Saturday, 14 November 2009

On singing accents

A correspondent writes to say he's noted that regional accents disappear in songs, or at least become less detectable, and wonders if there's an explanation.

This is true, as a general observation, and there two reasons for it. The first is phonetic. Several of the main identifying features of a regional accent tend to disappear when singing - the intonation (obviously, as a melody replaces it), the speech rhythm, and vowel length (for many syllables are elongated). Vowel quality is also often affected, especially in classical singing, where vowels are articulated with greater openness than in everyday speech.

All of this can affect the artistry. I found a quote from Billy Bragg saying that a London accent forces a singer to approach melody differently. ‘You can’t sing something like 'Tracks Of Your Tears' in a London accent. The cadences are all wrong. It’s also difficult to sing harmonies in a London accent. And you can’t sustain syllables for long'. It's not possible to generalize from this, because accents have very different norms - different rhythms and rates of articulation, for example - but it's interesting that some singers have reflected on the issues.

The other reason for accent levelling in songs is social. Some singers want to drop their regional accent, because they want to sing like the fashionable mainstream. This has been especially noticeable in popular music since the early days of rock 'n' roll. Singers everywhere imitated Bill Haley and Elvis, and many still do. A mid-Atlantic hybrid quickly emerged, which levelled natural regional features. From his singing, who would ever guess where Cliff Richard comes from? Or Sting, Rod Stewart, Tom Jones, or Elton John?

However, it's perfectly possible for singers to retain an individual accent, if they want to, and many do. In fact, they've been doing it for years. If we listen to recordings of music-hall days, we'll hear broad Cockney, Lancashire, Scots, Irish, and others. You could hardly get more Cockney, for example, than in such songs as 'Any Old Iron' or 'Boiled Beef and Carrots'.

And now there are signs of modern pop music returning to its dialect roots. The Mersey sound was an early development. A Liverpudlian accent regularly stands out in the Beatles - such as (in 'Penny Lane') customer with a rounded first vowel and words like there and wear (in 'Only a Northern Song') with a central vowel (rhyming with her). I recall Paul McCartney saying (but I can't remember where) that the Beatles did experiment with singing in an American accent early on, but decided against it because it sounded ridiculous. Other early departures in the UK from an American-sounding norm (or, at least, a mid-Atlantic-sounding norm) were Tommy Steele and Joe Brown.

More recently we have the London accents of Ian Dury, Chas & Dave, and Lily Allen, and the rather more gentrified tones of Anthony Newley. Mike Skinner's accent is so noticeable (with its glottal stops, replacement of th by f, and other Cockney features) that it has been called Mockney. The accents of the Celtic areas of the British Isles are often heard. Listen for example to 'Daddy's Gone' from Glasvegas and you'll hear several local Scottish features, such as a rounded [y] in you, an [e] vowel in sitting, and plenty of glottal stops. Glottal stops are one of the things to listen out for, actually: you'll hear them in groups from different parts of the UK, such as Futurehead and The Rakes. Listen out too for the /r/ after a vowel in Irish accents, as heard in, say, Mary Coughlan (from the south) and Snow Patrol (from the North). And of course in rapping we regularly get a distinctive accent, because of the syllable-timed rhythm. But my impression is that, rapping aside, in hardly any case do singers use a consistent regional accent throughout the whole song. Mixed accents seem to be the norm.

22 comments:

Dave Rattigan said...

It warms me when I hear a regional accent come through in someone's singing voice, especially from my own region (Liverpool).

vp said...

In classical choral singing (in England) we are usually taught to use a kind of RP accent, with one notable exception: the GOAT vowel is [oʊ] rather than [əʊ]. I don't know whether this is an archaism surviving from the pre-WWI era, or because [əʊ] sounds less euphonious on long syllables. Perhaps both.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Actually I've noticed a distinct accent from Rod Stewart. I couldn't say what kind, but his TH's are more like T's, and his vowels are odd - in "Still the Same" he doesn't rhyme "caught" and "thought", but "thought" does rhyme with "walked".

But in general, you're right - many Australians sing country with what sounds like American accents, for instance.

Fiona said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHUGPsCnpXc
Here's Juliet Turner, my favourite artist who continues to sing in a strong regional artist. Found out recently she's in the process of completing a degree in speech and language therapy in her native Ireland.

David Crosbie said...

You refer only to art-music singers and pop singers. I hear a very different spectrum when I listen to folk singers.

By 'folk singers' I mean traditional singers who are amateurs (or developed their style as amateurs), and those 'revival' singers who copy traditional singers. I believe that some singers revert to a less modified variant of their local accent when singing songs with (for them) local associations.

The label 'folk' also accommodates singer-songwriters who compose texts to resemble local speech and perform them with local accents. Liverpool, which you mentioned in connection with pop, has been especially rich.

A performer with a huge popular following who started off in this 'folk' idiom is Billy Connolly, whose accent has never (I think) been described as 'mixed'.

A less stellar but still very popular performer was Jake Thackeray. To my ears his singing accent follows his spoken accent both in the regional features he chose to preserve and the features he chose to modify.

lau said...

I'm a Shakespeare and Linguistics freak and I was recently given Think on my Words as present. Your name immediatly rang a bell so I recalled having read stuff by you at college, probably in my courses of Linguistics or History of the English language. As expected, I googled your name and here I am.
Already bookmarked blog.
As regards siging accents, let me tell you that as reading this text, (American) country music came to my mind. I think the singers' accent is noticiable there probably because the rhythm allows it.
Anyway, I'll be coming by..
Cheers..

DC said...

Yes, I agree, there's more around in folk - though it depends what kind of folk. In c&w, for instance, a pseudo-Nashville seems to be pretty widespread.

R A Harless said...

I've recently become semi-obsessed with the bands Cat Empire (from Australia) and Gogol Bordello (the lead singer is Ukrainian)and also enjoy Flogging Molly. I love the varied accents and feel that they add to the feeling of the music.

David Crosbie said...

There's a great concentration of singing in British and Irish regional accents in the CD series 'Voice of the People' by Topic records. Many of the tracks can be sampled free of charge from sites such as Amazon or the iTunes Store.

Jz said...

I'm a student from Singapore and I've recently come across your blog which I found very insightful and relevant!

On singing accents, I completely agree that the tone, syllable-timing and rhythm of music probably has a part to play. Which is why it sometimes sounds really awkward (at least to me - not sure if it's awkward to other people) when I hear some American songs sung in the local accent.

I guess in writing songs, where words are chosen for their meaning and also their sound, perhaps writers will imagine how the words will sound in their own accents.

Matilda said...

I live in Australia, and I've actually noticed a big trend towards putting on a very exaggerated Australian accent when singing. Examples: Missy Higgins, Eskimo Joe, Peter Garret from Midnight Oil, Harry James Angus from The Cat Empire. When you hear them speaking they just have a fairly ordinary, nondescript Australian accent, but when the music is playing suddenly they either have the broadest Australian vowels or the most nasal voice you could imagine. ;) The singer from Eskimo Joe in particular puts on an utterly different voice when singing, so much so that even for other Australians it's often difficult to tell what the lyrics are.
I'm not really sure why this is. It could be to sound appealingly exotic, to distinguish themselves as from other accents or an attempt at patriotism.
That said, those who don't exaggerate their own accent do put on a vaguely American one. I sort of wish people didn't think it was necessary to completely change their voice when singing.

David Crosbie said...

A broadcast of a Kathleen Ferrier record the other day reminded me of the opposite phenomenon: songs sung in RP and classically-trained voices that were collected from singers with untrained voices and strong regional accents.

Ferrier was exceptional in overcoming these disadvantages. Most concert performances of traditional folk songs are pretty repugnant to enthusiasts.

I suppose it's illogical to claim that the accent is artistically vital. Perhaps a singer's refusal to modify his or her accent is an index of commitment to communicating 'the truth' -- as he or she feels it.

wonderer said...

I've been wondering why (or whether) most English-speaking pop singers regardless of their origins sing in American accent such as alveolar tap for intervocalic 't' and open back unrounded vowel for short vowel 'o'. If it is so, I think it's probably due to the prominence of American pop music. But indeed I don't know exactly if it is really so.

SUSAN said...

This is a bit off the topic but I have often wondered how varying accents have come to be. Why is North American English (Canadian/American) different from British? What about South African or Austrailian? How did these accents evolve?

I am searching through your blog and your writings to find the answer!

Many thanks from Susan in Italy...

DC said...

There's quite a bit on accent as an index of identity in the two language encyclopedias from CUP, and it's a recurring theme in my By Hook or by Crook (aka Walking English in the US). For a more specialist exploration, see work by John Wells (and his blog) or Peter Trudgill.

Hilary said...

Here's a quote from The King's Singers website FAQ, in relation to membership of their group.

We are often asked whether we have auditioned non-British candidates. We have! However, every successful candidate (so far!) has been British. This has a lot to do with our concerns over blending, and the way vowels are shaped. The way Americans or Germans speak, for example, makes blending with 5 other Brits very difficult.

http://www.kingssingers.com/about.php?startid=11

cathy said...

I'm an Australian student writing an Honours dissertation on this topic for Australian pop in the broader sense (as in, solo, the kind that uses a microphone). Can anyone point me to a good text or article?
And Matilda, I disagree about the exaggeration of those artists' accents, especially Eskimo Joe, who don't sound at all Australian to me. The giveaway I reckon is the GOAT vowel [əʊ]. Holly Throsby, however, sings exactly the way she talks. Check her out.

DC said...

The Peter Trudgill article I mentioned is in his book On Dialect: it's called 'Acts of conflicting identity: the socioinguistics of British pop-song pronunciation'. It's also been reprinted in the Sociolinguistics Reader edited by Coupland and Jaworski.

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Ryan E. Hawkwood said...

Eskimo joe doesn't sound that australian... he even says "gaht" for got..... i've noticed that many australian sometimes think a few people to have such a strong accent while instead they have not... for example, julia gillard, phonologically doesnt speak that different from john howard or tony abbott... i think sometimes it is just voice itself.

Ryan E. Hawkwood said...

Eskimo joe doesn't sound that australian... he even says "gaht" for got..... i've noticed that many australian sometimes think a few people to have such a strong accent while instead they have not... for example, julia gillard, phonologically doesnt speak that different from john howard or tony abbott... i think sometimes it is just voice itself.

mamlukman said...

I've pointed this out to people, too. Some people are confused by "accent" --using "lorry" instead of "truck" is not an "accent" as we are using it here. It's a lexical choice. And yes, although you COULD change consonants ("da bears" vs. "the bears") either for comic effect or to reproduce a certain accent, in general all English dialects use the same consonant sounds. The key element in "accent" (as Crystal points out) are vowels, intonation, and rhythm. Singing obviously (!) determines all of these. (Although you could try very hard and keep certain elements if you wanted--but this is not natural.) Listen to the Eurovision contestants singing in English. Are those Russian twins from Moscow or Chicago? You can't tell. Want to change or eliminate your "foreign" accent? Start talking in a more sing-song way, stressing the ups and downs and drawing out your vowels more than usual. Presto, "foreign accent" gone. I have an MA in ESL and taught speaking and listening for years in foreign countries. ANYONE can speak English without an accent--it's just a matter of deciding to do it and then practicing. Note that Kissenger had / has a strong German accent--but his OLDER brother has none. Henry decided at some point that it made him sound more authoritative. Arnold "I'll be back" S? Don't ask. Accent is his trademark. Check out all those Aussies on TV and in the movies nowadays--Aussie accent? Poof. Gone. But watch them on a talk show--poof! back again! Same with our Irish friend Colin Farrell--if you watch him on talk shows, he can go from one accent to another accent whenever he likes. Also note that in "The King's Speech" one of the tricks to overcome stuttering was singing.