Have you ever wondered why singers—particularly those with distinct and prominent pronunciation and intonation—lose their accent when they sing? You are not alone!
Folks of different ethnicities around the globe sure do have diverse way of pronouncing and enunciating English words. And it is with no surprise if someone with prominent accent sings with his mother tongue.
But the thing is, there are people who tend to lose their accent when they start singing. It is surprising and odd for some but losing one’s accent when singing, apparently, is not some peculiar phenomenon.
As a matter of fact, there is a rational explanation behind it.
Why do singers lose their accent when they sing? According to experts, the reason as to why professional singers lose their accent is because of phonetics, vocal techniques, as well as tract posture, and even the song’s melody calls for a change in accent.
That being said, this article covers everything you need to know about why people—even professional singers—lose their accent when they sing.
Brief Definition of Accent
But first, what is an accent?
Accent, in terms of sociolinguistics, is the way a person or a group of people enunciate words distinct to a specific ethnicity, nation, or location. Each accent varies in quality of intonation and pronunciation. The manner in which vowels, consonant, stress, and even prosody is distinct as well.
Moreover, an accent is differentiated in several ways. The speaker’s locality (geographical accent) or where the speaker resides, for example, is one way to identify accents. The speaker’s social class (social accent), ethnicity (ethnolect), socioeconomic status, and even the influence from their first language (foreign accent).
Factors that Make Singers Lose Their Accent When Singing
Now that you have a brief idea of what an accent is, let’s move forward to the main topic: the reasons why singers lose their accents.
Here are the main factors:
Phonetics. The number one factor that affects the way we enunciate words when we sing is phonetics. In fact, it is the most defining aspect in terms of identifying a specific accent. And it is not only in singing, but also applies when we are speaking. Essentially, vowels and consonants are enunciated in a number of ways across the globe. Depending on the country or locality, vowels and consonants are pronounced in varying lengths and manners. The vowel “oh,” for instance, is normally pronounced as “ah” with a jaw-dropping mouth and relaxed lips in a standard American accent. Unlike in some places in Europe such as London, locals there enunciate the vowel “oh” deeper and a bit longer with their lips forming a round shape. Such a rule, however, is commonly heard in speech.
It is because when we sing, the said rule is reduced by the music’s structure. Vowels, for example, are usually elongated to fit the song’s structure which we do not do when we speak—unless we are yelling or angry. Aside from that, singers often stress certain vowels and syllables too to, again, follow the music’s arrangement.
Trying to hit a high note could also affect the way a singer sings a word. In Ben Platt’s song Bad Habit, the word “you” (around 3:32mins) was pronounced as “ah” instead of “oo.” And it is because it is much easier to hit a high note using the vowel “ah” rather than the “oo.”
Thus, when singers sing the same song, they sing it the way others have done it which also cancels out their accent.
Song’s melody and rhythm. When speaking, the second most defining factor of a particular accent is intonation. Such an aspect, however, naturally vanishes when we sing due to the music’s melody as well as rhythm. In essence, the song’s melody and rhythm cancel out the speaker’s speech pattern or accent’s intonation. A linguist and author from Northern Island named David Crystal said that a song’s melody naturally rids of speech intonation while the beat of the song cancels out the rhythm of the speech. Following the music’s structure then forces the singer to stress syllables that are accented in the song, which then prompt the singer to extend the way they sing vowels (remember what we talk about phonetics). Overall, the pace and flow of the music largely influence how the singers pronounce the lyrics as well as the delivery of the song. It is particularly true when the song’s speed is slow and the singer is able to pronounce the words powerfully, making the accent sound neutral.
Vocal tract posture. Aside from the music’s structure and phonetics, vocal tract techniques and posture also influences how the singer enunciate lyrics. It may sound like non-musicians but there is a science behind it. Vocal techniques, which often involves proper breathing, make the words sound fuller and greater when we sing thanks to air pressure. Singers of all genres—but specifically those who are in the field of classical music—learn how to properly breathe while singing as such technique enables them to sustain high notes. In essence, the technique forces the singer’s vocal tract to expand and widen and changes how the quality of the sound or voice. It then, again, allows the person to stretch out vowels and syllables and stresses fall differently than when speaking. As a result, it cancels out the singer’s prominent accent.
Social Stereotyping. Lastly, social stereotyping could also prompt a singer to lose its accent. Such a factor is uncommon, but the theory suggests that it is possible. If you noticed, singers in genres such as folk, country, indie music, and punk often keep their accent even when they are performing. Unlike those who sing pop songs, who typically sport a neutral American accent. It is because, according to experts, there is an expectation that pop songs must sound American. Unlike country music, and other genres mentioned above. Thus, in a way, pop singers that are not native American tend to shift their accent to a neutral American accent when they sing.
Do Singers Know They Lose Their Accent When Performing?
There are a lot of interviews about non-native Americans talking about how they could sing without an accent. And among the many questions is if they know that they lose their accent—or even sound American—when they are performing?
Surprisingly, the answer is a no.
Based on a 2010 study conducted by a New Zealand researcher at AUT’s University Institute of Culture, Discourse, and Communication, professional singers with prominent accents showed that they are unaware that they sound differently—or without accent—when performing.
Crystal David, furthermore, emphasized that it is not common for folks with a very obvious accent to sing an entire without revealing a bit of his accent. Hence, he believes that most singers do “mixed accents” when singing.
Professional singers with prominent accents yet sing without it, in conclusion, are not trying to conceal the way they speak. Neither do they try to “sound like an American,” as many non-musicians thought.
It is, rather, a natural phenomenon that happens due to the song’s structure, the singer’s vocal tract posture, and phonetics. And has a scientific explanation. All in all, what matters is how the singer delivers the song efficiently. And not the accent!
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.