Singing and speaking seem like they should be pretty similar activities. Both involve forming sounds with your mouth and vocal cords. Sure, you don’t randomly start singing in the middle of a conversation — unless you’re very into musical theater — but still, they overlap in many ways. If that’s the case, then, it doesn’t explain why people’s singing and speaking voices can differ so widely. More specifically, why do some people seem to lose their accent when singing?
Take Adele. She grew up in Tottenham, London, and her speaking voice is distinctively British. Many people say it’s a Cockney accent, though she isn’t technically from the area associated with that way of speaking. If you hear her sing, though, you’d be hard-pressed to guess where she’s from.
There are a few different things going on here. To understand why a person sounds so different when they sing, you have to look at both the physical act of singing and the cultural forces shaping the music industry. But first, we have to discuss what it means to “lose” your accent when singing.
Are People Losing Their Accents When Singing?
The first thing to know is that it is impossible to speak without an accent. At its most basic, an accent is simply the way we pronounce certain words. No matter who you are and what you sound like, you’re using an accent, or you wouldn’t be able to form sounds at all.
When we say someone is “losing” their accent, what it really means is that they’re speaking in a way that we consider more neutral. In many cases, that means taking on an accent called General American. Often associated with newscasters, General American is defined not for what it sounds like but for what it doesn’t sound like. It doesn’t have the r-lessness of a Boston or British accent, it doesn’t have a U.S. southern twang and it gives you absolutely no information as to where the speaker might be from. Because of how General American evolved, it’s also very white, very male and associated with “authority” in the United States.
Returning to the original question of this article, we can rephrase it from “Why do people lose their accents when singing?” to “Why do people tend to sound like they’re using a General American accent when singing?” With this new question in mind, we have to look at two big factors.
Singing’s Effect On Accents
Your accent comprises all of the specific ways you pronounce words in your language. When we talk about accents, we usually focus on the most noticeable aspects, like the difference between to-may-to and to-mah-to. Really, though, there are countless features in an accent, from how long you sustain vowels in a word to the tone you use when you’re saying them. All of these add up to your distinct voice, and all of these are subject to change when you’re singing instead of speaking.
The biggest explanation for a singer’s accent change, then, is that many accent features vanish because of the nature of singing itself. An article in Mental Floss cites linguist David Crystal’s explanation, which is that, “a song’s melody cancels out the intonations of speech, followed by the beat of the music canceling out the rhythm of speech.” Thus, many of the features that give away your speaking accent are not possible to reproduce when you’re singing.
Why, though, would it sound like a General American accent instead of something else entirely? As mentioned above, the General American accent is defined by the lack of distinct features, instead of the presence of any in particular. While singers might not be doing a General American accent exactly, when their singing voices make certain features vanish, it so happens that the result would be closer to General American.
Even with that in mind, though, it doesn’t entirely explain the phenomenon that’s happening. For one thing, there are plenty of musical artists who clearly have an accent when singing. Many country music artists in the United States show off their southern accent in their songs, to use but one example. To understand the use of General American in music, then, we must turn to the cultural side of things.
The Cultural Reasons For Accent “Loss”
Throughout the 20th century, the United States came into its role as a massive cultural exporter. It was the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll and its music spread far and wide, whether other countries really wanted it or not. One option for a non-American musical artist who wanted to catch the wave of “American cool” would be to imitate the sound, and many did. Even if singing with an American accent is not a conscious decision — some up-and-comers are naturally influenced by more established voices, which happen to be American — it’s had a wide impact in music history.
To use an example of a band that has had its music dissected completely over the decades, we look to the Beatles. Admittedly, if you listen to their entire archive of music, you know that their British-ness (and specifically Liverpool-ness) stands out, particular in their later songs. Yet in a thorough examination of their accents in their music on the blog Ace Linguist, the writer found some clear examples of American accent features being used. In a song called “Another Girl,” they start the song by clearly pronouncing the “r” in “another” like an American would, but by the end of the song they’re pronouncing it as the more Liverpudlian “another.” In another song, “Till There Was You,” singer Paul McCartney over-corrects for his r-lessness by pronouncing “I never saw them winging” like “I never sar them winging,” placing an “r” where one wouldn’t otherwise be. Both of these point to the singers trying to sound slightly more American in their music.
While this can start to sound conspiratorial if you keep digging for clues, there are also artists who openly admit to trying to sound more American in their singing. British boy band One Direction once said their record company told them they sounded “too English,” and so they had to tweak their accents in their music. On the flipside of the matter, there are singers who reject the American way of singing to show off their accents, like artists in the British grime scene. As American cultural hegemony has lessened over the years, there has been a greater diversity of voices in the music industry.
The way we sing, like the way we talk, is shaped by countless forces around us. While some of it is entirely out of our control, the way we sing can convey our individuality or it can align us with a group we’re longing to be part of. Accents are another way that music has allowed us to express ourselves since the earliest days of human society.