The higher the soft palate, the closer to God — A Rant

Ahh, the soft palate. Or, in scientific terms, the powerhouse of the voice velum:

It’s that floppy bit at the back end of the of the roof of the mouth, which touches the back wall of the throat when raised. You see it? Look at it go! Truly a powerhouse.

The nasality that the soft palate “powerhouse” provides access to is VERY often debated as one of the biggest keys, or crutches, to the voice… depending on who you ask. In other words, should you leave your soft palate “light-switch” in the “off” (lowered/nasal) or “on” (raised/non-nasal) position? We’re about to ask YOU in a second so we can find you and fight you. But, first, let’s catch-up those of you who are new to nasality and the soft palate because not one of your souls will be exempted from our judgment.

So what’s a soft palate even? You might wanna check out our nasality article and hop back over here… Okay, welcome back, you remember that? The soft palate controls the opening to the nasal cavity for any of that nasality stuff to even be a thing. There are other articulators that assist in hearing what we know as nasality, but for some reason there is a lot of discussion single-heartedly devoted to the soft palate. Related terms for the soft palate include velum, velopharyngeal port, velopharyngeal opening, “the only part of the vocal tract that apparently ever mattered or will matter —  all praise to the floppy bit at the top-back of your mouth; may its mercy be ever swift and painless.” Debates about optimal soft palate position can even exceed discussions of nasality, invoking incidental points of contention from “openness of the throat” to “is it Tuesday on Mars?” 

Caught up? Well, prepare to catch these Scinguistics hands if you pick the wrong path on this soft palate positioning flow chart. Which is the ideal position of the soft palate for singing?

VPO: velopharyngeal opening, the opening that connects the oropharynx to the nasopharynx

Even if you picked the right answer, you probably still gotta fight us… we know half of y’all picked the right answer out of negligence. Fess up. For the rest of y’all, we got some more fire. Like how about this round letting y’all know that even untrained singers tend to lift the soft palate on high notes (because it’s probably just a reflex). We got even more rounds popping off with the truth that a lower soft palate doesn’t block up your throat, and that lowered soft palate activities like humming actually make the onset of phonation EASIER. And for the rest of y’all making claims about the sound of a lifted or lowered soft palate getting nasty on your sound, BANG BANG BANG, turns out that soft palate position doesn’t independently influence what we hear as nasality. Yezzzz that’s right, chomp on that TRUUUUTH. Now where does all this foolery come from to step to science?!?! (And don’t tell us that nobody believes any of the debunked answers, because we got those answers straight from the mouths of vocal pedagogy and tip sites via the same kinds of searches we linked earlier in this rant.) We can probably divide this soft palate rabblerousery into three main camps: classical puritans, modern mix zealots, and “the nose is in the throat” cultists.

Ok, you know that this wouldn’t be a Scinguistics rant if we didn’t yell at classical. Classical seems to unironically worship the soft palate elevation supremacy cited in most of the rationales for the elevated soft palate hype pathways in the flowchart. Why this elevation of soft palate elevation? Classical vocal styles, such as opera, tend toward favoring of timbral profiles that often exclude nasality. Nasality can be seen as darkening, skewing a chiaroscuro (light — dark) balance already skewed dark by the typical low larynx and seasonal knodel timbral settings featured on the majority of opera singers. Furthermore, this darkness can be thought of as counter to the bright “ring” endowed by the high, amplified “singer’s formant” that allows opera singers to be heard above the orchestra. When this ring is achieved by squillo (intralaryngeal compression), nasality can be seen as a competing force that drowns the high, bright timbral ping of squillo in darkness. To bring the ping out of the nose, some opera practitioners may advise their large academic audience towards elevating the soft palate to close off entry to the nose. We’ve already established that the soft palate doesn’t need to be elevated to exclude nasality, but we know classical ain’t tryna hear from us on no science. Speaking of, science seems to suggest that soft palate elevation on high notes is a pretty universal reflex for even “untrained” (literary shade for “non-classically trained”) singers. You know classical has to go and say that soft palate elevation encourages ideal phonation on high notes, which science responds to with studies that show that humming can ease onset of phonation. As such, there is the possibility that soft palate elevation in classical stems more from instinct or textural preference than technical necessity. Now what of lowered soft palate stans?

Here at Scinguistics, we are equal opportunity squawkers. We squawk at modern voice pedagogy with equitable fervor compared to classical. Modern voice pedagogy at large appears to stan the lowered soft palate position. Since the main rationales for this are more subjective qualities such as ability to produce ring and mixed voice qualities, our disagreements about these claims amount more to counterclaims that a raised soft-palate does not inherently preclude potential sources of these aforementioned timbral qualities. Sufficient vocal fold compression can provide ring in the form of squillo and mixed voice quality in the form of elevating the glottal closed quotient values of M2 towards those exhibited by M1. Both of these qualities, and other laryngeal co-ordinations, are not subject to the doings of the soft palate. This leads us to the final, most important, yelling of all:

THE! SOFT! PALATE! IS! NOT! IN! THE! LARYNX!!! 

But the voice IS. The articulators closer to the actual vocal folds (you know… the source of the VOICE), such as the muscles pulling on the folds and the larynx housing them, can more immediately determine ease of singing than the soft palate which does not co-ordinate directly with the vocal folds. The main point of this rant is to free the voice from the constraints of necessitating certain soft palate positions in order to “properly” use the voice. As substantiated by the science referenced earlier on, this freeing of the voice from soft palate conspiracy allows voice users to pick soft palate position based on stylistic preference and not mythos about which position is safer or “right”. This also has bearings for the larynx height/soft palate position conflations often seen in TRANS VOICE (no we didn’t forget about you). High larynx can accidentally trigger excessive nasality while low larynx can be mixed up with hyponasality. Coming soon to a future near you we have a conspiracy sesh/rant about this common tricky spot in trans voice pedagogy powered by this rant about the soft palate and that other one about nasality.

So, as suggested by the flowchart and this rant, the soft palate can do whatever it wants, and we like to yell. That being said, we’ll still fight you if you gonna act like the lifting and lowering of the soft palate is virtually meaningless. Timbrally speaking, soft palate position factors into the ability to generate audible nasal and hyponasal texture. Check out our nasality encyclopedia article for more info on that. There is an epidemic of people misusing “nasal” so don’t think you’re just gonna skirt through the middle of our flowchart on some “everything that sounds weird is nasal lmfao y33t” without getting wrecked. Picking the right answer to our flowchart without being bothered about the intricacies of nasality is still WRONG. Sorry, don’t make the rules.

To those of you who are aware of the true impact of soft palate on nasality but still believe that this is a technical and not a stylistic choice… I guess we might let you live a little bit or something.