Q: Could you please explain why British pop stars seem (at least to me) to have American accents when singing?
A: We’ve noticed this too. It seems that unless they’re deliberately trying to maintain their regional accents, all pop music singers sound American when they sing in English.
The Swedish group ABBA is a good example. The members speak English with Swedish accents. But when they sing, their accents disappear and they sound like Americans.
The same is true of the classic British rock stars.
While the Beatles did give certain words a Liverpool twang, the overall impression is that we’re listening to Americans. And you can’t tell from their singing voices that Mick Jagger, Elton John, and Rod Stewart all grew up in or near London.
To use a more current example, when you hear the singer Adele perform, you’d never think she speaks with an extremely heavy cockney accent.
In performance, all these singers sound American.
There are several reasons for this. When people sing, their regional accents are obliterated by physiology, phonetics, and the music itself.
In effect, their accents are neutralized. And if they sound American, that’s because the general American accent is fairly neutral itself.
We notice people’s accents more easily when they’re speaking at a normal speed. But singing is not done at normal speed; it’s slower. And it’s also more powerful.
William O. Beeman, a linguist and the chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Minnesota, and Audrey Stottler, a voice teacher at the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis—discussed the physiology of all this in a 2010 television interview.
As they explained, the air pressure used to make sounds is much greater when we sing, and the air passages open up and become larger. So the sound quality is very different.
The result is that when we sing, syllables are longer, vowels get stretched out, and stresses fall differently than in speech. In effect, regional accents disappear.
The linguist David Crystal, writing about this process on his blog, says melody cancels out the intonations of speech, the beat of the music cancels the rhythms of speech, and singers are forced to accent syllables as they’re accented in the music.
And as all singers know, the music forces them to elongate their vowels. A vowel that falls on a sustained note has to be drawn out more than it would be in ordinary speech.
Another effect is that diphthongs in speech are lost in singing.
Take the word “no,” which in British-accented speech has a diphthong (it sounds like “neh-ow”). That diphthong would be difficult to sing, so it becomes more of a neutral, American-sounding “noh.”
What all this adds up to is that in singing, regional accents tend to flatten out. The sounds becomes more neutral or homogeneous, and in fact similar to what a general American accent sounds like.
(In fact, Americans’ accents are flattened when they sing too. The r’s become less sharp and the pronoun “I” is often flattened to more of an “ah.”)
Crystal believes some singers in the UK today are deliberately avoiding an “American” sound and inserting regional accents into their singing.
“It’s perfectly possible for singers to retain an individual accent, if they want to, and many do,” he writes.
But even so, he adds, “in hardly any case do singers use a consistent regional accent throughout the whole song. Mixed accents seem to be the norm.”
Crystal also says that imitation may also play a role when UK singers sound “American,” but not everyone agrees that imitation is involved.
Not much academic research has published on the subject. But one study is available.
Andy Gibson, a New Zealand researcher who studies the sociolinguistics of performance, has concluded that pop singers sound American because it’s easier and more natural to sing with a neutral accent—call it American if you want.
His study, conducted in 2010, found that singers in New Zealand spoke certain words with a distinct “Kiwi” accent, but sang those same words just as Americans would.
Gibson showed that this wasn’t deliberate imitation, as had been suggested previously. The subjects of his study said they didn’t perceive any difference in their speaking and singing voices. They felt they were singing naturally.
Gibson concluded that the sound was automatic—the default accent when singing pop songs. The more neutral, American-sounding accent is simply easier and more natural to sing, he found.
That means that a regional accent will disappear in pop music—unless it’s the deliberate accent of a certain style, as in rap and hip-hop (African-American), Country-Western music (Southern), and reggae (Caribbean).
In the ’60s and ’70s, some British rock groups were accused of deliberately imitating American pop singers. But if Gibson is right, then the reverse is true—British singers have to make a deliberate effort to sound British.
For example, in 1965 the British group Herman’s Hermits recorded two heavily accented songs. The lead singer, Peter Noone, is from Manchester, but in these two songs he affected an exaggerated cockney accent. The songs were aimed at the American market, then in the grip of the so-called “British Invasion” rock movement.
The songs, “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am” and “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” both became No. 1 hits in the US. But they weren’t even released as singles in Britain.
The relationship between song and speech, music and language, is still being explored. It’s been suggested that perhaps different parts of the brain are involved, since speech impediments (like stuttering or Tourette’s syndrome) often disappear when someone sings.
Of course, people remarked on the homogeneity of singing long before rock-’n’-roll. In the Oct. 1, 1932, issue of the Music Educators Journal, the author T. Campbell Young wrote:
“It is true that the spoken word varies considerably, as the many dialects which are found among the English-speaking nations will prove. It is equally true to say that language, in song, has been standardized to such an extent that it has become universal and homogeneous. It follows naturally that when words and music are allied, the former must be pronounced in such as way as to conform with the accepted principles of good singing.”
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