Biology, sex, culture, and pitch

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Human secondary sexual characteristics include a  large difference in the pitch* of the voice, caused by a large difference in the average size of the larynx. This larynx-size difference is about five to seven times larger, in proportional terms, than the average difference between the sexes in height or other linear dimensions (about 50-60% compared to about 8-9%). It translates to a difference of about 70% in median pitch values, on average, between adult females and adult males. This difference is about 4.5 times the within-group standard deviation in such median values, which is a large enough effect that median pitch alone (for comparable speech samples) can be used to classify the sex of human adults quite accurately.

On the other hand, normal individuals can and do vary the pitch of their voice by a factor of two or more, depending on things like degree of vocal effort or physiological arousal, prosodic variation, or desire to imitate someone with a naturally higher or lower voice.

This sets the stage for an interesting and fraught interaction between the biology of sex and the cultural construction of gender, which is the background for Lake Bell's claim that there's a "vocal trend" of "sexy baby vocal virus talking".

Human males and females differ little in stature before puberty, but post-pubescent males are about 8-9% taller. According to a database maintained by NIST, the male children in their sample averaged about 3% taller at age 2, and less than 1% taller at age 10, whereas males average about 9% taller at age 18. According to a 1977 publication from the National Center for Health Statistics, at age 2 the 50th percentiles for males and females are identical; at age 10, girls are .6% taller (in the 50th percentile), and at age 18, males are about 8% taller. Data that I've seen from other countries sometimes involves smaller differences, in the range of 5% or so.

With respect to the length of the vocal folds (the tissue in the larynx that is responsible for producing  voiced speech), this overall difference between the sexes is magnified by approximately a factor of seven: the vocal folds of post-pubescent males average about 50-60% longer than those of females of the same age (length of the overall glottis or length of the anterior glottis in the figure and table below).

AC
anterior commissure
VP
tip of vocal process
AnAC
angle of bilateral vocal folds at AC
GWP
glottic width at vocal process level
LEG
length of entire glottis
LAG
length of anterior glottis
LPG
length of posterior glottis
LMF
length of membranous vocal fold

 

Male
Female
Ratio M/F
AnAC in degrees
16
25
LMF in mm
15.4
9.8
1.57
GWP in mm
4.3
4.2
1.02
LAG in mm
15.1
9.5
1.59
LPG in mm
9.5
6.8
1.40
LEG in mm
24.5
16.3
1.50

(Data and picture from Hirano, M, K Sato and K Yukizane; "Male-female difference in anterior commisure angle", in S. Kiritani, H. Hirose and H. Fujisaki, Eds., Speech Production and Language, Mouton de Gruyter, 1997. The study involved excised larynges from 10 males and 10 females, average age 58 for the males and 66 for the females. It would be nice to have larger and more varied samples, but I don't know of any better sources.)

As a result of these hormone-induced laryngeal changes, adult human males have significantly lower voices than females do, out of proportion to their rather small different in average height. Though the pitch of anyone's speech depends very much on circumstances, under comparable conditions, (adult) human females voices are likely to show pitches roughly 70-75% higher those of male voices. This difference reflects not only the difference in vocal cord length, but also a difference in vocal cord mass — and perhaps some socially-conditioned factors as well. A graph showing data from various studies is reproduced below (taken from Kent 1994):

For this morning's Breakfast Experiment™, I turned to the TIMIT dataset, which includes sentences read by 192 female and 438 male speakers. There were two "calibration sentences" read by all the speakers, and I wrote a simple script to calculate the median pitch of these two sentences for each speaker.

The average of these median values for the 192 female speakers was 195 Hz, and the average for the 438 male speakers was 114 Hz. The distributions looked like this:

In this sample, the effect size (difference in means divided by the pooled standard deviation) is d = 4.51, which is so large that we can separate the males from the females with high accuracy (though of course not perfectly) just by this single number. (And it's likely that a few of the extreme values in each group were affected by pitch-tracking errors, which I did not check for…)

Of course, individual speakers can and do vary their pitches, often over quite a wide range.

In this passage from a 2003 interview with Ann Richards, her median pitch is 175 Hz, putting her towards the low end of the female distribution shown above:

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But in this clip from her keynote address at the 1988 Democratic Convention, the median pitch is 296 Hz, more than 9 semitones higher, way above the top of the sample shown in the graph:

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This is not because she's trying to sound more girlish in the convention speech — it's the normal effect of the greater vocal effort and whatever else is involved in "projecting" for an audience, even helped by a microphone and sound system.

We can see an even greater change in some cases. Thus in this extract from a studio interview with Dr. Martin Luther King, his median pitch is 92 Hz, towards the bottom of the male range in the sample graphed above:

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But in the clip from his famous "Dream" speech, the median pitch is 256 Hz, well over an octave higher, even higher than the top of the female range in the TIMIT graph:

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Again, this is emphatically not because MLK was trying to perform his speech in the voice of a little girl, but rather because he was projecting in a style of preaching that was originally developed to reach crowds in the days before amplification.

Of course imitating a younger or smaller person — or an older or larger person — is one of many other reasons that someone might vary the pitch of their voice. And thereby hangs a tale: one of the more persuasive just-so stories of human behavioral evolution.

Voice pitch is not the only speech-related secondary sexual characteristic of Homo sapiens. Because the larynx also drops lower in the neck in post-pubescent males, the overall adult male vocal tract length is about 15% longer on average than its female counterpart. This means that resonance frequences (including the formant frequencies that determine vowel quality) are also about 15% lower in adult males as compared to females. This is about 175% of the difference expected on the basis of the average overall size differences (8-9%). This difference also means that adult males are even more subject to the risk of choking on aspirated food that is a price the human species pays for adapting its vocal organs to speech.

None of the other species of apes shows a similar sexual dimorphism of the vocal organs, neither in larynx size nor in larynx position. (Of course, overall size differences between the sexes tend to be larger in other apes than in humans.) It's plausible that this unique vocal dimorphism is connected to the fact that humans are the only apes that give vocal displays a central role in their social interactions.

In other words, over some historical period of hominin evolution, it was advantageous for males to give the vocal impression of being bigger than their actual size; and this advantage was big enough to drive genetic change, overcoming the disadvantage of greater propensity for choking to death on aspirated food, or getting lung infections from aspirated vomit.

This raises the possibility that the biological dimorphism in vocal-tract anatomy might continue to be emphasized or exaggerated, by individual choice or by broader social habits. And there's plenty of evidence that this can be true. The graph below indicates that Japanese male and female speakers may be more polarized in pitch than Americans are (background and discussion here):

The "motherese" type of baby talk normally involves elevated pitch, among its other features.

And so when Lake Bell claims that "the vocal trend that I call sexy baby vocal virus talking" also involves "pitch, so really high up",  that's certainly plausible, since there's also a kind of "baby talk" used to project pubescent sexuality.

But I'm still skeptical that this trend exists. I live and work among college students,  and I hear them talking to one another hundreds of times a day. If there's a recent epidemic of young American women using artificially high pitch, it must be happening in other times and places, because I'm not hearing it.

And in connection with the context of Ms. Bell's movie, which is the voice-over industry, the shoe is pretty clearly on the other foot. The reason that Don LaFontaine was known in the voice-over business as "Thunder Throat" was that he naturally had an unusually low voice — and presumably he and others learned to emphasize this characteristic in order to sound authoritative.

Some anecdotal evidence for such artificial pitch-range lowering can be heard in this passage from an interview with LaFontaine:

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And also in this reaction by the program's studio host:

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So whatever might have been happening recently with a "sexy baby vocal virus", there's a "sexy daddy vocal virus" that's been trending for the past million years or so (assuming that hominin vocal evolution began with Homo erectus). And that older trend is what's really relevant to sex discrimination in the voice-over industry.

 


*Phoneticians, psychologists and others generally use "F0" or "fundamental frequency" to refer to objective physical measurements of local periodicity, and reserve "pitch" for the corresponding subjective psychological impression. I've used "pitch" promiscuously  throughout this post, following the pattern of ordinary language.

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30 Comments »

  1. Dick Margulis said,

    August 16, 2013 @ 9:24 am

    "I live and work among college students, and I hear them talking to one another hundreds of times a day."

    Okay, but you live and work at an elite university, home of the best and the brightest and perhaps skewing toward the more academically inclined of the college student population in the U.S. Is it possible Ms. Bell encounters a more diverse cross-section of young females than you do?

    [(myl) Could be. But during the past few months, I've spent a few days each at Eastern Michigan University and Indiana University, and a month at the University of Michigan, and I didn't notice any striking pitch-range trends there either. And I also walk around Philadelphia, take public transportation a lot, and encounter other social strata in those contexts, including lots of people who don't consider themselves to be college material at all. So maybe all the sexy-baby-talk-virus victims have moved to southern California and spend all their time at Hollywood casting calls, but wherever they are, they're not anyplace where I'm hearing them talk.]

  2. Eric P Smith said,

    August 16, 2013 @ 9:43 am

    Perhaps 20 years ago I heard a talk from an aggressively feminist woman who seemed to think that everything in the world is a social construct: I'm sure you know the type. She argued vehemently that the pitch difference between adult male and adult female speaking voices was entirely a matter of culture. Her reasoning was: “It's obviously just a matter of culture, because when a female speaker wants to sound more masculine, she speaks with a deeper voice.” It honestly never occurred to her that it is the other way round: there is a biological difference of some 9 semitones between an adult male voice and an adult female voice, and that when a female speaker deepens her voice to sound more masculine she is copying the male trait.

  3. jseliger said,

    August 16, 2013 @ 10:10 am

    But I'm still skeptical that this trend exists. I live and work among college students, and I hear them talking to one another hundreds of times a day.

    This may also be a regional phenomenon.

    I've spent substantial time in the last 15 years in Seattle, Worcester MA, Tucson, L.A., and New York. Of those, L.A. seems to have the strongest trend towards some constellation of Valley Girl / Vocal Fry speech, with some occurring in Tucson, especially in sororities at the University of Arizona. I've heard very little in Seattle or New York. Bell is an actress and presumably spends a lot of time in L.A.

    The other day I was at a coffeeshop in New York and heard a woman chatting, and her voice / intonation made me think "Valley girl." I asked if she was from the West Side or the Valley, and she immediately answered "West Side," then wanted to know how I knew she was from L.A. From what I understand, Valley-girl-talk is different than vocal fry, but they seem to be associated with younger women and at least in my mind particularly in southern CA.

    IIRC correctly you're at UPenn.

    [(myl) There are certainly regional characteristics, in prosody as in vowel quality and in word choice -- but would you call the speech patterns that you heard "baby talk"? And hasn't the Valley accent in question been around for 50 years or so at least?]

  4. Rebecca said,

    August 16, 2013 @ 10:17 am

    Eric, I would propose that the ranges that most men and women can produce comfortably is much wider then what you'll see by sampling every day speech. One only need to look at how much transwomen are able to change their voices to understand how much one can change ones normal register.

    That our culture favors emphasizing sexual dimorphism via gender specific pitch ranges is surely informed by biology, it should be unsurprising that our cultures are impacted by the same forces that caused the original physical gender dimorphism, but because greater range is possible, one must then look at our cultures for an explanation as to why it mostly goes unused.

  5. mike said,

    August 16, 2013 @ 10:40 am

    As folks are noting, the trend might also be contextual–everyday interactions might not show the trend, but certain special circumstances might, wherein the gents in effect go for a Barry White effect and the ladies pitch upward. I'm thinking of here of places and circumstances that might be less public than those available for casual observation, and precisely where the presumably intended effect, evolutionarily speaking, is most in play.

    Then again, I haven't finished my first coffee today.

    [(myl) Could be true, though I'd be surprised to learn that things are strikingly different in this respect than they were a decade or a century ago.

    But Lake Bell's assertion is not about private role-playing, but about an alleged epidemic of public behavior that is supposed to explain why it's hard for women to get voice-over work. (Or at least to be somehow relevant to a discussion of why voice-over actors are more often male.)]

  6. JLR said,

    August 16, 2013 @ 11:05 am

    Interesting. I never noticed the high pitch of MLK's speech before, yet it seems obvious to me that it is a male speaking, and it doesn't seem like it's entirely due to priming effects. It's not obvious to me how I know that. Does he periodically dip F0 into male-only range? Are there other obvious acoustic correlates of male speech that I might be cueing off of, perhaps in other characteristics of the glottal pulse or the other formant frequencies?

  7. CJ said,

    August 16, 2013 @ 11:09 am

    As someone who is pretty much completely ignorant on this subject, can I ask what it is that makes e.g. ML King sound different from a little girl when the median pitch of his speech rises very high? Is it that, even when the median is high, the extreme lows he can reach are a giveaway? Is it the difference in resonant frequencies you mention later on?

    [(myl) The difference in resonance frequencies is certainly part of it. There are other features that tell your ear and brain that a bit of speech at (say) 250 Hz comes from a man strongly projecting his voice, or (differently) a man speaking falsetto, as opposed to a woman in a higher-pitched region of her normal range, or a young child in the lower-pitched region of his or her normal range. But frankly, I don't think that anyone really understands this problem completely.]

    Also, is it known whether men tend to use the lower part of their range more than women? I.e., is it the case that if a man has a range of, say, 50+ Hz and a woman has a range of 100+ Hz (I don't know if this is plausible), the man is likely to speak at a median pitch that is proportionally closer to 50Hz than the woman's is to 100Hz? It seems to me that this would be some evidence for a cultural effect on pitch if it were the case, though this is assuming that mere anatomy doesn't make it easier for someone with a 50Hz minimum to speak closer to it than for someone with a 100Hz minimum to speak closer to theirs.

    [(myl) You can see the answer, for one sample at least, in the plots in this post and this one, e.g.

    in which the interval between female and male pitches is smaller in higher quantiles than in lower ones. This might be caused by males spending more time lower in their range, or females spending more time higher in their range, or both.]

  8. CJ said,

    August 16, 2013 @ 12:34 pm

    Great, thanks! It's interesting that the difference you point out in that graph is noticeably smaller for the Japanese.

  9. Eric P Smith said,

    August 16, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

    Rebecca, I'm interested, but I am largely unfamiliar with the concepts you are using. When you say, “our culture favors emphasizing sexual dimorphism via gender-specific pitch ranges” do you mean that cultural factors make the pitch difference between men and women greater than it would have been on the basis of biology alone? If so, can you point me towards any research or other authority in support of that assertion?

    Transwomen are indeed able to change their voices a lot, but it takes effort and practice. I'm not sure that it is necessary to look at our cultures for an explanation of why most of the possible pitch range in our voices are unused: surely if there were no cultural pressure, we should expect the pitch of a person's voice to be near the middle of its possible range, simply because that is where it ends up in the absence of any effort to put it anywhere else.

    Or am I being too naïve? It wouldn't be the first time.

  10. Tara said,

    August 16, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

    A colleague who works on transgender voice physiology recently pointed me to this nice paper looking at the influence of formant frequencies on perceived speaker gender: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0892199712002056

  11. Theodore said,

    August 16, 2013 @ 1:46 pm

    With the recent (and too young) death of Kongar-ol Ondar, I have been thinking about Tuvan throatsinging lately, so I found it interesting that despite the ≈9-semitone gender difference in average fundamental frequency, there's less than 3 semitones difference in the formant frequencies. It makes me wonder about gender differences overtone singing abilities. (Forthcoming sensational headline in the Kyzyl Times: "Study shows men built for khoomei").

    Does the TIMIT dataset have enough data to conclude anything about gender differences in vocal range of individual speakers (or singers)? Maybe there's less gender difference in ratio of formant to fundamental when individuals are vocalizing near the lower part of their range.

    [(myl) Soprano singers are anecdotally hard to understand, due to the small number of overtones available within the range of their vowel formants.]

  12. Eneri Rose said,

    August 16, 2013 @ 3:05 pm

    I have several comments. In the 70s, upon entering a male- dominated profession, I made a conscience effort to lower the pitch of my voice in an attempt to be taken more seriously.

    When females try to project their voices they tend to raise their pitch making them much more difficult to understand and actually defeating their aim. Think of a female calling to somebody far away. (Biiiillyyy!) Males seem to know instinctively that lowering the pitch of their voice and enunciating clearly will allow their voice to carry farther. (Yo, Bill, Bill!)

    Having grown-up in a home with lots of yelling, I am particularly sensitive to people who try to project their voice by raising the pitch, which feels to me like yelling. When I express this to my husband, he says the speakers are not yelling, they're just passionate. But, I cannot stop my physiologic response.

    I live between Baltimore and DC and I hear more vocal fry from young women than raised pitch.

  13. Ken Brown said,

    August 16, 2013 @ 5:58 pm

    Castrato singers, supposedly, had a natural high pitch but a male-sounding voice. I have no idea how that actually worked.

    If it did at all. Plenty of people seem to think that boy sopranos in choirs can sing in ways that girls and women can't. I am not a singer myself and I can't hear the difference and am tempted to think its a false distinction emerging from some kind of cultural prejudice against women singers. But I don't know. Maybe people with better trained ears hear differences in quality that I miss.

  14. J. said,

    August 16, 2013 @ 8:12 pm

    I have no doubt that Bell has noticed something real, whatever its linguistic significance. The vocal style she describes is perhaps five years old. The women who employ it are probably not much older than 30.

    I am 60, a trained linguist. I live in Manhattan, which is where I hear the style she parodies so aptly.

    [(myl) Any hints about where the rest of us might encounter examples? Or details about what you think the "style" consists of? Strongly retracted front vowels? Unusually high pitch? or what? I've spent maybe 50 scattered days in Manhattan in the past five years, and never noticed anyone talking like Bell's ATC parody in overhead conversations on the subways, in restaurants, on the sidewalks, in buildings at Columbia and NYU and City College...

    We've seen one other commenter who encountered what (s)he took to be a relevant example "at a coffeeshop in New York" and confirmed that the speaker was from L.A. But apparently that's not the style you have in mind?

    I get the impression that people like you interpret Bell's complaint to be about "those young women I sometimes meet who talk in a way that intensely annoys me", whatever the specific sources of annoyance and the actual frequency of the encounters might be. I'd be happy to learn, in detail, that I'm wrong, but so far, no one is providing anything much but several vague expressions of annoyance, a few references to TV show characters, and one visitor from L.A. encountered in a coffeeshop.]

  15. J. said,

    August 16, 2013 @ 9:25 pm

    I don't know if I can help you, Mark. The elements Bell herself identifies seem pretty accurate. A certain strained voice quality tends to go with it. This particular assembly of mostly not-new vocal features seems so specific to me that I wouldn't have been surprised to learn that all these young women were imitating some media figure (which is why the word "style" occurred to me). I must say I hadn't thought of it as sexy, though.

  16. tpr said,

    August 17, 2013 @ 5:08 am

    The pitch (or F0) is probably not the most important part of the difference in vocal quality. The length, thickness and tension of the vibrating vocal folds determine the F0. The length of the vocal tract determines the frequencies that resonate best within the vocal tract, giving a voice its characteristic quality (or timbre). A longer vocal tract will emphasize lower frequencies in the source produced by the vocal folds, but won't in itself affect the F0. When correctly stated, the logic of the choking risk argument is that the increased risks associated with the lowering of the larynx had to be offset by some advantage associated with changing the timbre of the voice (rather than F0).

    [(myl) This is partly incomplete and partly wrong, and mostly irrelevant.

    F0 in speech is controlled both by variation in vocal fold tension and by subglottal pressure, and also to some extent by supraglottal impedance and by coupling to supraglottal resonances. The vocal folds also have different possible modes of oscillation, e.g. falsetto register in which the vocal fold "cover" oscillates largely independently of the "body". Obviously the whole system is scaled by changes in the overall size of the larynx.

    The speech spectrum as a whole depends on the source spectrum (whether voice or noise or both) and the resonant properties of the supraglottal tract, determined by the positions of the jaw, lips, tongue, velum, and so on. Those resonances affect all frequencies, not just the lower ones. Assuming only voiced excitation and no nonlinear source/tract interaction, the resulting signal is the convolution of the glottal source with the impulse response of supraglottal vocal tract; and the spectrum of the output is the fourier transform of the source multiplied by the fourier transform of the impulse response. Given various (often false) additional simplifying assumptions, the fourier transform of the vocal-tract impulse response can be represented as the product of a set of "formants", which are complex poles at specific frequencies and bandwidths. Larger individuals have longer vocal tracts and therefore lower-frequency vocal-tract resonances.

    The relevant result of all of this, stated less technically, is that larger individuals produce both a lower range of (glottal) fundamental frequencies and a lower range of (supraglottal) resonance frequencies. Due to hormone-influenced changes at puberty, the larynx of human males grows disproportionately larger -- by 50-60% in the relevant linear dimensions -- presumably because this makes them sound bigger. In addition, the larynx of adult human males sits somewhat lower in the neck -- about 1 cm. on average -- than in comparably-sized adult human females, which also has the effect of exaggerating the size differences, so that male formant frequencies average about 15% lower, rather than the 8% or so that the overall sexual size dimorphism would entail.]

  17. BlueLoom said,

    August 17, 2013 @ 8:15 am

    I am an avid listener to audiobooks, now most often narrated by trained actors rather than simple book readers. My personal view is that most male narrators do a better job of voicing female characters than female narrators do of voicing male characters. My observation may be due to a personal dislike of the female voice in the vocal fry range required for voicing the male characters. Or it may be that trained male actors are more nimble across a wider range of pitches than trained female actors. Or it could be that to my aging hearing (meaning more loss of hearing high tones than low tones), I simply find it easier to distinguish words when read by a male narrator.

  18. McLemore said,

    August 17, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

    Sexy Baby Vocal Virus is an amalgamated construct of styles that taps into people's annoyance with girls, white girls, rich girls, California girls, teenaged girls, etc. Don't you think?

    It's a brilliant performance by Lake Bell — drama, not fact. She strategically sets up a straw girl to draw the most ready-to-hand anti-female prejudices away from her character.

    One teenager I know who does that whole thing at will only does it when she's being obnoxious. But that's in Philly, haha.

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 17, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

    The artificial-sounding voices one deals with when navigating customer-support 800 numbers and the like ("please enter your credit card's expiration date, followed by the pound sign") are often (usually?) female. They don't strike me subjectively as unusually high-pitched or unusually low-pitched compared to how actual adult females might talk in a similar context, but that seems like the sort of thing that could be (and perhaps has been?) studied. Presumably someone designing these systems has made a series of conscious choices about what characteristics of the voice will be optimal for the intended purpose (whether to maximize intelligibility or project certain emotional qualities).

    On Ken Brown's point, it's not entirely clear to me why a belief that the singing voices of adult women are not fungible with those of pre-pubescent boys would be a manifestation of prejudice against the former, although whether there are differences is in principle testable (both by having people who claim they can tell the difference doing blind comparisons and by more technical analysis of formants and overtones and suchlike). No doubt the contrary claim (i.e. that adult women sound just like the way adult men sounded before they, you know, grew up) could equally well be deprecated as a manifestation of prejudice.

  20. tpr said,

    August 17, 2013 @ 2:44 pm

    Mark, please correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is that the vocal tract or any resonance chamber cannot produce frequencies that weren't components of the source to begin with, which means that it doesn't matter how large you make that chamber, the lowest frequency that can come out of it will be the fundamental frequency of the source, in this case the sound produced by the vocal folds.

    Male voices typically have a lower fundamental frequency because of changes to the vocal folds. Formant frequencies are also lower, partly for the same reason and partly because of changes to the length of the vocal tract. The choking hazard is to do with the latter, not the former.

    It may be that in terms of the available evolutionary pathways that the vocal folds and tract length had to scale together, but if the advantage is associated with a lower F0, then it's at least conceivable that the vocal folds could have become thicker without the associated lowering of the larynx, thereby avoiding the increased choking hazard.

    Your comment left me without a clear idea of what you disagreed with, but I'm intrigued that you did.

  21. magdalena said,

    August 17, 2013 @ 3:01 pm

    I speak Polish, Czech, and English. I unconsciously change my pitch for each of these languages – I didn't even notice, my boyfriend pointed it out to me. My "highest" pitch is for English, then Czech, then Polish (I sound pretty "masculine" in Polish). When I'm tired I just stick to my default, which is the Polish pitch, and even to my own ear, I sound weird and / or annoyed if I am speaking English or Czech at the time. So based on this purely anecdotal evidence, it seems pitch varies not only from person to person or sex to sex, but also from language to language?

    [(myl) Yes.]

  22. Links 2 – 17/8/13 | Alastair's Adversaria said,

    August 17, 2013 @ 5:32 pm

    [...] 10. Biology, Sex, Culture, and Pitch [...]

  23. CherylT said,

    August 18, 2013 @ 2:06 am

    Regarding singing voices: there has been a contention that boys' voices are intrinsically better than girls', but several years ago someone 'blind-tested' choirs of girls and of boys with similar levels of training. (Sorry, I don't remember the year or details, but I believe the people tested were all involved with choral music.) On the whole, they were not able to tell the difference; those who trained both boys' and girls' choirs were better than the rest. Several UK cathedrals now have girls' choirs as well as boys'.

    The original restriction of church music to male voices was for religious reasons, not aesthetic ones.

    To return to the topic, cultural expectations and models play a large part in pitch, and training can make a significant difference, the late Margaret Thatcher being a notable example.

  24. CherylT said,

    August 18, 2013 @ 3:25 am

    The study was carried out by Professor David M. Howard of the University of York and various reports were featured in the press in 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3091666.stm is still available online. The choirs tested were trained by the same person and were recorded singing the same piece of music.

  25. Dick Margulis said,

    August 18, 2013 @ 4:34 am

    myl: Sometimes I think you are so focused on statistical results that suggest how alike we all are and how little anything changes that you lull yourself into thinking we're all alike and always have been. It can come across as a belief that the world is fair and just, and young women experience the same level of comfort and lack of stress in the world as young men, and no one's vocal pitch is ever a manifestation of psychic stress, and no one ever experiments with different vocal styles in the process of trying on different roles to play in the world at different stages of their lives. I don't think you actually believe any of that, but it seems to be the corner you are painting yourself into.

    What I think may be happening here is that Ms. Bell is, for dramatic purposes (perfectly fine purposes for a dramatist) hyperbolizing the extent to which an observed phenomenon (this constellation of features) has spread through mainstream culture.

    [(myl) Is that a fancy way of saying that she's making stuff up in order to promote her movie? Because that's what it looks like to me.

    Over the years, I've occasionally encountered young women talking in something like the way that Bell caricatures in the ATC interview. But it has never seemed very common, and doesn't seem to me to have been getting any more common recently, much less to be an epidemic.

    Bell seems to me to be playing on the long-standing and widespread distaste for a collection of female-associated speech stereotypes, and the equally long-standing appeal of "kids today" rhetoric, in order to persuade people to accept her claims about an "epidemic" of "sexy baby vocal virus".

    As usual, I'll be happy to be shown to be wrong. But so far, nobody is giving me any help here. Come on, there are tens of thousands of recent clips of young women talking on YouTube, Vine, Instagram, Mixbit, etc., plus thousands of podcasts: how about a few actual examples? If it's really an epidemic, you shouldn't have to listen to very many examples of young women talking to find some sufferers...

    Real linguistic phenomena that actually exist, like the Northern Cities Shift, or be and be like quotatives, are easy to exemplify from sources like those. So where are all the sexy baby vocal virus victims?

    If you can find a few examples, then we could talk about how to investigate whether the prevalence has been changing. But if it's not even happening, there's no point trying to discover whether it's happening more and more.

    And whether or not there's any change here worth talking about, we'd need to get back to the question of what any of this has to do with the role of women in the voice-over business. It's not like there used to be plenty of successful female voice-over actors, but now that all the women are talking like 12-year-olds, the female voice-over talent has dried up, and so it's all men now.]

  26. Kirk M Maxey said,

    August 18, 2013 @ 6:24 pm

    What is that particular combination of a low voice with a slight, monotonous elevation of pitch that is required to sell onion dicers and other junk on TV? You know, the one that says, "To order the snuggie bundle with the double pack of free snuggie socks dial 1-800-888-8888 now!"
    This voice is always male, never female – and it never moves very far up or down in pitch – it sounds just vaguely urgent – authoritative – but not desperate.

  27. Matt McIrvin said,

    August 19, 2013 @ 9:12 am

    I've always had a high-pitched voice for a male, and, to make matters worse, I went through puberty a little late and had a child's voice, which was high-pitched even for a boy, in junior high school. So this subject is interesting to me.

    A few years ago I acted in some local stage productions of radio plays. The parts realistically available to me were somewhat limited, though, because my voice was good for playing comic parts like ingenuous teenagers, cranky old men and such, but not adult male leads, for which you'd want a low manly voice that I couldn't manage without sounding strained and fake.

    It occurs to me that I ought to have taken up singing instead, because that seems to be an area where men with high voices are usually in the spotlight, while the basses and baritones are singing accompaniment (with some obvious exceptions like modern death metal). My voice is kind of odd and nasal too, but my impression is that standard voice instruction can deal with that…

    My wife has a high-pitched voice for an adult woman as well, and hates the way it sounds in recordings; she describes it as a little-girl voice. She has to talk on the phone a lot in a professional context, and I've noticed that she always intentionally brings it down to the low end of her range.

  28. JJM said,

    August 19, 2013 @ 9:43 am

    "What is that particular combination of a low voice with a slight, monotonous elevation of pitch that is required to sell onion dicers and other junk on TV? You know, the one that says, "To order the snuggie bundle with the double pack of free snuggie socks dial 1-800-888-8888 now!"
    This voice is always male, never female – and it never moves very far up or down in pitch – it sounds just vaguely urgent – authoritative – but not desperate"

    That is the magic of investigation. i believe a fair amount of thourough investigation has gone before it. seeing what sells and what not.
    a slightly monotonous voice has proven to be the better solution, i.e. conversion of sold goods.

  29. RH said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 2:36 pm

    To stray slightly from topic, I see the previous comparisons between pitch used in English, Japanese and German. But I've noticed that at least as far as TV characters go, the male actors using American English (TV style, not a recognisable regional accent) seem to pitch their voices lower and use a narrower range than their British English (BBC English, or especially more "posh" versions of RP) -speaking counterparts. So while a man speaking American English would pitch his voice fairly low and occasionally use a higher pitch for emphasis, a man speaking British English might use a wider pitch range, with the lowest parts as low as his American counterpart, but using both higher pitch for emphasis than the American, and using the upper part of his range more frequently. I think I've heard a similarly wider use of pitch range from some famous male African American speakers, such as Will Smith (but not others, such as Morgan Freeman).

    As this is all guesswork based on impressions and may be limited to upper middle/upper class Brits to boot, I'd love to see if there there are numbers to back it up or not. Another impression I have is women in Scotland using a higher pitch than those in England (and at least I (woman, native Finn) instinctively pitch my voice higher when using a Scots accent compared to the pitch in RP/English (lower) or American (the lowest).)

  30. This And That – waka waka waka said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 10:54 pm

    [...] – Biology, sex, culture, and pitch. [...]

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