Listening (and singing along to) Josh Groban’s “Canto Allo Vita”, I’m reminded of a nagging question, and someone’s proposed answer.
When singing in Italian, or any other language, for that matter, I have very little problem duplicating the accent. However, if I try to simply speak the lyrics, the accent eludes me.
Someone said that they’d heard/read that singing and speaking are actually rather separate functions, and take place in “different centers in the brain”. I have no idea as to whether this is true, rubbish, ridiculous, or none of the above.
So why can I sing in Italian (a language I neither speak nor understand) but can’t speak the same exact words?
But, why is it easier to sing in a foreign language than to pretend to talk in it? I can sing Feliz Navidad with a really accurate Spanish accent, but when I try to speak Spanish, I cannot, for the life of me, recreate the very same accent.
In German class, one of the other students was (still is) a professional Opera singer. She was taking lessons in half a dozen languages. She’d already sung in the Bayreuth festival and in the Metropolitan, but she always needed someone to tell her what the words meant, so she could deal with the “acting” part.
I know that I can read a book in Finnish (which has almost the same phonetics as Spanish) and make it sound as if I actually understand it… even though I don’t know a word of Finnish. All I do is use what I know about Finnish phonetics and follow the punctuation marks. And I know it works because well, the woman who lent me the book was Finnish and said it works But I wasn’t trying to understand the book, same as you don’t try to understand every word in a song. Maybe that’s got something to do with it?
The brain’s left hemisphere is responsible for speech; the right hemisphere for music. You can learn to whistle a tune on key, and since the pitch of a whistle is controlled by the same muscles that form the basic vowel sounds, it stands to reason that learning a song might also involve learning the exact vowel sounds on key (as it were) rather than using the sounds of your own accent.
There’s another difference: when speaking, any given vowel sound is generally enunciated pretty much the same each time, but when singing, the exact resonant frequencies are often changed slightly to catch one of the harmonics of the note’s fundamental frequency. So, spoken Italian and sung Italian will not necessarily be pronounced quite the same way.
I’ve noticed that when I am singing along to a tune it is somewhat difficult to not pick up the vocalist’s accent and vocal timbre (!) which suggests to me that the entire vocal tract might be directed by the right brain hemisphere while singing.
(I know an accent also involves consonants and rhythm but I’m not sure how the consonants fit in and of course the rhythm will differ between spoken and sung words.)
You’ll also notice that most singing is not done in the same register as the speaking voice. That leads me to guess that a spoken accent is tied closely to the normal range of pitches a person uses when speaking normally. After all, the singer has spent years speaking in that voice. But an awful lot of singing is done in a range outside of the speaking range.
Think about it - heavy metal vocalists Rob Halford, Bruce Dickinson and David Coverdale all sing and scream in a very high register. If you didn’t know in advance that they were British, you might mistake them for Americans the first time you heard them sing. But if you were to listen to them speaking in their natural speaking voices, you would discover 1) they all have deep voices - especially Coverdale - and 2) that their British accents are pronounced and obvious.
Michael Jackson sounds the same when he talks as he sounds when he sings. Why? Thanks to ex-wife Lisa Marie Presley, we’ve learned that Michael’s “effeminate” public speaking voice is a put-on. He actually has a deep voice. His public speaking voice is artificial and practiced, as is his singing voice. Thus, any natural accent is lost in both cases.
Think about the Beatles. Early in their career, when much of their singing was done in a high register, their British accents were not so obvious while singing. Later on, when they sang lower, closer to their speaking range, their accents were quite obvious.
What I’m saying is that we don’t naturally train ourselves to speak in a register that is outside of our speaking register. So many of those little habits of language and pronunciation and tone go out the window when we move outside of our natural range, and it is now easier to assume a different accent.
This question always reminds me of Jim Nabors back in the 1960s. When speaking, he had this totally rural Southern hick accent. But when he opened his mouth to sing in that rich golden baritone he cultivated, all traces of Southern accent instantly disappeared.
In 1964, a journalist asked the Beatles why they spoke with English accents but sang like Americans. They answered: “It sells better.” (This was cited as an example of the famous Beatle wit and humor. Looks to me as though they were just telling the simple truth with no bullshit. What sort of cultural assumptions must have existed then, when this was taken as refreshlingly humorous?) I’m trying to think of later Beatles songs sung in lower registers with audible English accents. (“And curse Sir Walter Raleigh, he was such a stupid get.” The use of a specifically British slang word in that line calls for a more British-sounding voice, but this is an exception. Lennon was apparently tired of smoking too many cigarettes and was cursing Raleigh for introducing tobacco to England.) Counter-examples:“Polythene Pam” was a late song sung in a higher register but with a bit of Scouse accent. “And I Love Her” was an early song sung in a lower register but without a definitely British accent.