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« Elsewhere | Main | Back-Home Accents »

November 19, 2003

High Pitched Voices

Friedrich --

I've been out in California, thus spending a lot of time in the car, and thus listening to the radio, something I otherwise almost never do. And OK, yes, sure, when I'm alone in the car I sometimes sing along to pop and country songs. Doesn't everyone? Huh? Well, anyway, I was once again reminded of something I've often been puzzled by: how very high-pitched the voices of most male singers are. As you well know, no one would accuse me of having a Barry White range (let alone any vocal talent), but when I sing along I often find myself having to do so an octave below the song's lead vocalist.

Any theories that might explain this phenom? Do we hear higher voices better? Do they grab our attention more effectively? Is it related to the way adolescent girls often fall for girlish boys? I finally found a couple of singers whose range is pretty close to mine: Bobby Darin, and the c&w singer Toby Keith, who I'd never heard of before.



posted by Michael at November 19, 2003


think you've got it there:

Yes, we hear higher pitched voices better. They're easier to hear in a mix, over various dogy audio situations, etc.

Higher pitched voices are less "grown up" . . . keep in mind pop music is for teenage girls. Barry White might be a little much for them. (Or Bing Crosby, my personal fav dude singer).

Posted by: dude on November 19, 2003 09:41 AM

I blame Rudy Valley. Seriously, I think it's just a fashion.

For what it's worth, in the US of A, an alarming number of women speak in a voice that is higher than their natural register, and men do the opposite. This doesn't alarm me - doctors tell me the strain causes everything from acid reflux to growing a tail.

Posted by: j.c. on November 19, 2003 10:03 AM

interesting comment. i recall hearing an interview with motown producer barry gordy where he said he always pushed his performers to sing at the high end of their range (a key or two higher than they were comfortable with) to better express the emotion of the lyric. think smokey robinson, the temptations, marvin gaye, etc. outside of motown, sting (both with the police and solo) always seems to be pushing his range to express this type of emotional yearning.

Posted by: william sauer on November 19, 2003 11:10 AM

Dude - A fellow Der Bingle fan! I love his jazzier stuff. I think your hunches are onto something. And interesting thing I noticed, though, and to my surprise, was how many c&w singers have high-pitched voices. Big, obvious exceptions, of course. But still a lot of them. You'd think that c&w, with its emphasis on tradition, wouldn't conform to the pop-music rules, wouldn't you? Maybe a sign of how pop-ified c&w has become. Beats me. Nothing wrong with a high-pitched c&w voice, though -- Dwight Yoakam sings 'way up where my lousy voice can barely get, and I like his music a lot.

JC -- I've wondered about that too. Actually I was planning a posting about something similar and am curious about your thoughts -- the persistence of Valley-Girl talk. Not the specific slang but the vocal patterns. Is anyone else as surprised as I am by how long-lived Valleyspeak has proven? I'd have guessed it'd go away and be replaced by something else, but young girls still seem to adopt it, and for some years now many of the young women showing up in my neck of the woods have been speaking like castmembers from "Clueless." I wonder what about it has been so ... what? So addictive? Is it just a quick and easy way for gals to demonstrate that they're cute? I have an impossible-to-prove hunch that it has a lot to do with TV -- the way that reality TV and videojocks have evolved a kind of presentation style of cheerful handwaving goofy amateurism. As long as the camera's on, gotta do something, so might as well be cute!!!! That kind of thing. And that Valleyspeak's part of it.

Does anyone else find it as bizarre as I do to be interacting professionally with women who are speaking Valleyspeak? I keep wanting to say to them, You know, it's really time to put that behind you and at least pretend to be an adult. But the expectation seems to be that it's great to be kids forever ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 19, 2003 11:16 AM

William -- Fascinating, thanks. Barry Gordy certainly can't be accused of not knowing the product he was selling. High pitched equals emotional yearning -- I guess I can see that. Pleading, etc. I suppose someone has done the research (I'm never going to do it), but there's a great story/essay/whatever to be written about the history of singing in a falsetto voice in black music. I wonder where it comes from. Did it get started with pop music? Before?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 19, 2003 11:18 AM

As a musically challenged person who sings along with my favorite musicians in the car, I have noticed the same trend (Elvis, for example, had an astonishingly high singing voice, particularly in his early days, given that I tend to think of Elvis as having a deeper, richer voice) and brooded on some possibly related questions as well. Regrettably, my lack of musical dexterity prevents me from definitively testing them:

(1) It seems to me that the hook of most songs is when they vary from ordinary spoken prose by rhythmic emphasis and an abrupt rise in pitch. To give one example, in the song, "The Great Pretender":

Too REAL is this FEELing of MAKE beLIEVE.

Each of the emphasized syllables is on a higher note than the unemphasized syllables (except maybe "MAKE").

If this trend of abruptly rising pitch as the attention-getting element in songs is true, or even true a large amount of the time, it would support the notion that higher-pitched human voices would predominate in popular music because they make a greater claim on our attention. I only offer this as a hypothesis, because I'm so darn unmusical I can't verify it or disprove it.

(2) Is there a connection between perceived pitch and rhythm? It seems to me that I hear a slower beat as representing a higher tone and a faster beat as representing a lower tone, even when the two beats are composed of identical sounds with longer or shorter intervals of silence between them. If true, could this be why when you combine rythmic emphasis and a rise in pitch it attracts attention? Because it varies from what we expect?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 19, 2003 11:54 AM

Remember reading somewhere - the human ear is most sensitive to the sounds in the soprano range. Probably not a coincidence that most women's voices are around there and most people were (primarily) raised by women - especially in the formative years. Stuff in the soprano range jumps out to the human ear. Sort of the aural equivalent of fire engine red.

Also, people pay more attention to female voices. Ever heard of "Bitching Betty?" That's the synthesized robot voice the Air Force uses to tell its pilots they're about to crash, etc. They decided that pilots pay closer attention to a vaguely female voice.

Maybe that all has something to do with pop singers singing higher - they've got a second or two to get your attention and that's one tool in the bag of tricks.

A lot of contemporary C&W is basically (softish) rock with a violin or steel guitar making a brief appearance. There is a tradition in country of men singing in a higher range - think of Bill Monroe. I dunno where that comes from.

Posted by: dude on November 19, 2003 12:42 PM

Three points:

1) Male tenor singers have been popular for at least as long as recorded sound, and given the prominence of the tenor role in opera, I suspect much longer than that. I don't know whether this is a result of the ability to cut through crowd noise (or road noise, etc.), but that seems a reasonable interpretation. I know that when I was calling cadence in ROTC, it worked best when my voice was pitched quite a bit higher than my normal speaking voice.

2) Since my son was born, I've sung to him most nights. I've found that my voice sounds best when I'm singing in the upper end of my range. This might be related to the phenomenon j.c refers to (male speakers speaking lower than their natural range.) I know that when I was growing up I always wanted to be a baritone. It wasn't until college that I finally gave in and realized that I'm a natural tenor.

3) The situation is pretty much exactly the opposite with news readers (nearly all of whom are baritones.) My dad was in photography in the military (photographers and broadcasters attend the same conferences in many cases), and has told me about attending conferences where virtually every voice in the room was a baritone. He found it quite the odd experience.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on November 19, 2003 12:51 PM

Placido Domingo is said to be a natural baritone who forces his voice into the tenor range. There's more money up there.

It's simply more exciting -- every single contestant on "Star Search" climaxes her song with a glass-shattering shriek that drives the audience wild. (Same with "Star Spangled Banner" singers before baseball games.)

On the other hand, I would recommend marrying an alto instead of a soprano. My wife has a lovely alto singing voice -- her best song is Patsy Cline's "Crazy" -- and that makes her speaking voice very easy on the ears.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on November 19, 2003 04:31 PM

True, most pop singers do tend toward higher voices. But I would counter that most of the "great" (or at least most consistantly popular) singers since the advent of recorded sound have been baritones. Crosby, Sinatra, Elvis (who did sing high on occasion, but was primarily a baritone - songs like "Heartbreak Hotel" demand a deep, resonent voice) on up through Johnny Cash (of course) through Jim Morrison and Bono. How many high voiced singers have had the kind of multidecade career these guys have had?

I remember reading somewhere how tenors were historically in demand because the tenor voice projects the best unamplified, so most of the weight of operetic music falls to them. Bing Crosby was one of the first to realize that the microphone made projection obsolete, and was able to bring the intimate qualities of the deeper voice into focus.

As has been mentioned, "pop" singers who appeal mainly to young women tend toward the upper range - primarily because of such singer's status as "unthreatening pretend boyfriends". But the music that appeals to adults tends to be baritones - hence the long careers of the above named gentlemen.

I think some of the ev bio reasons are that we associate deeper voices with authority (thus the anchorman voice). It's that pesky and politically inconvenient patriarchical programming rearing its ugly head. "Puppy love" can be expressed with a high voice, but it takes a Barry White to make a grown women weak in the knees, and a Frank Sinatra to command a grown man's respect...

Posted by: jimbo on November 19, 2003 05:02 PM

"Bill Monroe. I dunno where that comes from." Well, if you have any Bill Monroe around the house you might want to look at the photos of Bill Monroe... surrounded by hound dogs. If you're going to ask why Mexican singers go "Ai yi yi yi" then I suggest you wander to the middle of a dark canyon in the middle of Big Bend National Park and screech like a rabbit about to die...

Some scienceticians say that higher sounds travel further and are therefore best for distress while lower sounds signal threats... but then they get into all kinds of convoluted mess trying to explain how rooster crows are really low-pitched sounds and therefore a threat if you look at them digitally while the low-sounding clucking of brood hens is not a threat because it's really a high-pitched sound if you're a fluffy baby chick and the whole argument seems squishy.

Posted by: j.c. on November 19, 2003 05:07 PM

Does anyone else find it as bizarre as I do to be interacting professionally with women who are speaking Valleyspeak? I keep wanting to say to them, You know, it's really time to put that behind you and at least pretend to be an adult. But the expectation seems to be that it's great to be kids forever ...

Think you could get away with it? You'd be performing a public service. ("Madame, excuse me, but aren't you a bit long in the tooth for that whoopsie-doopsie-do! style of delivery? I strongly recommend some Lauren Bacall therapy.")

That being said, I think the problem is exacerbated by the nature of the American accent, which tends toward the high-pitched and nasal. I don't do val-speak, but I do cringe at the sound of my own embarrassingly wispy and girlish voice. Trust me, I don't talk that way on purpose.

Posted by: Moira Breen on November 19, 2003 05:50 PM

"Is there a connection between perceived pitch and rhythm?"

It might have something to do with the key. I'm no expert on this, but the other day our choir director at church was expounding on how Chuck Berry's singing is really much higher than you'd think, and he claimed it had to do with the key he sings in.


Posted by: Will Duquette on November 19, 2003 06:03 PM

Well, FWIW, I talk that way (valley girl) on purpose sometimes, when people find me threatening. Acting like a ditz alleviates their fears. It's a good way to *not* be noticed.

Posted by: Courtney on November 19, 2003 09:15 PM

I always thought that being more attuned to higher pitched voices was a natural thing. Watch how someone talking to a young infant ups the pitch of the voice. And how that will get the infant's attention over a lower pitched voice. Men do it as well as women.

Posted by: Deb on November 19, 2003 11:12 PM

I think "comforting" and "yearning" and "cuteness" do come in higher pitches. Certain other emotions do better in a lower register. As a woman with a lower voice, I can assure you it can get attention. The news reader comment is true though---knowing an anchorman, his news voice is a baritone. Then when he wants to be "cute" with a girl, you get a much higher "hi--i--i."

What is a shame is that high-pitched ditziness in our society is "nonthreatening" rather than "irritating."

Posted by: annette on November 20, 2003 03:58 AM

Yeah, I think it's interesting the way standard English (both as words and as a way of speaking) has been blown to smithereens, in favor of media-esque ways of speaking. I was struck by this a few years ago when I was in Canada for a while, then drove back down to the States. I remember overhearing Canadian kids talking, and while they weren't interesting or anything, they spoke something identifiable as English. Back in the States, it was amazing how few kids did. Instead they seemed to have learned language from TV -- "Whoa!" "Far out." It was one bit of expressivity (I'm trying to avoid the word "ejaculation," but that's what it was) after another, few sentences, few attempts even to make any kind of sense, and nearly all the words and phrases sounded like they'd been lifted from a TV show.

Which reminds me of the argument I'm always flailing tediously away at, that we're undergoing a big change in values, from traditional values to electronic-media values, from attempts to "make sense" to what are basically a bunch of effects lined up in ways people hope will be effective ... But maybe I'm reaching too far here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 20, 2003 08:38 AM

Funny to think that some of these young girls, er, women who still do Valleyspeak are going to be my bosses in a few years' time. I wonder if they'll shift out of Valleyspeak when they start needing to wield a little authority.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 20, 2003 08:41 AM

I think there may be an historical/mechanical explanation for high voices in pop music too.When recorded pop music really kicked in in the 50's with the transfer from 78's to 45's, the main medium of promotion was the AM radio(especially in the States).Given the state of technology at the time, speakers were small and trebley and radio was listened to mainly in cars.So many record producers would do the final mix using small car radio speakers.If it kicked ass via this medium then it would sell.

Posted by: RAB on November 20, 2003 10:04 AM

Funny, I have a naturally lower pitched voice for a woman. When people find me "threatening" I tend to change the pace and speed of how fast I talk rather than the pitch of the voice. And when I want to be make a point or intimidate someone, I tend to lower the pitch even more and really slow down what I say.

In our house, we have a "like" fine. It's 50 cents for every time you use the word "like" in a sentence such as this:

"She came over and, like, just yelled in my face so I, like, just yelled back."

On a good day, I can make back a kid's whole allowance for the week!

Posted by: Deb on November 20, 2003 10:24 AM

I'm in the midst of recording an album right now, and I've discovered how difficult it is to record a deep male voice (I have a range slightly higher than that of Leonard Cohen, or Bono when he's growling rather than yodeling).

When you look at the frequency spectrum, a baritone male voice falls into a similar range to that of a rhythm guitar. A high male voice falls into the same sort of frequency range as most rock "lead" guitar. In other words, it pierces through the stable end of the spectrum (guitar, bass, drums) and provides a counterpoint.

I might point out, by the way, that mixing a voice like mine is a maddening process. In many cases, I have to actually mix out the lower frequencies of my voice, giving it a sort of raspy, tinny sound.

If you ever get a chance to listen to recordings by the band Morphine, the late lead singer Mark Sandman had much the same problem. Listen to how his voice is mixed. It almost sounds, literally, like he's phoning in his performance.

Posted by: Joshua Ellis on November 20, 2003 10:35 AM

Deb -- Here's my current hate object:

"So I'm like 'Helloooo?'"

Posted by: Susan on November 20, 2003 12:36 PM

I would agree with the classic explanation: High-pitched voices (especially if strained a little) pierce through the fog of bass, drums, guitars, etc. Lower voices often just sound muddy and dense.

On a side note, I have to disagree with the person above who described Bono of U2 as a baritone. No way! He's definitely a tenor, and a high one at that. On "Pride in the Name of Love," that's a high B he's hitting. In fact, the whole chorus takes place between the E above middle C and the high B. Only a tenor could sing consistently in that range. Then, on "Bad," Bono actually hits a high C# when he sings the words "wide awake." It's strained and gravelly, but boy is it high.
On the other hand, those songs are from the mid-1980s. Bono doesn't sing in that range as much anymore.

Posted by: Stuart Buck on November 20, 2003 03:16 PM

In contrast, actors like Orson Welles and James Earl Jones with cultivated deep voices are much in demand for voice-over work because they sounded so authoritative: "This is CNN." For example, I believe Lucas originally had Welles in mind for Darth Vader, then went with Jones.

Welles described himself as a "king actor," saying he wasn't necessarily the best actor on stage, but he had to play the highest ranking figure in every scene or the audience would feel uncomfortable wondering why he wasn't in charge.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on November 20, 2003 07:54 PM


So then, like, she said, like, "Whateverrrr"


Posted by: Deb on November 20, 2003 09:11 PM

And what's wrong with high-pitched voices?!?

Posted by: Maurice Gibb on November 22, 2003 03:11 PM

Wow! Maurice! Arent you one of the dead brothers? No wonder your voice is so high.

Posted by: Deb on November 22, 2003 09:50 PM

There is an old and perhaps dishonorable tradition in pop music of accelerating the speed just a hair when producing the master from which the records are to be made, on the basis that a higher voice, particularly a higher male voice, sounds "younger". One singer who claimed to have been victimized by this practice was Andy Kim; his Steed-label recordings were speeded up so much by producer Jeff Barry, he says, that he was actually unable to sing the songs in concert and have them sound anything like the 45s.

Posted by: CGHill on November 23, 2003 10:57 PM

This is just a list I compiled with other basses from my choir...
Famous Basses (or Baritones)(who actually sing)
(at least once in a while): B-probably Bass, b-probably baritone
Johnny Cash-B
Barry White-b
Billy Idol-b
Frank Sinatra-b
Isaac Hayes-B
That guy from Type O Negative-B
guy from Rammstein-B...(doesn't sing)
Sully from Godsmack-b?
Crash Test Dummies guy-?
Depeche Mode?
Toad the Wet Sprocket?
(Dire Straits) Mark Knopfler?
Nick Cave, Peter Murphy (bauhaus), Brian Ferry?
Ernie Ford, Elvis Presley, Lou Rawls, and Neil Diamond?
Van Morrison-?
Snoop Dogg/Dr.Dre-?
Aaron Lewis/Staind-b?
(Pearl Jam) Eddie Vedder-B?
Stevie Ray Vaughn-b?
Jimi Hendrix-?
Days of the new -?
Layne Stayle (Alice in Chains)-?
Deep Purple-?
Scott Stapp(Creed)-?
Bing Crosby-?
Guy from The Strokes-?
Scott Weiland(STP)-?

Posted by: Ben Bedroske on January 8, 2004 10:04 PM

To responde to a recent query i believe Eddie Vedder is a bartione i do not know about Scott Weiland thats actually why i arrived at this site. I know Bing Crosby is a b-b-b-bass/baritone.

Posted by: Frank Zgrabik on February 2, 2004 12:34 AM

I'm pretty sure Scott Weiland is at least a baritone, I'm a pretty darn low bass, and I can comfortably sing any Stone Temple Pilot song I know... So yeah, as far as I can tell, he's a baritone/bass.

Posted by: Ben Bedroske on February 10, 2004 10:40 PM

Very inspiring, thankyou! Good luck to you in the future. :)

Posted by: FREE PORN on May 29, 2004 07:14 PM

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