Sounds English?

The beauty of a song, in any language, lives in the music and in the words. They work together.  They’re woven together. Never, never take the sounds of English for granted when you sing.

Remember: a standard song lasts about 3 and a half minutes. Every single sound in those 210 seconds affects your listeners, for good or ill. Even something as simple as pronouncing a common word like the without its schwa sound will make a strong impression. Like this.

You can paint pictures with sound. You can stretch diphthongs, choose how to pronounce consonants like tt for different effects or attract your audience’s attention by simply changing the way you pronounce do or mind.  Use your words well. They’re your emotional weapons.

That’s true for any singer, whether English is your mother tongue or not. Some native speakers of English take the language too much for granted. Like this. Sometimes non-native speakers don’t realise that they’re making mistakes. Like this. Hopefully this blog will bring lots of English sounds into focus for all of you. Like this or this.

If your first language isn’t English:

The Schwa: what is it? why should you care?  Because the music of English words depend on it. Especially the and a. If your teacher didn’t introduce you to the schwa, start here. Practise pronouncing it here. It’s easy and it’s crucial.

  • You won’t find the schwa  in the English alphabet, but you’ll find it everywhere else in the living language.
  • You can’t sing the word love right if you can’t sing its central schwa sound right. What does love rhyme with? Move, glove or drove? All of them, or none of them? Look here.
  • Without the schwa, English words don’t fit comfortably, in songs or sentences.  You’ll be forced to throw the natural English stress pattern of a song out of kilter so that you can squash all the words into it, if you don’t use the schwa.
  • Remember: any song written in English, by a native English speaker, is written with that schwa sound in mind. Songs are designed with an expectation of the schwa being used. You need to respect that. Here, for example.
  • You will always sound odd in English if you don’t use the English schwa. Sorry, but it’s true. When a native English singer wants to sound ‘foreign’ they will drop the schwa sound. It works every time – like this. The audience always notices.

Now for the rest of the alphabet:

  1. A: the sound of an English A comes in more than one flavour. Be ready to vary your pronunciation of A. You don’t want to sound like a singing robot. Find out why the smooth a of starling makes it a popular bird in songs here.
  2. B: Frankie Valli uses a strong here. Diana Ross brings a B out of her hat, like a rabbit here.
  3. C: Cab Calloway begins with C.
  4. D: This is one of the consonants that causes problems for non-native singers. Don’t pronounce D too thickly.  Like Geoffrey Porter, you can paint sound pictures with D.  You can intrigue your audience with D, like the Easybeats here. Jessie J and Boney M can show you how to pronounce DD in the middle of words, for effect. Desmond Dekker’s using a Reggae D here.  Make sure you’re clear about the difference in sound between and TH. The Mamas and Papas will help you with tongue twisters here. Don’t ignore the at the end of words.
  5. E: the highest frequency letter in English, so it’s especially important to get it right. If you think always makes the same sound, you’re wrong.  Make sure to sing an English E.  If you’re struggling to distinguish the e sound in bet from the u of but or the a of bat, get help here. If you have trouble hearing the difference between the i of fit and the ee of feet, listen to this.
  6. F: don’t confuse the sound of F with TH.
  7. G: we talk about the importance of giving ng plenty of bounce here.
  8. H: Happy isn’t the only song that needs an English h. House of the Rising Sun is here. Highway to Hell is here.
  9. I: never, never, never take this sound for granted. If you sing a strangled version of the i sound of your own language, you’ll be singing the English i wrong. Guaranteed. Treat the English i as a new sound. Give it room to breathe.
  10.  J: careful with this letter, especially if j makes a different sound in your own language. Check your pronunciation here. When you sing Summertime,the fish are jumping not dumping. Keep your j smooth for Hit the Road, Jack. Be ready to add richness to your j for Bob Marley’s Jamming
  11. K: important, meaning-communicating hard consonant in House of the Rising Sun.  A crisp ck sound is crucial in Hit the Road, Jack.
  12. L: nothing specific yet.
  13. M:  the m that people miss. Also Metallica starts with M.
  14. N: nothing specific yet, but Gnarls Barkley starts with an N sound.
  15. O: another vowel with many flavours. Don’t get stuck with a vanilla o. Check that you’ve got the sound right.  Be sure you’re singing love right. It’s a very, very important word.
  16. P:
  17. Q: nothing specific, but how about a snake with a phrasal verb?
  18. R: make sure that you get R right when you sing.
  19. S: nothing specific, but the Stranglers start with an S!
  20. T: a powerful ally when you sing, if you treat the sound with respect. T’s essential as a marker at the end of words. Think about this and this.
  21. U: a crucial sound and another one that gets taken for granted. An English u is unlikely to be the same as a u in your own language. Get u pure and right. Like this.
  22. V: for Vanilla Fudge.
  23. W: it’s important not to over-pronounce this letter. Think about as a soft linking sound.
  24. X: nothing specific yet, but how about some Amy Winehouse?
  25. Y: a very, very important linking sound between vowels.
  26. Z: nothing specific yet, but Adele is as far away from Z as can be.

9 thoughts on “Sounds English?”

  1. Hi, thanks for following my blog. I find this very interesting and will pass on the link to my partner, who is (for his own pleasure) a singer/songwriter & plays acoustic guitar. I’ve taught ESL, so I too appreciate your passion & your expertise.

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      1. I wonder if we notice more at home because we have lived in other countries & been motivated to notice more, then brought the habit home? I remember thinking about this when I first moved back from Peru (my first overseas extended stay). Also, my work has sometimes involved travel & reporting back on conditions etc, so that also helped form the habit. We’re certainly both the richer for the fact that we pay attention to where we are — our surroundings have so much to offer us, if we let them.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think you’re absolutely right. When you’ve lived abroad you do realise that what’s new and exciting to you, as a visitor, is utterly commonplace to local people. No matter how spectacular it seems to tourists. I remember visiting Norway and taking a bus from Bergen along a fjord into the interior. While we were staring out of the windows, open-mouthed, at the enormous waterfalls cascading down the mountains, the Norwegian bus passengers were busy with their books or sleeping. As I would have been, if I’d been on my way to work or home from school.

        I try, not always successfully, to put as much energy into my walks around Brighton (where we live now) as I would if I’d come to visit for the weekend. And to go down to see the sea every day. It’s too easy to take it for granted, but it’s the thing that ‘means’ Brighton when you come down from London for the day.

        Keep up the ‘noticing’. It’s inspiring.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Well I expect you to show me Brighton …

        I got sidetracked (by technology gremlins) today, didn’t get a new post published, hope to do it this evening, will probably call it “With a Little Help From My Friends” since I plan to feature your wonderful links that started all this correspondence & perhaps also comments from a friend about Toronto street names. Not sure about the latter.

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      4. That’s a generous thought. Thank you. I hope people enjoy the links. 🙂

        And yes, of course, if you ever visit Brighton, I’ll be happy to show you my favourite parts of the town.

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      5. I have to tell you that I did not, after all, reprint your thoughtful comment in my latest post. I went to the links, but found I couldn’t actually hear the programs. Now I understand your reference to “bare bones,” all one can do is see reference to what once existed. I appreciate your taking time to send me the archival references and, above all, I appreciate the discussion we’ have now had about walking & observing. Thank you again.

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