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I'm a GenAmE speaker, but I've noticed that many BrE-speaking singers seem to sing in an accent that is almost indistinguishable from my own. I first noticed it with Ed Sheeran, who I didn't even know was British until I heard "Nancy Mulligan", which is about an Englishman eloping with an Irishwoman and contains non-rhotic rhymes (which feel very forced to me, but work just fine phonetically when I sing them aloud). After noticing it with Ed Sheeran I listened to some Beatles music and found that there too, the differences between how they pronounced the lyrics and how I would pronounce them if I tried to sing them are slight to nonexistent.

Meanwhile, some American signers pronounce words in ways nothing like how I would say them or sing them. Justin Timberlake's infamous lowered and diphthongized "me" in "It's Gonna Be May/Me" is the only example that comes to mind at the moment, but feel like I've heard other weirdness like [ɑɹ] turning into [ɑʋ]―what on Earth is rhotic labiodentalization doing in American English?

For my actual questions: is this difference between someone's speaking accent and their singing accent a documented phenomenon? If so, how does this work? Do sung accents correspond to spoken ones one-to-one, or is there an entire landscape of sung dialects different from that of spoken ones? If the latter, what does that landscape look like for English?

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  • English Language & Usage SE is the right SE to ask that question.
    – Yellow Sky
    Sep 25 at 19:58
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    @YellowSky But I wouldn't say it's off-topic here either, especially as far as the questions formulated in the last paragraph are concerned.
    – Nardog
    Sep 25 at 20:30
  • @Nardog - If the question were formulated as “Do people lose/change their accent when they sing in other languages?” that would be alright for this SE. From my personal experience, people do keep their accents when they sing in my native languages, Ukrainian and Russian, in which I can distinguish accents very well. Moreover, I've never heard a person with another native language sing without its accent in Ukrainian or Russian, which makes me think the phenomenon in question is far from being universal.
    – Yellow Sky
    Sep 25 at 21:49
  • @YellowSky Ukrainian and Russian are barely a better sample size than American and British English.
    – Nardog
    Sep 26 at 0:00
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Yes, accent modification certainly exists.

In the classical bel canto tradition, a specifically prescribed form of pronunciation exclusively for singing is generally required, taught in a very precise way through (lyric) diction classes. Many a tome has been devoted to this subject e.g. Adams (2007) for the major operatic languages of 18th and 19th century opera, Italian, German and French; and LaBouff (2007) for English. Some modifications can be drastic, especially with how consonants are handled; most pertinent for speakers of rhotic accents of English is how the occurrence of [ɹ] is heavily restricted.

The reasons for much of this pronunciation modification in this tradition of singing are to do with the mechanism of singing. The use of airflow and placement in singing bel canto and in choral singing is extremely different to how one speaks in conversation. Clarity in pronunciation has to be balanced against requirements of pitch accuracy and the desired vocal tone; these are what make singing different from speaking, despite using many of the same parts of the body. These musical reasons are explained in some of the answers on the Music StackExchange site.

Other traditions of musical vocal expression have their own requirements for text and pronunciation. E.g. in Peking opera (京剧 jīngjù), there are many special pronunciations required, and it also reintroduces an older phonological distinction to the language (the "round-sharp distinction", essentially the alveolar affricates vs alveolo-palatal affricates, which have merged before /i/ in modern Mandarin).

Most vocal music in the popular tradition is now reliant on the microphone for amplication, with a target vocal tone very different to the one used in choral music or in grand opera, one that in general leads to lower distortion of the vowels. Hence the vocal training for modern pop music places less emphasis on diction.

However, this is not to say that modifications to pronunciation do not exist for popular musical traditions; rather, a greater variety (and some may argue, a greater incongruity) exists. However, such 'accent modification' is actually quite common, and lies on a continuum, as Ben Crystal states in You Say Potato: A Book About Accents:

Think of teenage boys wanting to sound like deep voiced, smooth-talking men, or pop stars from Mick Jagger to Adele ditching their accents while singing in favour of the all-conquering - and globally encountered - American variant.

I would agree that it is the ubiquity of the General American accent in media that has made it the "prestige singing accent" for pop music, rather than the idea that features of General American correspond to 'singing in a way that naturally comes easiest, which happens to be a more neutral way of speaking'. Shifting /ɑː/ to /æ/ doesn't seem to me to be 'easier to sing' from the point of view of vocal production, and certainly going from non-rhotic to rhotic would present some challenges.

Interestingly, sociolinguistic prestige seems to be the driving factor in the adoption of select features of American English in the singing of not only British pop, but also hip-hop from New Zealand. This is even more obvious when loaning from English into songs that are in other languages, e.g. Croatian, Czech or French. Thus, I tend to agree with the following:

The accent people use in their singing is more about the style of music than about where they come from.

However, individual singers can often choose how much modification to add for each vowel (indeed, for each note). It forms part of the musical decision-making process.

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