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This is just my observation, but it seems like Standard American English lacks any distinct accent when speaking. Listen to almost any person singing with an accent, and they sound like any American singing! I suppose this could be because America has had so many accents thrown on to it that it's averaged out, perhaps. Is there any explanation for this?

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Everybody has an accent. Although nobody hears their own dialect as an "accent". Certainly American English is recognizable as a specific accent. So your observation is wrong, I'm afraid. –  jlawler Aug 10 '12 at 1:31
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What you have observed is that, in popular music, many singers imitate American style, with an American accent; however, this is still a very noticeable American accent. It is a cultural phenomenon. –  Cerberus Aug 10 '12 at 2:10
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Have you listened to any church choirs from England, such as the Choir of King's College Cambridge? There's NO WAY they sound American, at least not to my ears. What about the children who sang in the opening ceremony of this year's Olympic Games? They certainly didn't sound American. I would be interested to know examples of the singing you have heard, that has led you to this conclusion. –  user780 Aug 11 '12 at 2:41
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While I'm still thinking about it, do you believe that The Beatles sound American? How about The Pogues? Midnight Oil? Dance Exponents? Charlotte Church? Hayley Westenra? Sorry, but I'm having difficulty taking your question seriously. I also query your assertion "Standard American English lacks any distinct accent" - OK, it seems that way to you, but I don't know how many non-Americans would agree. –  user780 Aug 11 '12 at 3:09
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I've known plenty of people who as soon as they start singing take on a sort of generalised American accent (I think of it as 'mid-Atlantic'). Usually they are not aware of it, it's just they way they sing. I have always supposed it was learned unconsciously by imitation. –  Colin Fine Aug 13 '12 at 21:01

7 Answers 7

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I suspect you're coming in from a false assumption. Accents are a combination of many factors, the most notable being vowel pronunciation but also including stress patterns, intonation, etc. However, in common usage "accent" also means dialect or vernacular which would include slang and colloquialisms, tag questions (as a Canadian, Americans often tell me that they love how my "accent" means I say "eh?" a lot), etc.

Pretty much all of those disappear when singing. They're overwritten by the melody and time signature of the music. Slang and colloquialisms are less prevalent in music (especially pop music which sells to an international audience). As for vowel pronunciation, it's not uncommon to mangle pronunciation in service of the rhyming scheme.

So what I am saying is that one could argue that when singing people have neutral accent allowing listeners to fill in the blanks with the accent they are most familiar with (their own).

For an example of this, listen to pretty much any song by Adele (who is from Britain). Personally, while she's singing I'd agree that she sounds "American" (actually, I'm not American so I wouldn't say that. I'd actually say "she sounds like me") but if you actually listen, her vowels are very British.

I found a source to back up my reasoning but it's hardly a peer reviewed academic paper.

----EDIT----
Also, as @Cerebus suggested, there is a certain amount of imitation of American accents to appeal to American audiences but I don't believe that's the whole story.

----EDIT 2----
It also strikes me that the mechanical act of singing is different from normal speaking. Specifically, trained singers focus on higher-than-normal volume, projection, and range. These all require precise control of the vocal tract which would also help mask the singer's accent.

----EDIT 3----
Even though this question has been inactive for quite some time, a friend recently sent me this radio program which addresses this issue. While it's light on new information, it is worth a listen for anyone stumbling across this question through a search engine, etc.

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It's not just to appeal to American audiences, at least for singers from non English-speaking countries, it's just how singing sounds right to them because it's what they're used to hearing... but that probably only applies to global genres like rock and pop and American styles like rockabilly. Australian singers cop a lot of flack if they sound too American. Early Aussie hiphop mostly imitated American accents but current Aussie hiphop usually has a very blue-collar Australian accent. –  hippietrail Aug 10 '12 at 6:48
    
@hippietrail fair point. I was thinking about this more today and it seems to me that singers with notable accents tend to have a singing style closer to speaking. Rap is basically rhythmic talking (little melody). Britpop, reggae, and crooning tend to have simple vocal melodies and a less technical singing styles. It's hard to draw any conclusions though as this might also be due to audience design. –  acattle Aug 11 '12 at 18:05
    
I know some german bands singing in English who sound very british (because that's the accent we usually learn in school). –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 3 at 0:04

British popular singers do tend to sound American -- but obviously not the choristers at King's College!

I wonder if Americans can spot the difference though? Does it make you cringe -- like actors doing bad accents? It would be interesting to hear how Americans feel about this. There are so many US accents, as well as Canadian, perhaps you just don't notice.

As an amateur singer, I try not to sound as if I'm deliberately faking a US accent, but it's difficult -- especially when a song is 'Southern'.

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Well, I've been listening to British rock music since I was a kid in the mid-1960's, and I've never heard any British singer sing in a bad American accent. Maybe it's because a lot of these singers learn how to sing Blues music. Mick Jagger did so before the Stones switched to rock-n-roll. –  James Grossmann Jan 1 at 0:26

I think the academic phonological analysis is true only to a small extent. It's more social than physiological: to be palatable to American audiences, and because of the American vernacular being strongly associated with blues and rock n' roll. You can't sing “ain't nothin' but a hound dog” in any accent other than the original, otherwise it sounds weird. Why do non-English-speaking countries sing in American English? The same reason. Because that's what they grew up with, and to reach the audience that will appreciate their sound.

Rock band Lostprophets are a perfect example. Here's their song The Fake Sound of Progress. They sound very American, but they're Welsh. And the Welsh accent is a very distinct accent. The decision to project an image of being American has clearly been very successful for them.

Now compare with rock band The Arctic Monkeys, the vocalist Alex Turner is from Sheffield, north of England, and has a very distinct Sheffield accent even when singing.

Or Blur. Essex, sourthern England. Very southern accent.

Or Oasis, from Manchester. Very manc accent. Huge in the UK. Not well known in the US.

Or The Last Shadow Puppets. Very northern English accents.

Also compare with rock band Kaiser Chiefs from Yorkshire, north of England. Also very distinct accent and dialect. “Not very pretty I tell thee” is a very northern turn of phrase that would have no meaning outside the north.

Or Pulp, from Sheffield.

Elbow, from Lancashire. Guy Garvey (the signer) sounds just like he talks.

Really, there are a lot of big Brit rock bands you've probably never heard of. I've noted that these are less well known in the US than the UK. Imitating the American accent has a long tradition. The exception to this rule where the English accent is retained is in the punk rock movement starting from the 70's, and a little bit in the Britpop genre in the 90's (e.g. Oasis and Blur) and to a smaller extent in the 2000's (the other bands I've listed above). I wouldn't claim that breaking the US requires having an accessible broad American accent, I'd lean more towards retaining your native accent to be a sign of uncompromising personal pride in where you come from. It takes courage to sing as yourself, and not to imitate clichés you've heard growing up.

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http://www.dialectsarchive.com/united-states-of-america

Listen to these recordings. I don't think they'll all sound the same to you.

You can group accents into larger groups according to shared features. But it's certainly not the case that they all sound the same. If you want to look for accents that are very different from the standard, look for areas where diglossia and language contact more in general play an important role.

If you are referring to public speakers in particular, I suspect the fact that they have very similar accents can be accounted for socioliguistically: most of them are trained to speak/sing in the most standard way in order to be easily understandable to wider audiences and recognizable as part of the system they represent.

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I think folk artists tend to embrase their local accents, indeed exagerating the nuances of these accents. On the other hand, pop singers tend to favour a more "international" and polished accent, which makes it more difficult to locate where the singer is from.

Clear Dublin (male) and clear London (female) accent:

Shane Mac Gowan sings with a Dublin accent but speaks with a London accent. :)


More folk songs sung in English:

Clear Irish Midlands accent: - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5fBppsntAE

Clear Irish Midwest accent: - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSU687C38zo

Clear Irish Northwest accent: - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owS-yzRDK6k

Clear Dublin accent: - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yg_3t-CHBZs

Clear Scottish accent: - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAD_E1kaYuY


But even in more pop like forms you will hear people embracing local accents:

Very clear English Northeastern accent: - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ct-qa6SjRZo

English Northern: - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=piv0ZK7frnU

Irish: - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6Kspj3OO0s


Furthermore, artists from non English speaking countries might well "adopt" an accent depending on where their music style is based:

American sounding Swedes: - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEjLoHdbVeE

English sounding Swedes: - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_q8L8Tksd8

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  1. Intonation and timing differences between dialects are just as substantial as pronunciation and semantic differences, and psychologically may be the first way we recognize that someone is, say, British. These differences are abandoned in music, because the words must be sung to the tones, and timing, of the songs. (This is why we mishear lyrics to a song from listening to it more often than we mishear what someone is saying to us, even if we are listening in our native language.) The only way to detect accent in music is phonological differences, and even these are distorted by the background music.

  2. Specifically to English, one of the noteable differences between American English and most of the rest of the anglophone world is the pronunciation of syllable-final /r/s. However, it's a common tradition in singing, even among Americans, not to pronounce them.

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Interesting. I'm going to start listening for rhoticity dropping in song now! –  hippietrail Jan 3 at 2:55
    
Irish and Scottish accents pronounce syllable-final /r/s. Ireland in particular has no shortage of internationally successful pop and rock acts. –  hippietrail Feb 8 at 6:32

Americans have very long open vowels when speaking so when they sing the don't sound very different.
Many people with different accents sing with long open vowels too, so they do sound very American.
But not everyone sings like that - some people hold on to their accent more than others do when singing so they don't sound like an American.

You guys can argue all you want on this topic but I think it's true.

Some people read this and probably didn't want to believe it because they thought it would be an insult to their accent to sound American, but it's not necessarily sounding American - it's just having long open vowels when you're singing, which you're supposed to do. Americans just happen to speak like that.

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"Long open vowels" already has an specific meaning, namely the set [aː] [ɶː] [äː] [ɑː] [ɒː]. You probably mean something else. –  Mark Beadles Nov 4 '12 at 19:38

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