What Determines What Your Voice Sounds Like?

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ThinkStock

As a marker of singularity, our voices are as effective as our fingerprints. Though people may share a similar pitch or certain vocal characteristics, under close examination, no two voices are alike. Height, weight, hormones, provenance, allergies, structural anomalies, emotions, and environmental factors all play a role in determining how your voice ultimately emerges, which means not only is your voice yours alone, but that you’ll have a few variations on that voice throughout your life.

HE SAYS/SHE SAYS

The first and most obvious vocal determinate is your sex. Anatomically, males have larger vocal folds (aka vocal cords) than females, so, even before hormones surge during adolescence, boys typically have deeper voices than girls. These folds are stretched horizontally across the larynx (the voice box) and, when air is brought up from the lungs to speak, they vibrate. The length, size, and tension of the folds determine what’s known as the fundamental frequency of the resulting sound, which averages about 125 Hz in men, 210 Hz in women, and 300-plus Hz in children. The higher the Hz, or frequency of the sound wave, the higher the pitch. High frequency sounds reach our ears faster, partially explaining why kids’ voices can be so grating.

When we hit puberty, hormones invariably cause the voice to change. During this time the vocal folds lengthen and thicken, causing them to resonate at a lower frequency, which produces a deeper pitch (think of the strings on a guitar). In males, the production of testosterone ramps up, and the larynx increases in size. Men that produce higher levels of testosterone during puberty will usually develop lower voices as they grow into adulthood. Girl’s vocal folds will also grow a bit (about 3 mm compared to 10 mm in boys), but, since they’re not churning out testosterone, their voices remain comparatively high.

Genetics also play a role in how our voices mature. Although how a child’s voice develops owes something to mimicry of their parents, people from the same family will often sound alike because laryngeal anatomy is dictated by your ancestral DNA just like every other physical trait. It’s the slight variations around this anatomy that make our voices distinct.

CHANGING YOUR TUNE

The voice you enter adulthood with is, by and large, the voice you’re stuck with for most of your life. That said, there are several factors that can influence vocal changes, many of which are fleeting, some of which are not. A temporary voice change happens when you catch a cold. Here, the cold virus makes the vocal cords swell, causing them to rub together, which lends a rasp to our speech (the irritation is further aggravated by an urge to clear your throat, which makes the swelling worse).

Our emotional state also affects how we speak. When we’re excited, nervous, or frightened, the muscles buttressing the larynx contract involuntarily, and tension in the vocal cords will increase to produce that high, unsteady pitch we associate with alarm. Though the voice will return to normal once the stimulus passes, people who are generally high-strung will often adopt some variation of this alarmed voice as their natural cadence.

One of the most frequently applied vocal designations is describing someone as “nasally.” A voice that seems birthed as much in your nose as in your throat can be caused by a number of things, which are separated into two categories. Hyponasal speech, the more common of the two, occurs when there’s a lack of airflow through the nose while speaking. Nasal congestion is the primary culprit, as anyone with allergies or chronic sinusitis can attest to, but hyponasality can also stem from a deviated septum or certain adenoidal maladies. Hypernasal speech, on the other hand, results from an influx of air through the nose while speaking, and is especially noticeable when saying words that begin with a consonant. Hypernasality can be caused by a cleft palate or other velopharyngeal insufficiencies, and speech can be majorly impaired in these cases.

Some of the common environmental and lifestyle factors that contribute to what your voice sounds like include pollution, an overly dry climate, smoking, drinking alcohol, or shouting/screaming too much. The vocal cords and larynx are like any other muscle in that they can be overused and strained, so, like most things, moderation is key when it comes to taking care of your voice.

The inevitability of aging will lead to a final, permanent voice change for most of us. After a lifetime of speaking, the vocal cords and surrounding tissue lose strength and elasticity, and our mucous membranes become thinner and drier. Known medically as presbyphonia, elderly voice change manifests itself through reduced volume and endurance, noticeable shakiness, and difficulty being heard. Ironically, at this age men’s voices will increase in pitch, while women’s will lower, in a kind of reverse adolescence. 

What's the Difference Between Pigeons and Doves?

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iStock

To the layman, the difference between pigeons and doves has something to with color, maybe. Or location. Or general appeal (doves usually get much better press than pigeons do). But what’s the actual, scientific difference between doves and pigeons?

As it turns out, there isn’t one. Paul Sweet, the collection manager for the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, says the difference is more linguistic than taxonomic.

“The word dove is a word that came into English from the more Nordic languages, whereas pigeon came into English from French,” Sweet tells Mental Floss.

Both dove and pigeon refer to the 308 species of birds from the Columbidae family, Sweet says. There’s no difference between a pigeon and a dove in scientific nomenclature, but colloquial English tends to categorize them by size. Something called a dove is generally smaller than something called a pigeon, but that’s not always the case. A common pigeon, for example, is called both a rock dove and a rock pigeon.

“People just have their own classification for what makes them different,” Sweet says. “So in the Pacific, for example, the big ones might get called pigeons and the smaller ones might be called doves, but they’re actually more closely related to each other than they are to other things in, say, South America, that are called pigeons and doves.”

The difference boils down to linguistic traditions, so feel free to tell people you’re releasing pigeons at your wedding or that you’re feeding doves in the park. Scientifically speaking, you’ll be correct either way.

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What Is the Wilhelm Scream?

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iStock

What do Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Toy Story, Reservoir Dogs, Titanic, Anchorman, 22 Jump Street, and more than 200 other films and TV shows have in common? Not much besides the one and only Wilhelm Scream.

The Wilhelm Scream is the holy grail of movie geek sound effects—a throwaway sound bite with inauspicious beginnings that was turned into the best movie in-joke ever when it was revived in the 1970s.

Just what is it? Chances are you’ve heard it before but never really noticed it. The Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect that has been used in both the biggest blockbusters and the lowest low-budget movies and television shows for over 60 years, and is usually heard when someone onscreen is shot or falls from a great height.

First used in the 1951 Gary Cooper western Distant Drums, the distinctive yelp began in a scene in which a group of soldiers wade through a swamp, and one of them lets out a piercing scream as an alligator drags him underwater.

As is the case with many movie sound effects, the scream was recorded later in a sound booth with the simple direction to make it sound like “a man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams.” Six screams were performed in one take, and the fifth scream on the recording became the iconic Wilhelm (the others were used for additional screams in other parts of the movie).

Following its debut in 1951, the effect became a regular part of the Warner Bros. sound library and was continually used by the studio’s filmmakers in their movies. Eventually, in the early 1970s, a group of budding sound designers at USC’s film school—including future Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt—recognized that the unique scream kept popping up in numerous films they were watching. They nicknamed it the “Wilhelm Scream” after a character in the first movie they all recognized it from, a 1963 western called The Charge at Feather River, in which a character named Private Wilhelm lets out the pained scream after being shot in the leg by an arrow.

As a joke, the students began slipping the effect into the student films they were working on at the time. After he graduated, Burtt was tapped by fellow USC alum George Lucas to do the sound design on a little film he was making called Star Wars. As a nod to his friends, Burtt put the original sound effect from the Warner Bros. library into the movie, most noticeably when a Stormtrooper is shot by Luke Skywalker and falls into a chasm on the Death Star. Burtt would go on to use the Wilhelm Scream in various scenes in every Star Wars and Indiana Jones movie, causing fans and filmmakers to take notice.

Directors like Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino, as well as countless other sound designers, sought out the sound and put it in their movies as a humorous nod to Burtt. They wanted to be in on the joke too, and the Wilhelm Scream began showing up everywhere, making it an unofficial badge of honor. It's become bigger than just a sound effect, and the name “Wilhelm Scream” has been used for everything from a band name, to a beer, to a song title, and more.

But whose voice does the scream itself belong to? Burtt himself did copious amounts of research, as the identity of the screamer was unknown for decades. He eventually found a Warner Bros. call sheet from Distant Drums that listed actors who were scheduled to record additional dialogue after the film was completed. One of the names, and the most likely candidate as the Wilhelm screamer, was an actor and musician named Sheb Wooley, who appeared in classics like High Noon, Giant, and the TV show Rawhide. You may also know him as the musician who sang the popular 1958 novelty song “Purple People Eater.”

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