Why Do Accents Often Disappear When Singing?*

by | Apr 8, 2019


In 2005 Ozzy Osbourne conducted the below interview with Conan O’Brien. As you can tell from this short clip from the interview, Ozzy has a quite strong Cockney British accent. In the interview he’s describing a break-in at his house:

Also in 2005 Ozzy played at “Ozzfest” and rocked out to “War Pigs.” Interestingly, he seems to have almost no British accent :

Now – here’s a clip of an interview with the Swedish duo “Pale Honey” (they speak very good English – but definitely with an accent) as they discuss live vs. recorded music:

Now here’s a bit of their song “Why Do I Always Feel This Way?” (great song IMO) – the lead singer, Tuva Lodmark, sounds like an American!

Why do singers with accents usually have no accent (or, rather, sound like an American) when they sing? One theory summarized by the UK paper Daily Mail is: “Accent differences are largely created through intonation, vowel quality and vowel length – all of which are affected when we sing. In singing, syllables are lengthened, air flow is increased, articulation is less precise. Thus we get a more generic, neutralised accent that happens to share features with American varieties of English.”

While singing may have some accent neutralizing effect, some singers do sing with an accent, and thus the “act of singing theory” does not fully explain the effect. Below are to clips of songs where the accent is obvious and was not neutralized by singing. The first is from The Proclaimers:

Now here’s the Arctic Monkeys:

So – singers with accents CAN sing with their local accent. So, why do most British or other accented singers sound American? This question has been the subject of some research by sociolinguists.

One of the earliest research studies in 1983 proposed possible reasons for American accents by British singers:

  1. Accommodation theory. This occurs when we are conversing with someone with an accent different than our own. Over the course of interacting, we tend to subconsciously modify our accents “either to converge to or diverge from (become more or less like) those of their interlocutors, depending on whether they want to identify with or distance themselves from those interlocutors.” The problem with this theory is that singers aren’t conversing (there’s no back and forth) and their accent doesn’t change based on the accent of the audience.
  2. Appropriateness. This theory states that various types of pronunciation are “appropriate” for different situations and thus with songs it may be deemed appropriate that they are sung with a certain accent.
  3. Acts of Identity. This occurs where “speakers’ linguistic behavior is motivated by the wish to resemble as closely as possible that of the group or groups with which they wish to identify.

Of these three linguistic explanations, the third, acts of identity, is the front-runner. From the paper cited above:

British pop singers are attempting to modify their pronunciation in the direction of that of a particular group with which they wish to identify. . . . This group, moreover, can clearly, if somewhat loosely, be characterized by the general label ‘Americans.’” The reason for this adoption of “American” features is that most genres of popular music in the twentieth century were American in origin. Americans have dominated the field, and cultural domination leads to imitation: it is appropriate to sound like an American when performing what is predominantly an American activity; and one attempts to model one’s singing style on that of those who do it best and who one admires most.”

Sociolinguists have noted that while pop singers tend to sound American, other genres have not adhered as closely to an American accent. Notably, punk, folk, and indie music often feature local accents. According to linguist Joan Beal, “in both folk and indie music, local and regional accent and dialect feature index authenticity . . . [and] performers such as these are engaged in constructing authenticity as a value opposed to the mainstream and to the commercial music industry.” Thus, because we expect pop music to sound American, singers sing it with an American accent – other genres with broader ranges of expectations (or with British roots like punk rock) may have greater accent variation.

An interesting fact in support of this being the correct theory – linguists have determined that the Beatles had more of an American accent on their early albums and more of a Liverpool accent on their later albums. As they grew in popularity and arguably became the creators of a musical genre they became more authentic.

Bottom line: the best explanation for why singers with non-American accents sound American when they sing is that they are trying to sound like they don’t have an accent due popular music typically sounding American. But, there may be some accent neutralizing effect in the act of singing itself.

*The heading “why do accents often disappear when singing?” is of course written from an American perspective. I imagine a Brit would write it as “why do accents often appear when singing?”

1 Comment

  1. A Cockney accent? He’s from my home city of Birmingham and I can assure you that Ozzy has a Brummie (Birmingham) accent. It’s nothing like Cockney. Dear me. There are hundreds of different accents in Britain. It annoys me when people from other countries assume everyone speaks like the Royal Family or Cockney. Most of us have other accents.


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