Written English is full of silent, dead letters – the k of knee, the b of thumb or the h of stomach. Spoken English is haunted by different ghosts – consonants that the speaker chooses to shape but not to sound. It’s a powerful tool to use when you sing in English. And a very dangerous trap if you’re learning English songs by ear.
If you’ve never thought about the ghosts of English, try this: listen to Adele singing Skyfall. We all know that the word Skyfall ends with an ll but, when Adele sings it, what sound do you actually hear? An ll, or something slightly different? Is the sound exactly the same every single time she sings the word? Why does she sing the sound as she does?
I can’t always hear the ll sound, but I can always hear its ghost.
What’s a ghost? Ghosts are the whispers and shadows of letters, usually consonants, usually d or t, usually at the end of words. The sounds that you can’t quite hear. Letters that a native English speaking singer will have in their mind and will shape carefully with their mouth, but will often leave mute or unspoken. Horribly easy for a non-native speaker to miss, especially if you’re learning songs by ear and not checking the lyrics. Be careful. Without its ghosts, any song in English will lose its meaning and lose its resonance. With its ghosts well managed, any song in English gains emotional depth.
Back to Skyfall. True, I know the name of the song is Skyfall, so I’m expecting a double ll at the end of the word. I know that Adele’s singing in English. I know that Skyfor and Skyfaw aren’t English words, even though those sounds are all I can actually hear. But there’s more to it than that. I can sense the ghost of the ll. I can hear that Adele has put her mouth in the right position to pronounce the ll at the end. The shape of her mouth affects the ‘shape’ of the breath that escapes her mouth and that affects the sound she makes. It’s subtle but crucial.
When Adele sings Skyfall, she’s ghosting the end of the word. The whole word is in her mind, and that’s important. She hasn’t pronounced the ll loudly, but her tongue has ended up quietly and neatly behind her top front teeth, ready to begin the next word of the song. She neatly completes the word by making the shape of the ll.
Try it for yourself: say the word Skyfall, pronouncing the ll. Where is your tongue at the end of the word ? Behind your top front teeth? Now say it again and notice the shape that your lips make at the end of the word. Relaxed and partially closed? Perfect.
Now say Skyfor or Skyfaw. Where is your tongue at the end of either word? Further back, somewhere behind your bottom front teeth? And your mouth? Open in the pushed out shape of an O, with a forward energy in your breath? Quite a difference. Imagine how the difference in your mouth’s shape would affect the sound of the song. Think how much longer you’d take to get your mouth into position for the next word.
If you’re a native speaker, you ghost or pronounce consonants all the time, without thinking, when you’re speaking or singing. Awareness gives you control when you sing. Another tool for your toolbox.
Choosing to ghost or ‘un-ghost’ consonants is powerful. You can decide when to draw your audience’s attention to a sound, a thought or an emotion, just by pronouncing a consonant clearly or muting it. Think of yourself as a burlesque dancer manipulating a large feather fan. Yes, really. Hiding and revealing keeps your audience’s attention.
The more you listen, the more you’ll hear shades of consonant, like shades of colour, in songs. It’s interesting to consider the effect they have on you, as a listener.
When you sing, think about the sound picture you want to paint and the emotional impression you want to leave in your audience’s mind. The ghosts of English are your ally.
By the way – why do you think Adele ghosts the final ll of Skyfall? The only time you need to pronounce the ll clearly is when the next word begins with a vowel. The ll acts as a barrier between the two vowel sounds. Every other time, you have a choice.
I’d guess that one reason for singing the word Skyfall differently is so that the audience isn’t thinking a Chicken Little – style sky fall – two words, but two ordinary words. Skyfall is one word and it has a special, specific meaning for Mr Bond. Adele shows that it’s special by singing skyfall with slightly unusual pronunciation. She holds both the idea of the sky falling and of Skyfall, the house in the way she sings the word.
Try singing the word Skyfall right to the end – you close off the vowel by pronouncing the ll strongly, don’t you? The ll is always a barrier. Sing the word Skyfall right to the end each time and you reduce the powerful, soaring expanse of the word Skyfall. Adele makes a very wise singing decision: to ghost the ll when she can, to open the door of the cage and set the vowel free to soar.
If English isn’t your first language: Remember: the ghost of a sound isn’t the same as the complete absence of a sound. Don’t make the mistake of only singing what you think you hear in the original version of a song. Always, always check the lyrics.
The ghosts are there to help you. Once you’ve found them.
© Sing Better English, 2014