Can you or can’t you? Your audience needs to know

When you sing in English, be kind to your audience. They rely on you to be clear, especially when you sing words with opposite meanings but similar sounds, like can and can’t. Without your help, they won’t know which word you’re singing. The confusion will distract them. They won’t relax until they’re sure whether you can or can’t feel it in the air tonight. You’ll upset them if you sing “You can’t leave your hat on” or “We can stop” or “Baby, you can’t drive my car” by mistake.

If the difference between can and can’t isn’t clear to you, how do you make it clear to your audience?  First, focus in on the sound. Watch Los Bravos singing Black is Black. How many times do you hear the word can and how many times do you hear can’t?  By the way – where do you think the singer is from?:

Did you get it? The singer, Mike Kogel, sings 4 of each. He sings can at .44, 1.10, 1.51 and 2.32. He sings can’t at 1.20, 1.32, 2.02 and 2.13.

What clues did he give you? Could you hear the t at the end of can’t? Was there a subtle difference in the vowel sound? Did he put more weight at the end of the word when he sang can’t? How are you going to mark the difference for your own audience when you sing can and can’t? You need to be especially clear if both words feature in the same song.

Try the Mick Jagger method. How does he make it absolutely clear that You Can’t Always Get What You Want?

The clarity of can’t is crucial to the song.  Mick knows that his audience must be clear, as soon as possible that he can’t always get what he wants. Either can or can’t would be possible, grammatically or semantically, so he leads his audience straight to the right option. Quickly. He emphasises the word can’t to draw his audience’s attention to it. English pronunciation rules are on Mick’s side: he has to pronounce the t of can’t clearly because there’s a vowel at the beginning of always. Once he has established can’t the first time, his audience will expect the same word when he repeats the line. He has communicated the meaning of the word clearly to his audience, so they can relax and enjoy the rest of the song. His work is done.

If you sing You Can’t Always Get What You Want without making the can’t clear, your audience will think that you are singing an ironic version of the Stones song. A version where You Can Always Get What You Want. That’s possible. The grammar allows it. The song’s famous, so they’ll know the original. They’ll be waiting for you to make some clever point with your change of lyrics. Once they realise that you’ve made a pronunciation mistake, not a conscious choice, they won’t like it. Or you.

Be clear about can and can’t. The difference in sound is subtle but the difference in meaning is extreme. Your audience can’t hear the difference clearly unless you help them. That’s your duty as a singer.

© Sing Better English, 2014


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