Question of the Week

Vocal Accent While Singing

Sun, 30th Mar 2008

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Archana, North Carolina asked:

My question is about accents. I’ve noticed that many people when they speak in a language that is not their native tongue have strong accents. However, when they try to sing a song in the same language their accent seem to diminish. There are exceptions for this but it seems to be generally true no matter what their native language is or what language they try to sing in. Why is that?


Dr David Howard, University of York, Voice Production, Department of Electronics:

Harry Belafonte SingingIn answer to the question which relates to accents, what you hear when people sing as opposed to when they speak, I think the answer to this lies in the way people are trained to sing. We learn vowel sounds, particularly in singing, in a way that allows us to project them to a loud audience. That means that the front of the mouth needs to be more open than it is in speech so it’s a bit like a megaphone.  The vowels take on a different sound in terms of their timbre which is really what accent is. Therefore the vowels are being placed in a position for singing which is not the same as speech.

The other way of thinking about it is that the-certainly the Opera tradition of singing, certainly the Bel Canto tradition of singing come very much from the Italian school of vowels. Singers are encouraged to make their vowels very clean, very Italian-like: “Spagheeetti.” When you do that, no matter what language you start in, you will aim towards the vowels that have that clean, slightly Italian sound. Even if it’s not Italian they do merge to a sort of fund-vowel quality which rather removes the accent variation which in terms of mouth movement is really very small.


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