Why Don't We Hear Accents When People Sing?

Why does Adele sound American? She doesn't, really, of course — not when she speaks. But when she sings, her "Norf London" drawl dissolves. If you didn't recognize that famous voice, you'd have no way of identifying it as British at all.

Other English singers seem to switch sides of the Atlantic when they sing, too. Take Mick Jagger. You can hear the English vowels coloring some of his words in songs, but he seems to be trying his hardest to sound like Muddy Waters or some other American bluesman. Eric Clapton doesn't sound particularly British, nor did Amy Winehouse. And Tom Jones never sounded especially Welsh. 

According to linguists Rob Drummond and Erin Carrie of Manchester Metropolitan University, this shift in accent has two causes, as reported by The Daily Mail. The first is linguistic. The mechanics of singing are different from the mechanics of breathing: vowel length and quality, for instance, change to accommodate the sustained pitch of singing. As we increase airflow, we inevitably lengthen our syllables, and our articulation becomes less pronounced. On the other side of the Atlantic, where the English language is generally rhotic (i.e., the letter "r" gets pronounced, even at the end of a word — "over" instead of "ovah"), the only way to flow from word to word while sustaining pitch and airflow is to drop the final "r." That means American singing already sounds slightly transatlantic if you pay attention (via Mental Floss). (If you don't believe us, try singing your favorite song and really pronouncing all those final "r"s.) 

Pressure to sound like the cool kids

There's another reason that pop singers from the UK tend to sound American, though, and it has nothing to do with linguistics. "Socially," say Drummond and Carrie, "there is an expectation ... that popular music will be sung this way." The default accent of pop music is American, since America is still the pop-culture capital of the world. 

Another related reason, noted by Mental Floss, is the slow erosion of regional accents all over the world. Life in the 21st century is an increasingly homogenous affair, as almost everyone on the planet uses the same internet, watches the same movies, and buys the same tech commodities. This has concentrated cultures and economies all over the world in a very few, very big cities, like New York City, London, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Beijing. If you sound like you're from one of those cities, you sound international, connected to everyone. If you speak with a Clydeside brogue, or an Arkansas twang, you risk sounding provincial, unconnected, out of touch. The Independent estimates that regional accents in the UK could even go extinct by 2066.

If that sounds bleak, never fear — a number of British artists have gone out of their way not to sound American (or blandly BBC) when they sing. Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys (pictured) has an unmistakable, blue-collar Sheffield accent. Billy Bragg and Shane MacGowan are still at it, too. No one ever said they sound American.