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VOICE ACTING - PART 1
What Makes A 'Beautiful' Voice That Gets You
Hired? Most Often, It's Not The 'Perfect' Voice ...

By Hannah Melbourn
Voice Actor

What makes a beautiful voice?

As a voice actor and vocalist, the human voice is an endlessly fascinating topic to me. I grew up surrounded by music, and from a very young age I understood my voice to be My Thing. 

My Dad had been a singer in a covers band the 1970's. He knew all the words to all the songs on the radio, and encouraged my brother and I to sing with abandon - sparking in me a lifelong obsession with all things vocal.

There was never any question in my mind about what it was I wanted to do with my life, and I am lucky to be able to make my living from my voice today - both in the world of voice over and as a singer songwriter. I am hugely grateful for every moment of it.

I love to geek out on voices of all stripes, listening for the smallest quirks, kinks and idiosyncrasies that give them their beauty. 

Like wonky teeth or dimples, it's often not the most 'perfect' voice that stops your heart or makes you laugh, but the slightly flawed, imperfect ones.

SHIFTING OUR TONES

Voices make you feel something; it's almost as though we react on a cellular level to the sound of a person's voice.

From the strangulated cries of a stressed teacher trying to control an unruly classroom (later, our ex Prime Minister Theresa May would always reminded me of these poor creatures), to the low, smooth way a mother speaks to her newborn baby, most of us are capable of shifting our vocal tone to suit our environment, our listeners, and our surroundings.

Vocal quality is of course very closely linked with empathy we naturally change our voices depending on who we are talking to. 

According to a paper published by the University of Sterling in 2017, however, people who see themselves as high status, do this less.

Have you ever met anyone who insists on talking to you in a whisper at a party? It's a power move to get you to focus all your attention on that person, and one which can leave you feeling pretty drained.

CODESWITCHING - AUTHENTIC ACCENTS

At the other end of the spectrum there are people who literally speak in two completely different ways.

Actress Gillian Anderson is a good celebrity example, having grown up in England and then moved to the US. She can be classed as bidialectal, using both accents with ease, much to the fascination of the press.

Also known as codeswitching, these people have two different accents, which are equally weighted and are both authentic. 

Check out this conversation on Netflix about codeswitching in the black community, and how it impacts on identity and sense of self for people of colour. 

One of the panellists, Justin Simien, talks about going to school in a predominantly white school but living in a black neighbourhood and how that meant he had to codeswitch in both directions in order to fit in. 

The 2018 movie Yardie directed by British actor and director Idris Elba is a really great one to watch for lovely examples of codeswitching. There don't seem to be any clips of the specific scenes online so you'll have to go and watch the whole film on Netflix, but if nothing else, it's a great excuse to drink in some of the sounds of 1980's London.

VOICE ACTORS: VOCAL CHAMELEONS

Whilst modifying the voice is something most people do unconsciously, we voice actors are particularly skilled at changing our voices.

We are veritable vocal chameleons, shape shifting in sometimes imperceptible ways to strike the right chord for our clients. 

The best in the business can deliver a line in a multitude of ways, playing with the various elements of tone, texture, accent and inflection until it's just right. And interestingly, it often happens that nobody can quite put their finger on why (and yes, I can hear myself, Clem Fandango.)

EMPATHY AND MIRRORING

As a child who grew up through the 90's recession and went from private education to state, and has mixed with people from all walks of life - spending most of my time in London and a good amount of time in Manchester in my 20s, I have always slightly tweaked and modified the way I speak. 

This isn't cynical or by way of imitation, nor indeed is it very noticeable, but more by way of empathy and mirroring.

When I speak to my home friends now after many years away (I was born in Watford, north London, England), I hear my estuary vowels twanging out into the room and it takes me almost by surprise, in a lovely way. It sounds like home.

An Irish friend recently found it genuinely hilarious when she discovered that I could mimic her (thanks to my Irish Granny), and I once had a client laugh out loud at my suggestion that I try his script in a northern accent. He was convinced I wouldn't be able to change my accent in a way that would sound genuine and was blown away when I did.  That was a really nice career moment for me. 

For us VOs, accents are a stock in trade, and for me accents are one of my favourite things in the world. I could listen all day long to people speaking and try to refine down the sounds and inflections that make them unique just for fun.

I had to recently stop myself asking someone in a call centre where their accent was from because I could detect a strong Bolton vibe mixed with a Scandinavian accent, which was a first to my ears, and it was fascinating.

AUTHENTICITY MATTERS

Coming from the wrong place, however, changing your voice can come off as the ultimate in creepiness.

When disgraced American businesswoman Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of the now defunct healthcare company Theranos should have been facing questions about her business misconduct, but instead, the internet was awash with stories about her 'fake' baritone voice. 

Videos popped up showing her accidentally 'outing' her real voice (and then quickly correcting it), were hastily taken down. 

As The Cut magazine perfectly put it,
"Holmes is obviously guilty of many more serious crimes, but faking one's voice is just weird, and embarrassing, in much the same way that bad toupees are: they place one's bodily insecurities center stage. Plus, now she'll have to do this voice for the rest of her life (?), and it's all I can think about."
So at a human level, authenticity matters. It's something we have known in the industry for a long time, but I believe it's always important to keep top of mind when you're working. 

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ABOUT HANNAH
Hannah Melbourn is a multi-award winning voice talent working from her broadcast quality home studio in Ramsgate Kent, England.



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Comments (3)
Juliette Gray
3/25/2021 at 1:11 PM
Hi Hannah, great article. I am originally from London and live in LA. But as a singer/VO I thought you might like to hear a few songs where I speak the lyrics rather than sing them. The songs are American standards from the Great American Songbook. You can find them at www.Jazzical journeys.com or on You Tube. XoxoJuliette
Tania
3/25/2021 at 12:04 PM
Excellent summary! So very interesting. When we've traveled internationally, I picked up a tiny hint of an accent in both Europe (London) and in Ireland. It was not at all purposeful, but it annoyed my family tremendously. As a voice actor and aspiring narrator, I plan to get coaching on dialects to enhance my skill set and also because it is so very interesting.
Randye kaye
3/25/2021 at 10:43 AM
Fascinating! Thanks for a great article. Look forward to part 2
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