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Several people have claimed that the singers accents are lost or reduced when they sing, or even that they tend to sing in an American accent.

Here are some online discussions of the issue:

In those discussions, there are diverse suggested claims such as:

  • Singers do it consciously to suit the market.
  • It is because of the phonetics.
  • Singers do it because they are duplicating others.
  • The English accent requires tighter muscles which aren't conducive to singing.
  • Suggestions that it is because different parts of the brain are responsible for singing versus speaking.
  • People claiming it isn't true for all accents, for example, or Australian accents.
  • People claiming it is also true for French accents.

What these claims all have in common is a lack of any evidence provided to support them.

Do singers have different singing and speaking accents? Is this unconscious or deliberate? Is it toward a particular accent or is it that singing somehow removes accent features? What is the cause?

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  • Re-opened after a major revamp. – Oddthinking Jul 3 '11 at 6:49
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    @Odd: I voted to close the revamped version. I don't see how this can be objectively answered in a constructive way. – MrHen Jul 3 '11 at 15:51
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    @Odd: Fair enough. I happen to know that there is a pretty strong difference between some singers' talking and singing voice. Opera, in particular, can care an awful lot about pronunciation. But I also know of singers whose voices have not changed much in singing. So meh. – MrHen Jul 3 '11 at 21:59
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    @MrHen, ha! There's a difference in attitude between us. I hear that and go "Really? It differs by singer and by style? I wonder what causes THAT!" – Oddthinking Jul 3 '11 at 22:06
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    @MrHen I disagree about the lack of constructive answer... If anything, there are some fairly strong answers out there based on phonetics/linguistics theory (for my 2 yen, the ones arguing that singers go for 'perfect vowels', which aren't accent-dependent, make good sense). At any rate, the mere comments here indicate a lack of consensus on the (possibly scientific) cause, so I don't see why it would be off-scope... – Dave Jul 4 '11 at 2:54
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I was waiting for somebody with much better understanding of linguistics theory to take a stab at this. But no one has come forth and, in the meantime, many people have started questioning the pertinence of the question itself, so let me give it a try:

First off (contrary to what many of the comments above have suggested): dialectal accents are extremely well defined in linguistics. There is such a thing as an "objective" classification of regional English accents, based on well-defined phonetic criteria.

Two of the most common (and strongest) differences between English accents are:

  1. Pronunciation of rhotic consonants. E.g.: words like 'metal' and 'medal' will sound more or less alike depending on the speaker's regional accent.

  2. Pronunciation of diphthongs. E.g: 'low' vs 'loud' vs 'lout' etc.

Many research papers make mention of a "neutral regional accent", as mainly defined with regard to these two characteristics (moderately rhotic consonants, vowels that tend toward pure vowels and diphthongs that tend to get monophthongized).

At the same time, the standard Western view on good singing diction encourages pure vowels and clearly enunciated consonants, removing many of the degrees of freedom differentiating between regional accents.

And thus, there is an objective, phonetics-based, rationale for singing accents' tendency to converge toward a "neutral" accent (perhaps misidentified as "American", due to some of the neutral features of Western and Northeastern American dialects, compared to the strongly non-rhottic UK and Australian dialects).

While I would expect there to be some scientific literature detailing the topic, this is not my field and all I was able to find through a cursory search on Google Scholar was this musicology article:

"Vocal Diction" -- In a Nutshell, by T. Campbell Young. London, 1932

Ancient as it may be, it seems its musicology/phonetics contents should still hold by modern scientific standards. Its lengthy technical description of diction standards of sung English is introduced by the following general remark:

It is equally true to say that language, in song, has been standardized to such an extent that it has become universal and homogeneous. It follows naturally that when words and music are allied, the former must be pronounced in such a way as to conform with the accepted principles of good singing.

This, along with the above notes on the phonetics of regional accents, will hopefully do as a placeholder answer, until somebody with much deeper knowledge of linguistics than I, cares to step in and give some stronger references.

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    +1. I am amused the 1932 reference starts with an anecdote of a English woman saying an American was singing with an English accent - i.e. the opposite of what started this question. – Oddthinking Jul 4 '11 at 4:13
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    Agreed, this is quite amusing. I think the take away message is that singing will tend to sound "natural"/"neutral" to whomever is listening (regardless of the singer's native accent)... – Dave Jul 4 '11 at 6:14
  • This isn't answering the question. The 1932 reference is far too out of date to encompass modern music/singing (i.e. R&B, rap, country, gospel, rock, modern pop). I do agree that dialects are objectively studied and the notion of a neutral accent is good but how does this relate to singing? Aside from one 70-year-old source, how does this answer the question "Do people lose their accent when they sing?" – MrHen Jul 4 '11 at 15:19
  • @MrHen: the important point of that 1932 paper is not the particular type of diction it associates with singing (we will assume it focusses on its contemporary music, even though nowhere does it say so), but the fact that any such diction would be imposed by singing. If rock or modern pop may have slightly different diction trends, they ostensibly emphasise similar ideas of clear enunciation (which corresponds to pure vowels and non-rhotism) which will attenuate the accent-specific features I just described. – Dave Jul 4 '11 at 15:49
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    @MrHen: as I took the pain of specifying at the top of my entry, my ambition was not to provide an exhaustive answer, merely to show that the question was a valid one (since you questioned its validity) and open the way for someone with more credentials in this field to contribute stronger references. I still do believe that the connection I established above is conceptually close enough to the sources to stand on its own (namely: "accent features are also diction features ergo constraining the latter affects the former"). Feel free to bring further proof of disproof to this basic statement. – Dave Jul 4 '11 at 17:00

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