Why we sound like Americans when we sing

30 Jul, 2010
AUT MPhil student at the Institute for Culture Discourse & Communication, Andy Gibson
We do it without thinking about it; in fact it’s more of an effort not to do it. We might be New Zealanders but we nearly all sing pop songs with an American-influenced accent.

It’s really not even an American accent it’s a ‘pop music’ accent that we sing with. The American accent has been associated so consistently with pop music that it has come to be the norm. Even some of New Zealand’s greatest artists, such as Dave Dobbyn and Crowded House, sing with the pop music accent.

The Research

Andy Gibson’s masters research at AUT University’s Institute of Culture, Discourse and Communication looked at why we pronounce words differently when we sing. He studied three New Zealand singers asking them to sing lyrics and then speak them. “There were huge differences between the sung and the spoken pronunciation of the same words.” Consider the difference between ‘I’ (spoken) and ‘ah’ (sung), ‘girl’, pronounced without the ‘r’ in speech and with the ‘r’ in singing, and ‘thought’ with rounded lips in speech versus ‘thart’ with unrounded lips in singing.

“Studies in the past have suggested that non-American singers wilfully put on American accents but my research suggests the opposite - that an American- influenced accent is the default when singing pop. We do it automatically; it doesn’t require any effort to sing with an American-influenced accent,” says Gibson. Rather he suggests that we actually struggle when we try to sing with our native New Zealand accent.

“To sing in a New Zealand accent takes awareness and effort, and it is usually quite noticeable because it is so uncommon. Often when people sing in a New Zealand accent it’s for comic effect, such as with Flight of the Concords or Fred Dagg,” he says.

Are we faking it?

The use of an American accent in singing is sometimes criticised for being inauthentic, or “fake”, but we shouldn’t be overly judgemental of American accents in singing, Gibson says. “The American-influenced accent is automatic in the context of singing pop music, and it is used by people from all around the world. It actually requires effort to do something different. The American accent doesn’t stick out in singing because we are so used to hearing it.”

The accent people use in their singing is more about the style of music than about where they come from. “For example when we sing reggae we are more likely to use a Jamaican accent but even someone from Jamaica might use a southern American accent when they are singing country and western type songs,” Gibson says.

Who's singing with a 'fush n chups' accent

So who in NZ doesn’t sing with an American influenced accent? “Anika Moa has moments here and there where you can definitely hear her distinct New Zealand vowels. In the independent music scene there are more New Zealand accents but on the big commercial radio stations you are more likely to hear the typical ‘pop’ accent from locals.”

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