This guide is a shortened version to that provided in the Singing in French anthologies available on this website. In addition there are video tutorials.
For English speakers living in Britain, France is our nearest neighbour and French is often the first language we learn at school. So what is it about the French language that makes it so hard for us to learn to sing well? English speakers will routinely absorb whole opera scores in Italian or German without needing help, but will worry endlessly about French. Yet it is perfectly possible for singers without a hint of spoken French to sing it well, and indeed English speakers generally make a good job of it– so that is a crumb of comfort!
One answer is that French has far fewer strictly observed rules. In this way it is like English – and how many non-native speakers have you heard making a really good attempt at singing in English? But there are rules, and a little understanding of the French language helps greatly in achieving a good French diction and style. I will address some of these issues briefly here.
Some of the descriptions below use the IPA to illustrate points. For a full list of the IPA symbols aneeded for French click here to open a pdf file.
One of the big differences between French and English – and German and Italian for that matter – is how stresses are handled in French. In English the rhythm of the language takes you from one stressed syllable to the next, and this rhythm is called a metre. In French stresses are generally created by lengthening a syllable without extra weight. This results in a far greater fluidity in the spoken language. There is an imperative when singing in French above all other languages, which is to create a legato line.
In English a diphthong is usually the modification of an open vowel sound to a closed semi-vowel at the end of vowel. Diphthongs do not exist in French unless they are indicated in the spelling, and even then they are rare. English speakers will often distort French vowels like the closed “e” [e].
In French a semi-vowel will frequently be inserted at the start of a vowel, such as in moi [mwa]. The semi-vowel [j] can also be placed at the end of a vowel to create a written out diphthong such as vieille [vjεj]. There are three semi-vowels – the [ɥ] semi-vowel (similar to a short vowel [y]) is a difficult one for English speakers (and even many French speakers) who tend to replace it with an “oo” sound [u]. The [w] semi-vowel is like a very short [u] and the [j] semi-vowel is like a very short [i].
In German and Italian, if you know the phonetic rules you can read and sing a text with virtually impeccable pronunciation. French phonetics however, like English, are not so obvious. There is sometimes no alternative but to seek help from someone who knows.
In particular the use of a flipped “r” [r] in classical styles can seem quite strange to a native speaker. Why it is used is steeped in the history and traditions of classical singing in France. There has been a movement by some singers to modernise the style by using the spoken guttural “r”. Its use is a matter of taste and authenticity. Personally I recommend a flipped “r” to all non-native French speakers because it is much easier to make it sound authentically French. However a word of caution too – a heavily rolled “r” would equally be wrong.
Spoken French has many silent final syllables – in particular the mute “e”. It has been usual to equate these to the Germanic schwa vowel [ə], but this is not a good sound for achieving the all essential legato, so a better sound is the Germanic ö given the phonetic symbol [ø] – though some eminent artists suggest [œ].
My answer is: not very, please. There is nothing worse than to hear a beautiful voice distorted by an effort to create nasal vowels in the belief that they are part of the language. Many English teachers and coaches encourage much too much nasality. Of course nasal vowels are a part of the French language, but a bright Italianate tone is nearly forward enough to pass as a nasal to a French ear. Well sung nasals are still beautiful sounds, and still fall easily into a fluid legato line!
Generally a vowel followed by an “m” or an “n” is a nasal. It is important to realise that the “m” or “n” belongs to the vowel and is not pronounced in its own right. It is tricky for an English speaker to go from a nasal vowel to one of these consonants without slipping in a little “m” or “n”. For example, in English the word ambulance goes from an open “a” to the “b” via an “m” – [ambjulɑns]. In French the same word goes from a nasal “a” directly to the “b” without any hint of “m” – [ɑ̃bylɑ̃s]. Similarly the final “n” is enunciated in English, but not in French.
There are four nasal sounds which can be spelt in a variety of ways:
The “e” vowel has three principle sounds other than nasal:
Final consonants are often silent as in est, aimer and pied. There are however exceptions where final consonants are enunciated, but there is no rule to help here. In a liaison a usually silent final consonant is enunciated.
A mute “e” at the end of a word is usually sung unless the next word within the clause begins with a vowel in which case the syllable is dropped. This is an elision. It is quite different from a liaison. However, when a mute “e” is elided in effect the previous consonant or vowel then links onto the second word to create the fluidity.
A liaison is a French word for a very French pattern of speech. When a word finishes with a silent consonant and the next word begins with a vowel then the consonant can be sounded – particularly if the consonant is a result of grammar (eg. a plural, or a verb ending). In this case the consonant is used as a link between two vowel sounds and is necessary to avoid a hiatus. So the word beaux is pronounced [bo] but les beaux_hommes [lε bo zɔm]. The liaison in effect creates a consonant at the start of the second syllable. In singing it is wise not to over-stress the consonant in a liaison.
In recent years the IPA has become a popular way among professional singers of notating phonetics into scores. It requires familiarity, but it has been designed to do just that job and is simply the best way of doing so. Usually familiarity with a handful of symbols is enough to notate one's own scores. However, for scores available on this site I have decided to notate each song throughout with an IPA transcription. As I have above, in text I use square brackets to indicate the use of IPA and I use italics to indicate a word being talked about rather than its meaning, eg. oiseau [wazo].
I have included a single page pdf of the IPA symbols which are pertinent to use in French (which may be freely photocopied). Click here to open the pdf file.
Here are a series of videos to help you understand the IPA and how it fits with the French language.
These video tutorials can be watched on a larger screen on the YouTube site.
IPA tutorial focussing on French vowels.
IPA tutorial focussing on French consonants.
An in depth phonetic study of the song Après un rêve by Gabriel Fauré.