Stupid Question ™
Sept. 30, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: Why do people with strong accents (like Elton John and Celine Dion) lose them when they sing?
A: First, there are plenty of singers who retain strong accents. British punk rock and American country and blues are just a few types of music in which the singer’s accent is often very strong.
But there are also many pop and classical vocalists whose accent seems to vaporize when they sing. The classic example is Jim “Gomer Pyle” Nabors, who speaks with an Alabama drawl but sings with a crystal-clear baritone.
The simplest reason for accent loss, according to Worthington [Ohio] Music coach Paul Hartley, is imitation: we learn to sing like the singers we listen to. Many British rock stars (including Elton John) grew up listening to US R&B and blues, and wound up singing in a broader, flatter American style that sounds less accented to American ears.
However, in many cases the cause is formal vocal training, which both passively and actively erases regional accents.
Karen Peeler, head of vocal performance studies at the Ohio State University School of Music, said that classical singing—which views the voice purely as a musical instrument—naturally buries an accent.
It’s based on elongating vowels, and pronouncing them in a standard way so they will project and sound clear over all ranges of pitch. And consonants are clarified to make words more intelligible.
All this tends to bury accents, since they rely on a variety of vowel sounds and dropping or stretching of consonants, and tend to center around the middle range of pitch—where the speaking voice is.
But vocal trainers will make sure accents are dead enough to be buried. Peeler said that in classical singing, accents are considered “nagging regionalisms that distort the clarity of the vowel, as well as its beauty when elongated.”
There’s a degree of snob-fascism here. As one singers’ manual puts it, “Our aim is to sing one English.”
Peeler notes that the kind of music that retains accents is usually “music of the people.” Punk, country and blues all came from the working underclass.
Remember that we’re only talking about regional accents here. National accents are a different matter. In fact, foreign-language pronunciation is an essential part of formal vocal schooling, since much great choral music is in French, Italian or German.
Celine Dion does something similar. A French-speaking Canadian, she only recently learned English to break into the US-dominated global market. (Her handlers even removed the accented “e” from here first name—really Céline—for English-language releases.)
Her first English album, “Unison,” was sung almost entirely in phonetic, American-accented English, which is why it sounds unaccented to us.