Feeling the Soft Palate Move

What is the deal with the Soft Palate? There are three major holding blocks on the voice that Krisitin Linklater identifies in Freeing the Natural Voice: the Jaw, the Tongue and the Soft Palate. Jaw tension really limits the speaker’s ability to open their mouth, and their ability to articulate with freedom and ease; Tongue tension limits articulation, too, but even more importantly affects vocal quality and the ability of the speaker to move the feeling/sound of the voice forward into the front of the face. The Soft Palate affects voice quality too—a lifted soft palate creates more space of the sound, which helps make it brighter and louder and more resonant in the front of the face. A dropped soft palate allows for sound to move into the nasal passages, which allows for nasal consonants, [m, n, ŋ] in English. It also allows for a nasal vocal quality, which is generally considered a negative for more ‘everyday’ speech, but can be a real asset in a voice actor’s toolbox.

Now it is possible for some people to have actual anatomical and physiological issues with their soft palate. People born with cleft palate, even those who have had reconstructive surgery, can have issue with getting a closure of the “velo-pharyngeal port”—the velum (aka the soft palate) is the port (or doorway) to the pharynx (the top of the throat at the back of the mouth and nose). Being able to close the soft palate fully allows for the normal articulation of the oral consonants, most notably the oral stop-plosives, [p, t, k, b, d, g] in English.

One biggish problem for people who are learning about the soft palate is that we don’t usually feel it when we are speaking.. Every time we say a word with a nasal consonant, we have to drop the soft palate, and then raise it back up. Generally we anticipate this action, so on the vowel sound before there is likely to be some nasality creeping in as we set up for the nasal consonant. So if we say a word like man, it is likely that there will be some nasality from the [m] left over on the start of the ‘a’ [æ], and then there is likely to be some nasality creeping in before the [n]! It is possible to say in with less nasality, but it sure isn’t easy, especially at speed.

Let’s do an exercise to feel the soft palate lift. There’s a similar exercise touched on in the “Soft Palate Lifting”  exercise, if you care to look—it focuses on the ng-k combination. But the same process works for all the oral stop-plosion consonants. Here’s how to do it:

With your jaw relaxed, make a /n/ sound, and sustain it for a few seconds, and the make a /d/ sound but don’t release it. That is don’t say “duh”. The difference between /n/ and /d/ is merely the opening or closing of the soft palate. So, to make the /d/, all you’re doing is lifting your soft palate, which stops the sound. In fact, the difference between unreleased final /nd/ and /nt/ is essentially NOTHING. (It may affect a preceding vowel, of course, but those consonants, if unreleased, are the same!)

Now try it with /m/. Can you figure out what the corresponding consonant that goes with /m/ is? Made in the same place with your two lips? That is right, it’s /p/ or /b/! So sustain the /m/, and then chop it off with an unreleased lift of the soft palate, aka /p, b/. Can you feel the soft palate pop up, in spite of the strong sensory distraction of the vibration of your lips?

Finally, let’s review it with the “ng” consonant, /ŋ/ and its cognate, /k, g/. The problem with this one is that, because your soft palate is in contact with the back of your tongue, when you draw your soft palate up, you also have to draw your tongue up. This is nothing new: we’ve been saying this sound combination ever since we were young children in common, everyday words like language, link, bank, finger, etc. But it is harder to feel the movement of the soft palate when it isn’t moving in isolation.

Now, it might be worth mentioning that there are other nasal consonants in the world’s languages that one might explore. For example, the n-like consonant that is made with the middle of the tongue on the hard palate, as in the teasing “nya-nya” sound, or used in Spanish words with the n-tilde spelling, the “enya” /ñ/ as in señor—in the IPA this is [ɲ]. You could easily do the same exploration in this position or place as a phonetician would say. The stop that is associated with this is also a non-English sound, made with the middle of the tongue on the roof of the mouth/hard-palate. To do it, make the palatal /ɲ/ followed by the stop (whose IPA symbol is /c/) merely by lifting your soft palate.

Feeling your soft palate move is, I think, a really important first move for those who are trying to get more movement in their soft palate for vocal quality purposes. Best luck with your explorations!

Eric Armstrong is the voiceguy. Eric is a dialect, voice, speech and text coach based in Toronto, Canada, where he normally teaches full-time at York University’s Dept. of Theatre. Eric has been teaching voice for the actor full-time since 1994, and has taught in Canada and the US, at the University of Windsor, Brandeis University, Roosevelt University, Canada's National Voice Intensive and York University. He has worked for nationally and internationally recognized companies such as Crow’s Theatre, Volcano, SoulPepper, & Canadian Stage in Toronto, and The Court Theatre and Steppenwolf in Chicago. Eric holds a BFA from Concordia University (Montreal) in Theatre Performance, and an MFA from York University (Toronto) in Acting. His mentors were David Smukler (York, Canada’s National Voice Intensive) and Andrew Wade (Royal Shakespeare Company). He has also studied at the Drama Studio, London, and Il Stage Internazzionale di Commedia dell’Arte in Reggio Emilia, Italy. He’s a long time member of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association, where he has served on the board, as a conference planner, photo editor for the Voice and Speech Review, Founding Director of Technology and Internet Services, and has written numerous peer-reviewed articles, essays and reviews for the VASTA Newsletter, the VASTA Voice, and The Voice and Speech Review.

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3 comments on “Feeling the Soft Palate Move
  1. Hi Eric, this has me totally confused. I had no idea my soft palate could affect my stop plosives p, b, t or d in this way. I’m now trying to sense movement in the soft palate as I go from m to b, or n to d, and I’m struggling. Likewise, when I say ‘man’, it seems quite clearly articulated with my soft palate lifted throughout! The air flow is obstructed by the lips, then not, then by the tongue against the teeth ridge. Maybe it’s just Australian speech? I can nasalise them if I try, but then the n is more of a ŋ, while the m is just weird.

    If I totally close the gap between soft palate and back of tongue, when I say m, it still sounds sort of like m until I open my mouth, and then it’s clearly ŋ.

    So are you describing a much more subtle movement, that I just need to attend to more closely in order to identify it?

    Cheers
    Flloyd

  2. Yes, this is a very subtle movement. You appear to be confusing movement of your tongue against your velum, rather than movement of the velum up and down (your example of closing the back of tongue and velum is proof of this). On any nasal consonant, your soft palate MUST be down for the air to go out your nose. For any stop-plosive, your soft palate MUST be up for air to not leak out your nose. So if you say “and” and you make but do not release the /d/, you’ll feel a very subtle movement of your soft palate up to close off the passage to your nose. That’s the difference between /n/ and /d/—closure of the soft palate! For all oral stops, the soft palate must be raised or else the air will go out your nose. This is just a fact that many of us are completely oblivious to. If you go to say ‘ta, ta, ta’ and hesitate on the /t/ before each ‘ta’, you may also be able to feel the slight pressure building against the soft palate. Yes, you will feel it on the tongue/gum ridge, too, and more noticeably as there are way more nerve endings there. But the soft palate closure is there; it has to be. For an even more challenging change, try doing the unreleased /t/ and then pop the soft palate to go straight to an /n/, a so-called ‘nasal plosion’. It is really hard for most people to not release the /t/in some way before going to the /n/. This is how some people say “bitten”, without a glottal stop. Note that many of us reinforce our unreleased stops with a glottal stop. So to be sure you’re doing this right, you HAVE to feel the pressure building up on the point of closure. If it doesn’t feel like much, then you may be coarticulating with your glottis!

    On the word “man” you may be confusing “nasality” as HYPERnasality. If the word has m, n in it, those consonant sounds ARE nasal. If you go slowly enough, sure, you can make the ‘a’ in it not nasal (in fact I can do it at considerable speed.) But if you are, you’re lifting your soft palate very rapidly in between the two consonants (whether you can feel it or not). To feel how nasal you are, pinch your nose most of the way so that some air can leak out, but very little. If there is nasality, you will feel buzziness in your nose. Now, compare that with “dad”. With the nose pinched, it should be MUCH easier to have no nasality.

    It is worth mentioning that Australian accents are famous for being more tolerant of nasality than other accents, so perhaps you have more pervasive nasality than I anticipate… But I doubt it.

  3. Oh wow, Eric! Quadrupile Wow! That is so clear. Thank you so much for taking the time to explain it to me. You are right, that I was confusing the tongue/soft palate combination, with solo soft palate movement. And because I’ve never explored it in these subtle circumstances, I had no idea that the soft palate was involved at this level. I do encourage students to exercise the soft palate – typicallty with ‘ng’ to ‘ah’ in slow motion – to get the greatest sense of ‘lift’ but also to observe the subtle changes in the sound en route. But I never stopped to think about the way it affects other sounds.

    Wonderful how voicework is just the gift that keeps on giving. There’s always more, deeper, subtler, more complex stuff to explore.

    Thanks again.
    Cheers
    Flloyd