Medical Mysteries of Music

Why Do Singers Lose Their Accents When They Sing?

Outside of a few vowels, drawls and clipped consonants, almost all singers, regardless of their mother tongue or accent sound pretty much the same when it comes to Western pop and rock songs. Where does their accent go?

Think about how Liam Gallagher sounds when he talks. His Mancunian accent is so strong you want subtitles. Adele is a very clear singer but a very Cockney talker. All the singers in ABBA are very Swedish, but you’d never know it from listening to their songs.

Where do their accents go? For the answer, let’s go to

In a nutshell, it has a lot to do with phonetics, the pace at which they sing and speak, and the air pressure from one’s vocal chords.  As far as why “American” and not some other accent, it’s simply because the generic “American” accent is fairly neutral.  Even American singers, if they have, for instance, a strong “New Yorker” or perhaps a “Hillbilly” accent, will also tend to lose their specific accent, gravitating more towards neutral English, unless they are actively trying not to, as many Country singers might.

For the specific details, we’ll turn to linguist and author, David Crystal, from Northern Ireland.  According to Crystal, a song’s melody cancels out the intonations of speech, followed by the beat of the music cancelling out the rhythm of speech.  Once this takes place, singers are forced to stress syllables as they are accented in the music, which forces singers to elongate their vowels.  Singers who speak with an accent, but sing it without, aren’t trying to throw their voice to be deceptive or to appeal to a different market; they are simply singing in a way that naturally comes easiest, which happens to be a more neutral way of speaking, which also just so happens to be the core of what many people consider an “American” accent.

Read on to learn more.

But then I got this email from Raya:

Don’t know if you’ve ever addressed this in one of your shows, but I’ve noticed that when non-North American singers (Abba, the Beatles, and Mumford and Sons come very quickly to mind) sing, they sound like they are from North America – that is, they have a neutral accent.  Why is this?  (maybe some DO sing with an accent, and my hearing isn’t that discerning!)
Conversely, off the top of my head, I can think of reggae artists who definitely sound like they are from the Caribbean.
Anyhow, I was wondering if you know of any well-known European artists who have achieved success with a non-North American accent (but they are indeed singing in English)?
Interesting question. Does anyone want to weigh in?

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38466 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

4 thoughts on “Why Do Singers Lose Their Accents When They Sing?

  • “Anyhow, I was wondering if you know of any well-known European artists who have achieved success with a non-North American accent (but they are indeed singing in English)?”

    Off the top of my head:
    – the Proclaimers certainly don’t sound North American!
    – Dolores ORiordan from the Cranberries has a very audible accent as she sings
    – The Clash had a bit of an accent come through on some of their songs

    The others that come to mind (The Cure for example) have very subtle accents that only peaks through occasionally depending on the song.

  • Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys retains a very British delivery. Damon Albarn as well, I’d say. Billy Bragg…

    • There are exceptions, of course, and that could be for effect, too.

  • It was a ‘rule’ of British punk rock to not sing in an ‘American’ accent. Some of George Harrison’s Beatle stuff also sounds fairly British.

    I think this issue comes from the fact that most forms of popular music were invented in the US and that influence has lead to the so-called Mid Atlantic accent being standard. Also, the States is a huge market so singers want to sound American-friendly to tap into it. ‘American cultural hegemony’, as our Marxist friends would say.


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