The most important vowel in pop

Depending on how you count, there are something like 42 speech sounds – or phonemes – in English. All of them have their place in the world of pop music, from the /æ/s of ABBA’s Anni-Frid and Agnetha, to the two hirsute /z/s of ZZ Top. Together they form pop music’s lyrical corpus of love songs, rock ballads, techno tracks, and hip-hop tunes. Life just wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for the /t/ in the Beatles or the /n/ in the Stones.

But which of these phonemes is the most important to the world of pop? Which one is top of the phoneme charts?

Fans of human beat boxing and stutter rapping might not agree but surely the vowels are more important than the consonants, given their key role in rhyming? Maybe the /aɪ/ of the ‘Lie-Le-Lie’ refrain in Simon & Garfunkel’s classic ‘The Boxer’ is the most important vowel in pop? Or maybe it’s the /ɑ/ of Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya’? Or perhaps it’s the humble /ʌ/ of  ‘Love me do’?

I would argue it’s neither. I would argue that, in fact, it’s a little-known misfit of a vowel, affectionately known by linguists as schwa. Written formally as /ə/, schwa is the one vowel that pop just couldn’t live without. Without this particular phoneme, it would be a very long time before record executives in London and LA found their next big hit. Without this vowel, I would argue, pop music would be Top Forty at best.

The reason is simple: schwa is the Swiss Army Knife of vowels. Because it lies somewhere between all the other vowels, it is the only one capable of making ‘her’ rhyme with ‘you’, ‘I want to’ rhyme with ‘I am going to’, and ‘hotter’ rhyme with ‘a lot of’. It’s not necessarily a vowel we are very familiar with mainly because, since it doesn’t have its own letter, we weren’t taught about it at school.

But, in fact, it’s the most common vowel in English. This is because we tend to pronounce schwa in place of other vowels when we speak, particularly in unstressed syllables in the middle and at the end of words. For example, in English, schwa turns up in the ‘a’ of ‘wannabe’, the final ‘e’ of ‘Manic Street Preachers’ and the ‘o’ of ‘Taylor Swift’.

Here are a few instances from the Top Ten:

1. Impressively, in his July 2013 Number One ‘Blurred Lines’, Robin Thicke manages to rhyme almost an entire verse using the humble schwa:

Ok, now he was close
Tried to domesticate you
But you’re an animal
Baby, it’s in your nature
Just let me liberate you
You don’t need no papers
That man is not your maker
And that’s why I’m gon’ take a

2. In the Commonwealth Band’s 2012 jubilee anthem, ‘Sing’, songwriter Gary Barlow manages to rhyme both ‘louder’ and ‘clearer’ with ‘hear you’ through the handy medium of schwa:

Sing it louder
Sing it clearer
Knowing everyone will hear you

3. In ‘Lego House’ from Ed Sheeran’s 2011 album ‘+’, the acoustic guitar playing singer-songwriter manages to rhyme, schwa-wise, ‘December’ with ‘mend you’:

And it’s dark in a cold December
But I’ve got you to keep me warm
If you’re broken I will mend you
And I’ll keep you sheltered from the storm that’s raging on now

4. And, finally, who could forget the simple genius of Cleopatra’s self-titled ‘Theme’ from 1998, which made it to number 3 in the UK charts thanks to clever use of schwa?:

Cleopatra
Comin’ at ya

And there’s more.

Importantly, for the songwriters and record producers of the pop world, the schwa means ungainly phrases like ‘I am going to’ can be condensed to ‘I’m gonna’ saving an entire syllable. The Proclaimer’s classic ‘I’m gonna be (500 miles)’ just wouldn’t be the same without the schwa’d ‘I’m gonna’:

When I wake up, well, I know I’m gonna be
I’m gonna be the man who wakes up next to you

And as well as being the critical component of ‘gotcha’, ‘wanna’, ‘gonna’ (and even ‘I don’t give a’), the schwa has one more important role in pop: when pronounced at the end of words where it wouldn’t normally appear, it can be used to add a terminal syllable to help the words scan to the music or, alternatively, to add emphasis. For example in Dizzee Rascal’s 2013 hit ‘Goin’ Crazy’ featuring Robbie Williams /bɪliv/ becomes /bɪlivə/ thanks to our little friend the schwa:

I believe, I believe, I believe
I believe I’m going crazy

In actual fact, a similar thing often happens in popular French chanson where an otherwise silent schwa is pronounced so that two lines rhyme. Here’s an example from the song ‘Caravane’ by the French singer Raphael:

Est-ce que j’en ai les larmes aux yeux?
Que nos mains ne tiennent plus ensemble?
Moi aussi je tremble un peu
Est-ce que je ne vais plus attendre?

[Do I still have tears in my eyes?
Are our hands still together?
Me too, I’m trembling
Do I have to wait no longer?]

The schwa pops up so often in the singles charts that they are too many examples to list here (particularly because I want to keep this blog post to a radio length single, rather than a full blown double-album). However, with just these few, I hope I’ve convinced you that the world of pop, and not just English pop, wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for the humble schwa.

So when I tune in to the singles charts this Sunday, in the words of Norman Cook, ‘I’m gonna praise schwa like I should’. I hope you do too.