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SOUNDS ODD  by Elizabeth Holmes
Fun Facts on the Science of Sound

#12. Your Voice Is Music To Our Ears

Our natural speaking voices have a great deal to do with the first language and dialect that we learn, says psychologist Diana Deutsch of the University of California, San Diego. 

She studies the musical nature of speech (the pitch and rhythm of words), and examines the feelings and meanings that our spoken "musicĒ conveys.  

As voice actors, we learn techniques for conveying emotion through our voices. We raise our pitch and tempo to convey excitement. For instance, to convey sadness, we deepen them, slow them down, and skew towards a monotone. 

Dr. Deutschís research suggests the scientific basis for these variations.  


Diana Deutsch postulates that the language we hear first and most often builds up a musical template in our brains. 

We begin forming this neural network in the womb. The voice melody we hear most often is our motherís, even though itís distorted through her tissues.  

To study the links between language and music, Dr. Deutsch worked in conjunction with her colleague, psychologist Jinghong Le from East China Normal University, analyzing speech patterns of women living in remote villages in the mountains of central China.


The villages were effectively isolated from each other by hazardous routes, even though they were only 40 miles apart by air.   

Groups of women in each village were physically similar, both anatomically and genetically.

Further, each groupís voices were virtually identical, but their pitch and tempo varied dramatically from village to village. One village spoke with a characteristically low and slow pitch. The other was characteristically high and fast.   

Dr. Deutschís research with these groups suggests that anatomy does not play as large a role in the pitch of our voices as previously believed. Instead, when we learn to speak, we mimic the pitch in the "musicĒ of the voices around us.  

Most likely, tuning in to the nuances of pitch developed as an evolutionary advantage.  Studies have shown that children who take music lessons become skilled at recognizing differences in pitch in as little as six weeks. As a result, these kids are more likely to accurately detect fear or anger in another speakerís voice Ė a useful distinction for interpreting another personís intentions.   


If youíre lucky enough to speak a tone language (such as Mandarin or Vietnamese), you are also far more likely to have perfect pitch Ė the ability to accurately name an isolated note on a musical scale. 

One study revealed that a staggering 90% of music conservatory students who spoke Mandarin and began musical training early had perfect pitch. By contrast, only 8% of their English speaking counterparts with comparable training had perfect pitch.  


Why should voice actors care about perfect pitch? Because the ability to discern pitch accurately also improves a speakerís consistency between recording sessions.  (Audiobook narrators, take note.)   

Dr. Deutsch conducted an experiment - on two different days - in which Mandarin and Vietnamese speakers recited the same list of words. The results?  Nearly identical performances.   

Voice actors who record projects over multiple sessions will benefit from this research.  Improving pitch awareness improves consistency.   

Hey, if it works for kids, it can work for the rest of us, right?  Letís hope so.      

For more on Diana Deutschís research, please her article Speaking in Tones in the July/August 2010 issue of Scientific American, as well as Ingrid Wickelgrenís June 24, 2010 Scientific American article, The Music of Language

Elizabeth Holmes is a writer, voice actor, and staff editor at VoiceOverXtra, based in Northern California. She is also editor of VoiceOverXtra's book division, including Voice Over Legal, by voice actor / attorney Robert Sciglimpaglia.


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Comments (1)
Jack Bair
4/1/2013 at 10:32 PM
Interesting article again, Elizabeth. On another note, my coach has directed me to not go up in pitch at excited places in the script, but to hold a tension in the body (to physicalize the moment), which will send the message w/out going up in pitch, which can weaken the performance. That's another choice. To recognize pitch for consistency over recording sessions-that's a handy little tool. Thanks!
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