Moon River: a swan of a song

The first line of Moon River gives crystal clear guidance to singers. Any river that’s “wider than a mile” must flow smoothly and sedately.  The words are soft ripples raised by an evening breeze, moving gently on the spacious, lilting waltz time. No jagged rocks or rapids disrupt Moon River’s course:

Don’t be fooled by the soothing melody. Moon River has challenges for any singer, native English speaker or not. If you want to glide as smoothly as a swan, you’ll have to do a lot of paddling underwater. Good breath control is essential if you want to reach the end of each phrase sounding suitably relaxed. You can see how the words fit the notes here. If you struggle to maintain control when you sing quietly, does this help? Remember: if your voice is under stress, that stress communicates itself to your audience. Stress has no place in this song. Prepare yourself well and you can relax when you sing.

If you’re not a native singer of English, you’d better make friends with the schwa, and quickly. Moon River teems with schwa sounds.  Remember: for a native English speaker, the schwa is the easiest sound of all to make. We do it without thinking. Most native English speakers would be amazed to hear that the schwa sound has an ‘official’ name. To make a schwa sound, you just open your mouth and let the sound out. That’s all. No tongues or teeth to arrange. It’s an exhalation, a lazy sound, almost a yawn. It’s the ‘er’ sound we make when we don’t know what to say. Listen to Bob Dylan using ‘er’ here to give himself time to think, at a ghastly 1965 press conference.

Copy Bob Dylan. Perfect your -er schwa sounds and sing river, wider, maker, breaker, wherever, drifters and after as truly English words, not as exotic approximations of English words. In this song, above all songs, the featureless, effortless schwa sound is crucial. You should sound as if you’re floating down a wide river on a raft, not criss-crossing it on jet skis. Practise, practise, practise until your schwa is easy and  natural.

The words the, a, world and of are schwa sounds too. World rhymes with the. Crazy English spelling!

Check to make sure that you’ve thrown any inauthentic over-pronounced vowels overboard. Moon River needs a full cargo of schwa to maintain its soothing rhythm and its gently swaying rhyme scheme.

If English isn’t your first language: Beware, beware the exotic R. Remember: Johnny Mercer imagined the words: river, crossing, heart, breaker, drifters, world, rainbow, round and huckleberry being sung with their R pronounced like this not like this. He chose the words with Audrey Hepburn in mind; to suit her voice, the mood and the music.

If you decide to ignore Mercer’s intentions by trilling or rolling your R instead, you will shorten the vowel sounds. That’s a problem for the smooth rhythm of the song, unless you’re able to adjust everything to balance your trilled R. It’s possible, but it takes hard work and clever engineering of your tongue and your mouth to achieve balance in English when you roll your R, as Eugene Hutz does here. If you can’t do as Eugene Hutz does, you will distort your vowel sounds away from anything truly English, you will wrong-foot the music and you will lose your way. Moon River, as it’s written, has no room for unexpected R sounds. Be careful.

One last thing: the t of heart is essential. Heart breaker means something in English. Harbreaker doesn’t.

Nobody’s suggesting that you have to copy Audrey Hepburn exactly. Brandon Flowers of the Killers chose to copy Morrissey. He sings Morrissey’s version of the lyrics and there’s a ghost of a Las Vegas R at the end of his -er schwa sounds, but the soul of the song remains the same.The mood is perfect: easy and relaxed. Brandon’s voice control and his attention to detail set him free to swoop and dive through the waltz time, like a swift in mid air:

Moon River was written to suit Audrey Hepburn’s vocal range, but it isn’t crippled by her limitations. The focus of the song isn’t on complex vocal patterns, but on serene legato phrasing, enhanced by the beautiful and simple melody of the words. Stay true to that intention and you can interpret the song as you wish. Remember, Moon River is wider than a mile. The light, low, schwa-soaked words are tiny ripples of sound on the surface. Have this in mind when you sing it.

© Sing Better English, 2014


4 thoughts on “Moon River: a swan of a song”

  1. This is one of those songs we had to sing in junior high choir, and I’ve never forgotten it. I had forgotten, though, that Audrey Hepburn sang it in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Wouldn’t have recognized her voice! I so enjoyed listening to the Brandon Flowers version. I’m not familiar with the group; his treatment totally unexpected!


    1. Hi Kathryn – lucky you! What a lovely song to sing in a school choir.

      Audrey Hepburn was lucky to have a song tailored to her specific vocal qualities. The result doesn’t sound like limitation, it sounds just like a wide, flowing river.

      Glad you enjoyed Brandon Flowers’ version. Speaking of unexpected treatments of songs, do you know the Billy Stewart arrangement of Summertime? Bob Dylan rates it highly. If you haven’t heard it, I think you’ll be surprised and impressed:

      All best wishes

      Liked by 1 person

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