Have you ever thought about why and how do British singers sound like Americans when they sing? You are not alone!
And who knows, it is perhaps one of the most asked questions about British singers in terms of their music and performance. Because for British singers with a prominent accent such as Adele, Keith Urban, and Ed Sheeran, it is impossible not to wonder why their accents disappear when they start singing!
That being said, there is science behind it. In fact, there are two main factors why such a phenomenon happens. First is linguistic influence, and the second is social influence.
Why do British sound American when they sing? British singers tend to sound like Americans because linguistic-wise, the very process of singing neutralizes and cancels out a person’s accent. From air pressure, vowel length, to the music’s structure, all of these has a large impact on how the singer enunciates the lyrics. Aside from that, there is also an expectation from British singers to sound like American, especially when the genre of music is pop.
Does that make sense to you? If not, then I suggest you continue reading. This article covers all possible answers to why professional British singers lose their accents when they sing.
What Is an Accent?
In sociolinguistics, the accent is the way an individual or a group of people pronounce words. It is a manner—as well as of sound and intonation—of speaking distinctly to a certain location, ethnicity, or nation. Each accent varies in several ways too. This includes the quality of intonation, the enunciation of consonants and vowels, syllabic stress, and even prosody.
Apart from that, accents are identified in a number of ways. You can, for instance, recognized it by the speaker’s locality (geographical accent) or where the person lives. An accent is also recognized by the speaker’s ethnicity (ethnolect), socioeconomic status, social class (social accent), and even the influence of first language (foreign accent).
Why British Singers Sound Like American When Performing?
As mentioned, British singers sound like American singers when performing for a variety of reasons. But if you categorized all reasons, it would come down to two factors only: linguistic factor and social factor.
Linguistically, the act of singing itself has accent-neutralizing effects. In fact, the melody and rhythm (or pace) of the song contributes largely to how the singer enunciates each word. Vocal techniques, as well as phonetics, can also influence the singer’s accent.
In terms of social factors, on the other hand, the theory says that there is an expectation for British singers to sound like Americans.
That being said, below is an expounded explanation of each aspect mentioned above.
- The melody and rhythm of the music. In a speech, the most defining characteristic of accents is intonation or cadence. In plain words, it is how a speaker sounds when speaking. Each person has a varying pattern of the spoken pitch. Such element, however, vanishes we start singing. And it happens because of the music’s melody and rhythm. Essentially, a song’s melody and rhythm (or pace) cancel out the singer’s spoken pitch or accent. David Crystal, an author and linguist from Northern Island, said that a song’s pace naturally neutralizes–if not completely rid of—a person’s speech intonation while the beat cancels out the speech rhythm.And by following the structure of the music, it then forces the singer to stress syllables that are accented. In return, it prompts the singer to lengthen the manner in which they enunciate or sing the vowels in the song—which will lead us to the second factor that I will explain later.All in all, it is the flow and the pace of music that largely influence how the singer delivers the song as well as how he enunciates each word of the lyrics.
- Phonetics. The second reason why professional singers pronounce words differently when they sing is phonetics. And just like intonation, how a person delivers vowels and consonants when speaking is an important feature of accents. Vowels and consonants are pronounced in a variety of ways all around the world. And depending on the country, locality, or ethnicity, these alphabets are enunciated in different lengths and manners. For example, the vowel “oh” is typically pronounced as “ah”—with relaxed lips and jaw-dropping mouth—in a standard American accent. In some places in Europe, including London, however, the vowel “oh” is enunciated in a bit longer and deeper way with lips forming a round shape.But the thing is, the said pattern is commonly heard in speech only.In essence, it is due to the music’s structure. Vowels, for example, are usually sung in an elongated manner. Not like when we speak, which happens only when we are angry and screaming.
But aside from the song’s structure and arrangement, trying to hit a high note also influences how a singer pronounces each word in the lyrics.
Take Ben Platt as an example. In his song “The Bad Habit,” the word “you” (in 3:32mins) was enunciated as “ah” rather than “oo.” Theoretically, it is because it allows the singer to hit the note efficiently and successfully.
As such, when professional singers sing the same song, you will notice they would sing some words similarly.
- Vocal techniques. Apart from the music’s phonetics and structure, the singer’s vocal techniques also affect how the singer pronounce the words in the lyrics. Here’s why: Vocal techniques—which guides your vocal tract posture—typically involves appropriate breathing as a way to make each word sound richer and fuller when we sing. And to efficiently achieve vocal techniques, air pressure is needed. It thus helps professional singers reach and sustain high notes.Essentially, such a technique forces the singer’s vocal tract to increase in size and as a result, changes the quality of the voice. It then enables the singers to extend vowels and consonants, which makes the stress sound differently than when speaking.
Last but not least is social stereotyping. According to said theory—which is also based on music history—there is a social expectation that popular music should be sung with a standard American accent. And that is even if you are British, Scottish, or another race.
Look at other music genres like punk, country, folk, and indie music. If you noticed, singers of the said genres keep their accent even when they are performing. Linguist Andy Gibson also noted the same situation in singers from New Zealand and suggested calling it a “pop music accent.”
While it was mentioned that there is an expectation for pop singers who are not American to sing without their mother tongue’s accent, it is clear that most British singers do not intentionally want to sound like Americans, and entirely lose their accent. Rather, it is a natural phenomenon that is inherently important music-wise.
To wrap it up, British singers sound like Americans when they sing because the structure of music, their vocal tract posture when they exhibit vocal techniques, and phonetics. All these elements are important to efficiently deliver the song to audience. And, most importantly, successfully hit a high note!
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.