Posted by: kaleidophonic | March 29, 2012

Hearing Voices (Or, Sounds Mannish)

Ever since I became involved in radio I’ve been interested in the sounds of voices. Its always strange hearing your own voice played back to you, just as it’s weird (at least, for me) to see a photograph, for the first time, of someone I’ve been listening to on the radio. The photographs NEVER correspond to the image of the person I’ve built up in my head, an image based solely on their voice.

Voices have power, but some more than others. And, it turns out, deeper voices have the most power of all.

This isn’t too much of a surprise, really, if you think about it. Darth Vader was voiced by James Earl Jones. God was voiced by Morgan Freeman. Both of these actors were also given advertising contracts to be the voice of powerful business interests: Jones represented testosterone-tank Hummers in their first commercials, while Freeman’s voice has pitched for credit-card giant Visa. What’s more, Morgan Freeman’s voice has become so iconic (and, apparently, inherently trustworthy and authoritative) that Republicans in North Carolina hired a Freeman-sound-alike to voice some of their anti-Democrat attack ads.

Its a simple equation: deep, manly voices = authority, strength, and confidence.

Now, it’s pretty clear to me that this is all based on a powerful cultural gender bias. In our society, men are perceived as the stronger, more authoritative sex. The deeper a man’s voice, the more manly he is presumed to be. The inverse is obviously true too – men with higher-pitched voices are frequently forced to defend their masculinity. Some men even go so far as to have vocal cord surgery, to avoid the ‘negative’ perception that they are womanly, un-masculine, and therefore unattractive.

This is a pretty sad state of affairs, and has obvious links to misogyny. When women are denigrated in our society, it is ‘natural’ that feminine voices are denigrated too.

In my PhD research I have read a great deal about Second Wave Feminism, and one of the most intriguing aspects of this movement is the way that women were perceived and dismissed by males. Once women began raising their voices against the idea that they should be quiet and submissive, males began mocking the sound of the female voice. Over and over again in newspaper articles from the late 1960s and early 1970s feminists are made to seem hysterical in headlines that depict women protestors as “screaming”, “noisy” “harpies”, with “shrill” and “strident” voices. In one article from the Montréal Gazette (dated 1970), the local women’s liberation movement is described as “stunning its opponents with sound waves in the style of Lucy Van Pelt of Peanuts.” ” Screaming abuse and the like,” the article continues, “are the tractics of social misfits, the drop-outs, the malcontents.”

But the denigration of women’s voices isn’t limited to feminists. It has recently come to light that Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady of British Conservatism, was voice-coached in order to lower her voice. CBC’s Brent Bambury addressed this issue on a recent edition of his radio show, Day Six:

In the film The Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, played on screen by Meryl Streep, meets with an adviser named Gordon Reece, a former journalist and TV producer.

It’s 1975, the year Thatcher became the leader of the Opposition, and Reece wants to alter the image of the candidate he believes could become Britain’s first female prime minister.

“You look and sound like a privileged Conservative wife and we’ve already got her vote,” he says. “But the main thing is your voice. It’s too high. It has no authority. People don’t want to be harangued by a woman or hectored. Persuaded, yes.”

Thatcher’s admirers were generally not pleased with Hollywood’s rendition of the Baroness. But the deliberate modulation of Thatcher’s voice is documented in Charles Moore’s biography, and the story is better in real life.

Moore describes how voice lessons at Britain’s National Theatre deepened Thatcher’s tone. “Soon the hectoring tones of the housewife gave way to softer notes and a smoothness that seldom cracked, except under extreme provocation on the floor of the House of Commons.”

(The agent who’d arranged the sessions between the theatre’s coaches and the leader of the Opposition was the great actor Laurence Olivier whose own voice could probably have cut glass.)

The adjustments to Thatcher’s voice may have been a response to the sexism of the time, or to address the class bigotry that dogged Thatcher earlier in her career.

But the Iron Lady’s handlers had unwittingly stumbled onto a democratic advantage that is only now being proven scientifically: lower voices get more votes.

The article goes on to describe the research of Cara Tigue, a PhD student in psychology at McMaster University. Tigue’s research suggests that voters are influenced by the sound of political candidate’s voices. And, surprise surprise, voters have more confidence in candidates with deep, low voices.

A voice modulator circuit diagram.

Tigue’s method involved having test subjects listen to recordings of male voices – some manipulated to sound deeper – and give their impressions of those voices.

So what qualities did these listeners attribute to lower voices?

“They said they were more dominant, they were more trustworthy. We asked people which voice would you prefer to vote for and overall people chose the lower pitched voices more often.

“We only had one trait that was associated with a higher pitched voice and that was the likelihood of being involved in a government scandal.”


In past studies, researchers have measured voter preference in relation to the physical attractiveness of a candidate and the quality of a voice as well. Both of those have been found to play a role.

Tigue’s is the first study to try to measure the relationship between voter intention and the pitch of a candidate’s voice.

For voters with their own strong ideas, the underlying perceptions surrounding a deep voice probably won’t affect them very much.

But the scenario changes when some sort of threat is introduced.

“The relationship between voice pitch and dominance would more strongly influence voting behaviour in the wartime scenario than in the general national election scenario,” Tigue’s study says.

In other words, in a flight or fight situation, we imagine the guy with the deeper voice will probably stand his ground. He may not of course, he may be an utter coward.

The article goes on to ask whether this voice-based bias might be behind the barriers faced by women in politics. While I’m sure this is probably a factor, I think the issue is more accurately linked to the point I made earlier: that our society can be deeply misogynist. People trust women less than they do men. People assume women are less authoritative, confident, and even less rational than men. The sound of women’s voices (or high voices in general, regardless of the biological sex of the physical body it emanates from) conjures these deep cultural biases.

While Tigue’s study was focused on men, she did point towards a similar study, done in Miami, that focused on women. This research found that “women with lower-pitched voices earned roughly 20 per cent more votes than higher-pitched females.” In addition, women with higher-pitched voices were deemed more attractive than their husky-voiced counterparts. Clearly it sucks to be a mannish-sounding woman in the dating world. (That is, in the heterosexual dating world at least. Gender and voice gets considerably more complicated in the queer/trans community. Maybe I’ll post something on this at a later date. Right now this post is getting a bit long in the tooth…).

All of this to make my one general point: that the way we hear is deeply gendered. Voices (like sounds in general) are essentially neutral. It is our perception of these voices/sounds, which are based on our social and cultural contexts, that judges them strong or weak, attractive or unattractive.

So the next time you’re talking to someone and you think “hey, I like the sound of their voice,” listen more deeply. You might be surprised to discover that you’re preferences may be more cultural than they are personal…

– KJ


  1. Hehehe, some of my soprano choir friends and I always joked about how the bass parts were more interesting than our high, high melody parts. We set up a regimen of smoking cigars and drinking whiskey to solve the problem of our high voices. 😉 I’m pretty sure I can send some stuff your way on low sounds and sex… wait for it……..

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