, no. 2 (November/ December 2004): 173-176.

(6.) Stephen F. Austin, "Movement of the Velum During Speech and Singing in Classically Trained Singers," Journal of Voice 11, no. 2 (June 1997): 212-221; Stephen F. Austin, "Nasal Resonance--Fact or Fiction"? Journal of Singing 57, no. 2 (November/December 2000): 33-40.

(7.) William McIver and Richard Miller, "A Brief Study of Nasality in Singing," Journal of Singing 52, no. 4 (March/ April 1996): 21-26.

(8.) Linda P. Fowler and Richard J. Morris, "Comparison of Fundamental Frequency Nasalance Between Trained Singers and Nonsingers for Sung Vowels," Annals of Otology, Rhinology and Laryngology 116, no. 10 (October 2007): 739-746.

(9.) Jori Jennings and David Kuehn, "The Effects of Frequency Range, Vowel, Dynamic Loudness Level, and Gender on Nasalance in Amateur and Classically Trained Singers," Journal of Voice 22, no. 1 (January 2008): 75-89.

(10.) Peer Birch, Bodil Gumoes, Hanne Stavad, Svend Prytz, Eva Bjorkner, and Johan Sundberg, "Velum Behavior in Professional Classic Operatic Singing," Journal of Voice 16, no. 1 (March 2002): 127-137.

(11.) Paolo Francesco Tosi, Michael Pilkington, ed., Mr. Galliard, trans., Observations on the Florid Song (London: Stainer and Bell, 1987), 22.

(12.) Scott McCoy, "The Seduction of Nasality," Journal of Singing 64, no. 5 (May/June 2008): 579-582.

(13.) Burton Coffin, Overtones of Bel Canto (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1980), 183.

(14.) Austin, "Nasal Resonance," 39.

(15.) S. Fletcher, I. Sooudi, and S. Frost, "Quantitative and Graphic Analysis of Prosthetic Treatment for 'Nasalance' in Speech," Journal of Prosthetic Dentistry 32, no. 3 (September 1974): 284-291.

(16.) McIver and R. Miller, 21.

(17.) Austin, "Movement of the Velum," 219.

(18.) Fowler and Morris, 739.

(19.) Jennings and Kuehn.

(20.) Birch et al., 70.

(21.) D. Miller, 59.

(22.) Ibid., 65.

(23.) Donald G. Miller, "Registers in Singing" (PhD dissertation, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, 2000), 137.

(24.) D. Miller, Resonance in Singing, 59.

(25.) Ibid., 79.

(26.) Scott McCoy, Your Voice: An Inside View (Princeton, NJ: Inside View Press, 2004), 71.

(27.) Neumann et al., 326.

(28.) Nix, 174.

(29.) Birch et al., 62.

(30.) Ibid.

(31.) Austin, "Movement of the Velum," 216.

(32.) Birch et al., 70.

(33.) D. Miller, Resonance in Singing, 23.

(34.) Birch et al., 70.

(35.) Ibid.

(36.) Austin, "Movement of the Velum," 212.

(37.) Birch et al., 70.

(38.) Jennings and Kuehn, 86.

(39.) Austin, "Movement of the Velum," 212.

(40.) Birch et al., 70.

(41.) Jennings and Kuehn, 86.

(42.) McCoy, "The Seduction of Nasality," 582.

While his career began on the operatic and concert stages, tenor Nicholas Perna now enjoys a career focusing on voice pedagogy, teaching, and investigation of the singing voice. Dr. Perna is Assistant Professor of Voice and Vocal Pedagogy at West Virginia University, where he teaches studio voice, voice pedagogy, vocal repertoire for teaching, and a teaching technology course, focusing on use of real-time signals. He holds degrees from the University of Miami and the University of Houston. His teachers include baritone David Alt, and tenors Jerold Siena and Joseph Evans. Dr. Perna twice apprenticed with the Santa Fe Opera. An active NATS member, he is currently Governor of the West Virginia District, and Vice-President of the Tri-State Chapter.

Dr. Perna was awarded a Presser Music Foundation Award, which provided opportunity to study voice science with Dr. Donald G. Miller utilizing VoceVista software. His research in nasalance's effect on the acoustics of the tenor passaggio and head voice has been presented in poster format for The Voice Foundation and NATS. His current research includes the effectiveness of the nasometer as a pedagogic tool, a portion of which was presented at PAS 6 in Las Vegas and at ICVT 8 in Brisbane. His second research area surrounds the songs of Benjamin Britten. In collaboration with soprano, Dr. Mandy Spivak, they created The Comprehensive Britten Song Database, which is now an open source reference for voice teachers and singers worldwide (

Concerning Perna's debut as the Prince in Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges, Charles Ward of the Houston Chronicle said, "an impressive sound, (he) made the show work vocally." Operatic credits include Rodolfo in Laboheme, Il Duca in Rigoletto, Nemorino in L'elisird'amore, Alfred in Die Fledermaus, Camille in The Merry Widow, and Tamino in The Magic Flute. Concert appearances include Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, Beethoven's Symphony no. 9, Rossini's Petite Messe Solenelle, Handel's Messiah, and Orff's Carmina burana. Dr. Perna can be heard on the Albany label, as Paolo in Mancinelli's Paolo e Francesca.

TABLE 1. Nasalance percentages for the "pinti sequence."

           [B.sup.[flat].sub.3]   [F.sub.4]    [B.sup.[flat].sub.4]
                  Pinti             Pinti             Pinti

Tenor 1            15%               24%               15%
Tenor 2            17%               11%               21%
Tenor 3            14%                8%               16%
Tenor 4            23%               13%               27%
Tenor 5            11%               25%               19%
Tenor 6            40%               56%               52%
Tenor 7            13%               13%               10%

           [B.sup.[flat].sub.3]   [F.sub.4]    [B.sup.[flat].sub.4]
                  Panta             Panta             Panta

Tenor 1            24%               14%               23%
Tenor 2            23%               12%               42%
Tenor 3             5%               10%               23%
Tenor 4             5%               10%               24%
Tenor 5             5%               13%               17%
Tenor 6            12%               28%               37%
Tenor 7             4%                6%               13%

           [B.sup.[flat].sub.3]   [F.sub.4]    [B.sup.[flat].sub.4]
                  Puntu             Puntu             Puntu

Tenor 1            11%               20%               14%
Tenor 2            10%                9%               32%
Tenor 3             8%                7%               15%
Tenor 4            10%               10%                9%
Tenor 5             9%               25%               18%
Tenor 6            40%               47%               44%
Tenor 7             5%               11%               11%
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Date:Mar 1, 2014
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