What the Stranglers did to their Diphthongs

R.I.P. Dave Greenfield. Keyboardist, songwriter and singer.

When you listen to the Stranglers’ song Golden Brown, pay close attention to the way Hugh Conwell sings the word brown:

Dave Greenfield’s lush harpsichord/synthesizer arpeggios give Hugh Cornwell room to luxuriate in the diphthong of brown. Why bother? Because golden is the word that usually calls attention, but Hugh needs boring, ordinary brown to sound unusual, so that we pay attention to them both together. He bends the word to suit the luscious atmosphere of Golden Brown. He stretches the word to create unity between the two lines of music. Think how Golden Brown would change if Hugh chose to sing brown as a short, clipped word. Here‘s the sheet music, so you can see how the song works.

Listen to the same word, brown, in the Rolling Stones song Brown Sugar. Same word, different purpose:

Mick stretches other words to suit. Brown is just a colour in this song. It needs to be sung straight from the dictionary.

Singers make all kinds of subtle decisions when they sing in English. It’s good to be aware of them if you want to cover their song. If Hugh had chosen to sing the word brown just like Mick, would it have suited the mood and the music of Golden Brown? If Mick had sung brown long and luxuriously, like Hugh, would it have suited the blues rhythm of Brown Sugar? Or the meaning of the song?

Just because you know how a word is usually pronounced in English, don’t assume that ‘standard’ pronunciation English is always appropriate in a song. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. Use your ears wisely. English is a wonderfully flexible language. It stretches and bends  to suit the music and the meaning of a song. You need to bend and stretch with it.

© Sing Better English, 2014

2 thoughts on “What the Stranglers did to their Diphthongs”

    1. Yes – and it would throw your audience’s attention onto the colour, rather than the sweetness of Brown Sugar. It would sound creepy and it wouldn’t suit Mick Jagger’s wish to make the song interestingly ambiguous – about one woman, all women and drugs. (Or so he says here – http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/mick-jagger-remembers-19951214?page=3)

      It’s amazing what lengthening or shortening a diphthong can do – and we all do it, all the time, to communicate shades of meaning. It’s not something we learn in school, but we can all ‘read’ it too. Why does the thought of the word brown with a long diphthong in Brown Sugar feel so creepy? It’s exactly the same word, after all.

      For a native speaker of English, it comes naturally, but I want singers whose mother tongue isn’t English to notice it too. It’s subtle, and it’s hard to hear if you haven’t grown up hearing it. But it’s powerful when you’re singing it. Sounding creepy, when you don’t mean to, is never a good thing!

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