February 4, 2014
Dig a bit deeper into music with some basic history, theory, and music appreciation knowledge. Discover the science that your ears and brain wire together and call music. View all
Ah music, the international language. It transcends political and economic boundaries, it harkens on universal themes, and does a lot of other things someone who describes themselves as #blessed would say. All feel-good melting pot analogies aside, have you noticed that music actually does manage to nullify one huge indicator of our backgrounds? That’s right, nearly everyone sings without an accent. Why is it that you don’t realize a singer hails from the UK until you hear them speak instead of sing into the microphone?
So, what makes up an accent exactly? Just kidding, that’s a huge question that linguists have and will continue to define and debate. We don’t need to understand everything that goes into an accent, but we will take a look at a few key pieces of accents, vowels, intonation, and rhythm, that singing strips out.
- Vowels – Consonants, with the exception of the hard American “r”, can only be pronounced in so many ways. A “t” is “t” just about anywhere it’s pronounced. This means that the primary difference in pronunciation between accents lies in the vowels. As mentioned in last week’s article about diphthongs in singing, spoken vowels introduce too much varying pitch and vocal strain to use in singing, and thus far more neutral sung vowels are used instead. Singers focus on vocal shapes that allow the throat to open up and project, and that help keep pitch focused and consistent. Vocal instructors across the world use these same techniques, meaning that their students, regardless of country of origin, use the same vocal shapes, a huge first step in removing accents from vocal performances.
- Intonation – Think of the delightful Irish Lilt accent and imagine mapping the notes out on a piece of staff paper. Now do the same with the Liverpool accent. The Irish accent shows a pretty wide range of pitch, averages a fairly high pitch, dips in the middle, and rises at the end. The Liverpool accent on the other hand sits in the middle to lower register, rises and falls at different times, but doesn’t rise and fall by much. Clearly, the pitches involved in speech play a huge part in establishing accents. Well, when singing, you have to stick to the notes the composer wrote on the page. No more sitting on an average pitch of your liking. No more rising and falling at will. No more accent.
- Rhythm – Let’s stick with the comparison between the Irish and Liverpool accents and now concentrate on the rhythms of the speech. While the Irish speaker fits in nearly twice as many words in a second as an American might be used to, you might find yourself asking the man from Liverpool to spit it out already. Just like with pitch, when it comes to singing, you have to stick with what’s written on that piece of staff paper in front of you. If you get that man from Liverpool and that Irish lass together to sing a duet, they will do so at the same pace, melting their accents together.
Of course there’s more to it than that, and just like working with natural speech patterns when writing lyrics can vastly improve them, working with and accentuating accents can really lift a song. Overall though, the lessening of accents in music is truly helps to make it universal, and not just for feel-good reasons. I hope that after reading this, the next time you’re at a party and someone says “I didn’t even know she was Australian/English/Jamaican” you can be that guy/gal who goes off on a factual rant and ruins the party vibe. That’s usually my job.