Love, say, I, no, you, to, do, a, with – English words you’ve known for years. Words you sing without thinking. Words you take for granted. Old friends? Don’t trust them. Remember your first English teacher. Did she ever stretch ‘I’ as far as this?:
Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game is a popular choice for contests. The song has it all: vocal gymnastics to intrigue the judges, a strong singalong chorus for the audience and plenty of easy, tiny words for you to sing.
The smallest words are the ones that will betray you when you sing in English. They’re the ones you haven’t thought about since you started speaking English. That’s the problem. If you’re not a native speaker of English, there’s a good chance that your version of short, simple English words will be closer to sounds from your own native language than to true English sounds. Especially if your teacher was from your own country.
When you began learning English, if nobody corrected you, you will have repeated your slightly wrong version of words like I, you, love, are or the over and over again in class. Repetition sears words into your brain. Mistakes become ingrained bad habits. When you speak English, listeners will adjust to any mistakes you make, as long as they can understand you. When you sing, if your pronunciation doesn’t fit the articulation or the mood, you’ll unsettle the music and unsettle your audience. Songs magnify mistakes.
If you’re a native speaker of English, don’t feel too smug. It’s very easy to take small words for granted.
Remember: the sound of each syllable, in each word, brings another subtle layer to the music. All the tiny words add up, like stitches in a tapestry. You choose the colour and thickness of each thread. Choose wisely.
When you sing in English, you need to examine each word dispassionately. If English isn’t your native language: are you sure that you’re pronouncing it correctly? 100% sure? Native speaker or not, make sure you know how to mould your words to suit the music.
Expressive language ebbs and flows. Subtle changes communicate emotion. Don’t limit yourself to a one-size-fits-all lexicon. Don’t sing like a robot. You’ll bore your audience and you’ll bore yourself.
You may find that it takes some work to undo bad habits or to add emotional tone by subtly varying your pronunciation. If you truly want to sing well in English, it’s worth it.
Here’s London Grammar‘s cover of Wicked Game. Listen closely to two tiny words: to and do. Try to forget that you ‘know’ them. Just listen. With fresh ears. One thing to notice: ‘do’ and ‘to‘ can rhyme, but they don’t always. Does Hannah Reid sing ‘to’ with a schwa sound or with a long ooo sound? Does every ‘to’ sound the same?
Hannah’s video is a treasure trove of tiny words knocked into shape to suit the song. Notice how she sings say, no, to, do, I, but, you, with, love and of. Then listen to her singing the same words at New York’s WFUV Studio A here. Same song, slightly different choices.
Flexibility is key if you want to add flavour, depth and interest to your musical vocabulary.
By the way: did you notice Hannah’s slightly unusual vowel sound when she sings the word thing? What’s her musical rationale for that? It’s a choice – you can hear her singing a more standard ing sound in frightening and lightning here. What difference would it have made if she’d swapped the sound of ing between the two songs?
You can hear Chris Isaak’s pronunciation choices here.
Keep your ears fresh when you listen to songs in English. Listen to the sound of each and every word dispassionately. Don’t let your memory of long ago English lessons block out the true sound of familiar English words. Listen to the words as they are, not as you expect them to be.
If you’re a native speaker, don’t let familiarity breed contempt. Let your language grow as your vocal skills grow.
Tame those treacherous tiny words.
© Sing Better English, 2014