One of the most disruptive mistakes you can make when you sing in English is to mispronounce the. One of the most wasteful mistakes you can make is to take the for granted.
The is a word of many colours – from a schwa sound the (hear it here) to the the that rhymes with thee. As a native English speaker, the choice between the two comes naturally. If English isn’t your first language, always check that you’re using the right kind of the when you sing. Otherwise you’re in danger of sounding like this.
Pronunciation isn’t the end of the. Like all small English words, the is available to be filled with feeling when you sing. Subtly. Listen to Jim Morrison making the most of every single the of The End – which, surprisingly, began life as a love song.
I’ve used this particular video (if you’d like a clearer, longer one, try this) so that you can hear the presenter introduce the song with a standard English pronunciation of The End. The presenter puts the stress on end. Jim invites the to the party:
Thinking back to the presenter’s way of saying The End as he introduces the song – for him, the most important word is end. He passes fairly quickly over the. Jim does something different. By drawing the audience’s attention to the, by extending it and emphasising it, he’s calling on the mighty power of English grammar to deepen the resonance of end.
As the definite article, the refers to the only, the inevitable end. Not an end, not our end, but the end. With the sharing attention with end. Jim knows that his audience registers that extra definite article layer of meaning, from school and from life. He plays with that shared understanding.
If you’re singing The End, you have a chance of making your version as mesmerising as Jim’s if you pay proper attention to the the. Proper, but not patronising. Don’t overdo it. You’re calling on school-memory. You’re awakening the feeling that the word the arouses in your audience. It’s subtle, but powerful. Bring the word to their attention, but don’t, don’t rub their noses in it.
You can hear Jim put a springy y sound between the and end. It links the two words more closely. He doesn’t do it every time, just when it suits him. To draw his audience closer. Again, it’s something to try when you sing The End, but not something to overplay. If you sing theyend every single time, your audience will wonder why and they’ll become distracted by their wondering. Like salt or pepper, a little difference adds dimension. Too much drowns it.
Jim had a particular idea of The End when he sang. It changed and grew as the song became more famous. His pronunciation of the phrase changed subtly as the song changed, to fit audience expectation and to fit his own self-expression.
English words put on different clothes each time they are called to dance to music. The phrase the end adapts to the needs of the song where it finds itself. Think of Leonard Cohen singing Dance Me to the End of Love. The before end is, of course, pronounced thee, but it gets no extra attention. Love is the important word, the word Leonard relishes.
Leonard chose the word end, in this song, to represent a positive end, meaning, as I understand it, the furthest reaches of love. The waltz rhythm implies that, once the furthest extent of love is reached, the partners will swirl onwards, back and round, in a perpetual dance of love. He sings the end as he does, knowing there’s a wealth of love beyond it:
As an aside, thinking of how Jim Morrison’s song began as a love song and turned into a meditation on death, it’s interesting to read how far Leonard Cohen’s song travelled in the opposite direction. Apparently, his original inspiration for the song was the Holocaust.
You’ll find the words the and end rubbing up against each other in plenty of songs, meaning plenty of things. Think of R.E.M. here or Billie Holiday here. Different flavours of ending, with different pronunciation of the and end to bring each one to life.
If English isn’t your native language: be sure to sing the right the, but remember, even the ‘right’ the comes in many flavours. Set your words free to dance to the music.
If English is your native language: the same goes. Don’t waste a word when you sing. Don’t overload them, or you’ll sound false, but shade the ones that need shading.
Think of a song as a portrait. Every sound is an accent, a splash of light or a shadow. It’s up to you to deliver a rich sound picture to your audience. The is a pigment, like any other. Never take it for granted.
© Sing Better English, 2015