by Nicole Gagliardi
At the end of the last blog post, I left you and myself with a question that many of us seem to wonder about and don’t exactly know the answer to it: why someone’s singing voice can sound so different from their speaking voice. In other words, if you’ve ever only listened to Adele sing, you might not have a doubt in your mind that she’s from the States, since she sounds so American. I thought so, too, and was unsurprisingly shocked to hear that she’s from London. But up until recently, this wasn’t something I thought about too often, since we don’t encounter people who speak with American accents and sing with a British accent- unless, perhaps, you’re incredibly enthusiastic about The Beatles and want to emulate their signature sound.
Like I surmised in the last blog post, it turns out that these diction classes do influence the way your voice sounds when you sing, and they may very well disguise your accent; but before we continue, let’s clear up what “accent” entails: simply put, it’s the intonation, length of vowels, and rhythm of speaking one uses when talking. The Midwestern, Southern, and Bostonian American accents are all accents that a person from the United States will recognize easily, and these accents among other American accents are what we use to identify if someone is a native English speaker or not. In other words, it’s one thing to learn the individual sounds of a language, but another to sound native. For example, it’s generally easy to pick out a native Spanish speaker from an American who learned Spanish later in life. But the reason why we don’t hear these distinct features in singing is because singing requires different rhythms than what we’d use in a speaking voice, and singing can require a higher level of smoothness between sounds. Songs have their own melodies and rhythms that the lyrics must adapt to. To give an example, in everyday speech an American might be inclined to ask someone “How’re you?” with little emphasis on the “are” whereas in singing, should this phrase occur, the word “are” over a long note would require much more emphasis on the vowel “ah” than on the “r” quality, and sustaining the “r” would make the singing sound unnatural (and might I mention, very pirate-like). But this ‘r’ isn’t lost; it needs to be there so that the word can be distinguished from other words. However, this isn’t necessarily the case across the board; how things are emphasized or downplayed in singing depends a lot on the genre and style that the song belongs to, and so for example, a musical theatre song may require a Brooklyn accent, but in an Italian art song or opera aria, classical Italian diction is will required and the same singer will sound completely different.
Contrasting from Americans, people from England may speak with what linguists call a “non-rhotic accent,” meaning that the “r” sound at the ends of words are generally dropped; instead of the American pronunciation where R’s are heavily pronounced, English people may liken it to more of an “uh” sound. So when these sounds are lengthened and there is a heightened emphasis on vowel quality and a muted emphasis on consonant articulation, one’s singing voice starts to emulate that of a general American accent; were an English person to sing “How are you?” they may need to emphasize the R at the end of “are,” since singing something like “How ahh you?” would also sound just as strange. Again, this is highly dependent on the genre, and the degree of accent modification depending on the message the song is trying to put forth and the context in which the song appears.
I definitely will be paying more attention to the way someone sings and speaks from now on (besides, as all linguists know, we love finding out the details of the way someone speaks). But through my searching, I also found another particularly interesting theory as to why accents “disappear” during singing; perhaps it could be the desire to sound more mainstream and eliminate an accent that’s seen as belonging to a minority group. This got me wondering again- which is more powerful? The desire to be mainstream, or the physiological effect singing has on voice? Maybe this question will be the fruit for the next post. There’s so much more to explore about the intricacies of singing diction, and I’m excited to continue sharing my findings with you.