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I recently saw Tears for Fears and it brought up the question that I've had for many years:

Why do many British vocalists almost always sound distinctly American¹ when singing?

Same goes for Australian and New Zealand singers, and perhaps many more artists with non-American indigenous accents. Why does this happen?

For a sample of what I'm describing, I have a video from the Tears for Fears show of Everybody Wants to Rule the World. Interestingly, Tears for Fears (British) effectively incorporated the version of Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Lorde (New Zealander) into the intro of their show, and both Tears for Fears and Lorde sound decidedly American.

YouTube link: Everybody Wants to Rule the World - (LIVE - 2015 - Tears for Fears) Featuring a pre-recorded version of Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Lorde from the Hunger Games soundtrack.

¹There are many American accents and regional dialects. For purposes of this question, by "American accent" I'm referring to a basic, flat, western accent without regional dialects. Also, yes, I realize not all non-American singers lose their indigenous accent while singing. My question pertains to the ones that do.

  • My best guess, which isn't good enough to be a proper answer: Decades ago, they deliberately tried to sound American to sell more records. Now, it is not deliberate, it is just a reflection of the fact that singing voices tend to sound more neutral than speaking voices. It is less natural, and more conscious than speaking, so the natural accent doesn't come out as easily. – Wad Cheber Sep 7 '15 at 18:31
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This is actually a very common question that linguistics folks occasionally talk about and/or study. The key is that the singers are not "singing American".. they are losing their native accent.

When you are singing a song, there are a number of things that are different from when you're speaking words. The two key changes are:

  • You use a different part of your brain to sing vs. when you speak; singing is more about the tones (like an instrument) than the words.
  • You are limited by the melody, rhythm, key, etc. of the song. You have to make the word-noises fit the rest of the music.

As a result of that second bullet, there's less chance for someone to stress the same syllables, exaggerate the same vowels, and even elide the same syllables as they would in their normal accent. According to Josef Fioretta, a linguistics professor at Hofstra University:

“What gets lost in singing are the suprasegmentals,” a linguistic term used to indicate qualities like stress, tone, and syllabification, Fioretta said. In other words, a song’s rhythm can limit a singer’s ability to pronounce words, and especially vowels, in his or her usual cadence: “The tone, the intonation, the rhythm of a language; these all get lost in singing,” he says. src

The result is that the singing accent is extremely neutral -- lacking in most of the unique characteristics that distinguish one accent from another. And because of the first bullet point, people learning to sing will just naturally fall into this other accent, usually without even realizing it.

Andy Gibson, a New Zealand researcher at AUT’s University Institute of Culture, Discourse & Communication also believes the change in accent between speaking and singing is not a deliberate one, nor are artists even aware of the change. A 2010 study he conducted of singers with speaking accents showed indeed that they were not aware that they sounded any different; they felt they were singing naturally. src

It just so happens that the Mid-Western United States accent is one of the most neutral ones most English speakers are familiar with. It's even the one they teach people to use in broadcasting schools. So when you hear a singer that lacks any other obvious accent, your brain will naturally associate it with the most neutral accent you know, the "generic American" one.

Of course, there are also other factors that likely come into play. For example, a lot of British singers probably grew up listening to pop or rock music from the United States, and logically tried to mimic them when learning to sing. Also, a lot of songs are written by people from the US with that "accent" in mind, so other singers have to adapt their style to match. (You can see a similar effect in the US with country music -- even people without a strong Southern twang will often adopt one when singing.)


It's important to note that this doesn't always happen. There are a lot of singers that maintain their native accents when they sing. This is largely because they learned to sing by practicing songs that fit their accent, so they were able to keep their native pronunciations of words intact.

It's also more likely for a non-native English speaker to keep their "foreign" accent when singing English-language songs; again, their learned singing "speech" patterns are sticking with them as they try to adapt to an unnatural language, and they aren't always able to do so. The same would be true of someone not fluent in French or Spanish trying to sing a French or Spanish song.

  • Thanks for the great answer! Very nice. I did note that this does not always happen; using the term "American" was merely due to not knowing the correct term for it. But now I know :) – Slytherincess Sep 7 '15 at 19:51
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    "It just so happens that the Mid-Western United States accent is one of the most neutral ones most English speakers are familiar with." You seem to be falling into the "I don't have an accent: it's everyone else who has an accent" trap. Trust me, Mid-Western US accents don't sound remotely neutral to people who aren't from the US. To a British person, a Mid-West accent just sounds like "an American accent that I guess isn't from Brooklyn or Boston or the deep South". – David Richerby Sep 7 '15 at 23:37
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    No, I'm repeating what people who study pronunciation and linguistics for a living have said. It has nothing to do with how it sounds, and everything to do with how the unique sounds of the accent are made. The mid-westerns US accent is one of the ones that has the fewest distinct pitch/stress/etc alterations that carry over from one sound to the next, making each sound stand on its own. – KutuluMike Sep 7 '15 at 23:48
  • Mid-Western United States "accent" is [taught] in broadcasting schools. 'nuff said. (couldn't pass up the opportunity to brag about my {perceived} non-accent having self) – Mazura Sep 8 '15 at 2:48
  • Does Josef Fioretta explain how other established styles, like operatic singing, don't result in American accents - even though they too limit stress, tone, and syllabification? – user16 Sep 13 '15 at 7:28
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In many cases maybe it's partly just because there's a strong link between an accent and a genre of music. For example, Ali Campbell of UB40 is an English singer, but is not known for singing in either a British or American accent - rather in a Jamaican accent, because he's singing reggae. That's an obvious example, but you can also hear the reggae influence in voices in other music that is reggae-influenced, from Sting of The Police to The Clash.

A lot of the British singers who sing in an obviously American accent are singing in styles that are American in their immediate origin - anything gospel-influenced (soul, and what is now called R & B), or blues-influenced (much of mainstream rock, and what used to be called R & B), for example. Correspondingly it seems that Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant, Adele, Amy Winehouse, and Mick Jagger are all American-sounding, to varying degrees.

Once we step outside music that is firmly soul or blues-oriented, we find British bands and singers with more typially English accents - Oasis' Gallagher brothers (to my ears at least), Blur's Damon Albarn, Morrissey, The Proclaimers, Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, Billy Bragg, David Bowie... and when we look at a genre that is arguably at least as British as it is American - punk - we find that some of its American exponents (The Ramones, to name an obvious example) arguably sing in identifiably British accents!

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    This interview with Klaus Meine of The Scorpions concurs with this answer. Particularly the first question or two. – Johnny Bones Sep 14 '15 at 15:12
  • Green Day often sound 'English' too [though not always] but that could reinforce your case, definitely. – Tetsujin Dec 17 '15 at 9:31
  • Worth mentioning that the "American accent" you mentioned being used in soul, R&B, blues (and blues-derived Rock), and Rap is not the typical prestige US accent, but rather AAVE. This has a number of interesting implications, for example the use of negative concord. – T.E.D. Jul 10 '17 at 22:41
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The answers are historical and economic as well.

Put simply, musician and singers tend to carefully emulate the singers who influence them.

Rock and roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, the blues and gospel were all styles of music that originated in the USA. The USA music industry, from the 1920s through the 1950s and ever after, recorded lots of this music onto lacquer and then vinyl records, mass-produced and effectively marketed some extremely popular hit records, making stars out of certain singers, and then exported the records to other nations outside the USA.

However, up until the late 1950s, British audiences preferred listening to music that was indigenous to the UK, and possibly from Europe. Very little vocally-oriented music from the USA was popular in the UK, and the styles of music were thoroughly different. American forms like rock and roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, the blues and gospel were not popular in the UK at this time. If you do some research and listen to records that were popular in the UK in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, you will be very surprised to discover that the singers on these records sound thoroughly British. The singing style, particularly in the 1930s and 40s, is markedly almost classical and operatic compared to the way that modern rock and pop music sound. This British music didn't use guitars and didn't have the American back beat, either.

In England, starting around 1959, audiences turned their attention to music recordings imported from the USA, which became very popular. I cannot cite a source for this, but it seems to me that this was coincident with the UK's lifting of a longstanding high tariff on all kinds of imported goods. I believe that recorded music from the USA was imported at a much higher rate after this, and the music that was imported sold well.

At the same time, as I understand it, all radio broadcast in the UK was granted exclusively to the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) which was tightly centrally controlled. The BBC originally didn't play much if any music from the USA, certainly not rock and roll. However, around the early 1960s, illegal, unlicensed "pirate" radio stations began to operate in the UK. They played a lot of music from outside the UK that the BBC was not playing then -- particularly rock and roll. Surely this had something to do with the UK public becoming more aware of music from the USA.

For these reasons, then, in the United Kingdom, from the early 1960s and thereafter, there was a fad for American music, and the English bands were performing it and emulating it. Musical groups from the Rolling Stones and the Beatles onward started by playing cover tunes: by performing the same songs heard on hit records from the USA, but also by carefully emulating all aspects of the musical and singing styles of those recordings. Their audiences at the time had heard the original records from the USA, and the musicians wanted to sound as much like them as possible.

Once these English bands started writing their own original music, they tended to continue to pay tribute to their influences from the USA by singing in the same style they heard on those records from the USA. Audiences had become accustomed to it, demanded it, and paid money for it. Thus, even when these British bands began to write original music, their singers wrote lyrics and sang them in a carefully-emulated American style. Those that did tended to be more successful and sell more records than bands that continued to sing in the British style. This stylistic practice continues to this day.

Do not lose sight of this: ultimately, when you are talking about the USA singing style found in rock and roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, the blues and gospel you are talking about the style of African-American singers, with words and lyrics written in the colloquial style and dialog of their community, and singing styles that came from only two sources: rural black workers' blues ("Delta blues"), and African-American church worship music ("black gospel"). Everything from the rock era, even that sung by white musicians in the USA, is in emulation of the core styles of African-American singers and lyricists.

So the British singers you are asking about all, ultimately, emulated black singers from the USA, not white singers from the USA. This is because the white rock singers from the USA were themselves emulating the black singers from the start. Everyone concerned freely acknowledges this.

If you would like to see an entertaining and humorous portrayal of all of this in a fictional motion picture, check out the 1991 Irish movie "The Commitments", in which a group of young Irish musicians in present-day 1990s Ireland create a band to carefully emulate African-American rock and rhythm and blues from the 1960s.

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    I was always intrigued by Nat 'King' Cole's pronunciation on Stardust (youtube.com/watch?v=VezW1PtDq5E) - quite British to my ears. Maybe there are other examples of American singers singing in a British way in the early 20th century? – user16 Sep 13 '15 at 7:35

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