Sunday, November 28, 2010

Why our singing voices have different accents

Many English pop groups in the 60s started off by emulating their cousins from across the pond and sang with an American accent. Cliff Richard still does!

Then The Beatles arrived and we began to hear regional accents creeping in, then punk came along and we got used to hearing different English accents and dialects.

Beatles mural

Beatles mural - Croxteth Avenue, Litherland by Gary Rogers

So nowadays it’s a bit of a shock when there is a big mismatch between how somebody speaks and the accent they choose to sing in.

where did her accent go?

A well-known example is Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent. Her speaking voice reveals a strong Scottish accent, but when she sang “I dreamed a dream” her accent magically vanished and she sounded like a posh woman from London.

It’s often the case that people imitate the accent of the original version of a song. It’s also true that choirs and opera singers can sound very ‘posh’ and English when they enunciate ‘correctly’.

Yet some singers, even when singing their own original material seem to put on an accent which is not their own (I’m sure you can think of lots of examples – I won’t name names!). It’s like they have a special ‘singing voice’.

Most common examples are an American accent when singing pop songs, or a one-size-fits-all West Country or Northern accent when singing folk songs. It’s as if this transformation is expected and the song wouldn’t sound ‘authentic’ otherwise.

singing in a ’merican style

The Americans have a lot to answer for (don’t get me started!). The fact is that a lot of popular music emanates from the US so it’s inevitable that people will try to imitate the accents of their favourite pop stars. But there’s an imbalance between what happens in the US and what happens in the rest of the world.

For example, when watching a strongly accented American movie set in the deep South, English audiences are expected to struggle and catch on as best they can. Yet whenever an English movie is shown in the States which contains regional accents, it is often subtitled. It’s as if the American language, with all its different regional accents and dialects, is somehow the norm for spoken or sung English.

Another mainly American import is musical theatre. Many of the productions that reach these shores are written by Americans, originate from the US, or are set in the States. So it makes sense that when English singers tackle these shows, they sing in an American accent. But there seems to be a trend these days for every musical to be sung in an American accent, regardless of whether it’s appropriate or not.

why people sing in different accents

When somebody’s speaking voice has a very different accent from their singing voice, which is the ‘real’ them? (see my earlier post Your singing self vs. your everyday self – which is the real you?)

Are they putting a voice on? If so, why would they do that?

  • a singing accent can be learnt behaviour – something picked up when younger by listening to other people singing, then it becomes a habit.
  • you might be imitating someone else because that’s what you think a ‘proper’ singer (or a rock singer or an opera singer ...) should sound like (see also Why can’t I sing?)
  • using an accent can be a way of escaping your under-confident self – putting on a different voice allows you to hide and become a different character (see also Learning to love the sound of your own voice)
  • it’s a way of fitting in – when it became popular for English bands to sing in an Essex accent, many posh singers faked it in order to blend in
  • some accents are easier to sing in – e.g. Italian vowels
  • you may think the song calls for a different accent – for example, it would sound pretty odd singing the blues sounding like you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth!
  • you might have been trained that way – certain singing ‘methods’ or styles seem to dictate that the singers end up sounding the same, either accentless of highly enunciated

how do you sing?

Are you aware that you put on a different accent when singing? Do you have a special ‘singing’ voice? Can you think of other reasons why people might do this? Do drop by and leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you!


Chris Rowbury's website:


Chris Rowbury


Get more posts like this delivered straight to your inbox!

Click to subscribe by email.


found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may like to ...

... to say thank you.





Monthly Music Round-up: