What Determines What Your Voice Sounds Like?

ThinkStock
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. 

Why Do Students Get Summers Off?

Iam Anupong/iStock via Getty Images
Iam Anupong/iStock via Getty Images

It’s commonly believed that school kids started taking summers off in the 19th century so that they’d have time to work on the farm. Nice as that story is, it isn’t true. Summer vacation has little to do with tilling fields and more to do with sweaty, rich city kids playing hooky—and their sweaty, rich parents.

Before the Civil War, farm kids never had summers off. They went to school during the hottest and coldest months and stayed home during the spring and fall, when crops needed to be planted and harvested. Meanwhile, city kids hit the books all year long—summers included. In 1842, Detroit’s academic year lasted 260 days.

But as cities got denser, they got hotter. Endless lanes of brick and concrete transformed urban blocks into kilns, thanks to what was known as the “urban heat island effect.” That’s when America’s swelling middle and upper class families started hightailing it to the cooler countryside. And that caused a problem. School attendance wasn’t mandatory back then, and classrooms were being left half-empty each summer. Something had to give.

Legislators, in one of those if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em moments, started arguing that kids should get summers off anyway. It helped that, culturally, leisure time was becoming more important. With the dawn of labor unions and the eight-hour workday, working adults were getting more time to themselves than ever before. Advocates for vacation time also argued (incorrectly) that the brain was a muscle, and like any muscle, it could suffer injuries if overused. From there, they argued that students shouldn’t go to school year-round because it could strain their brains. To top it off, air conditioning was decades away, and city schools during summertime were miserable, half-empty ovens.

So by the turn of the century, urban districts had managed to cut about 60 schooldays from the most sweltering part of the year. Rural schools soon adopted the same pattern so they wouldn’t fall behind. Business folks obviously saw an opportunity here. The summer vacation biz soon ballooned into what is now one of the country’s largest billion-dollar industries.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Where Did the Term Brownie Points Come From?

bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

In a Los Angeles Times column published on March 15, 1951, writer Marvin Miles observed a peculiar phrase spreading throughout his circle of friends and the social scene at large. While standing in an elevator, he overheard the man next to him lamenting “lost brownie points.” Later, in a bar, a friend of Miles's who had stayed out too late said he would never “catch up” on his brownie points.

Miles was perplexed. “What esoteric cult was this that immersed men in pixie mathematics?” he wrote. It was, his colleagues explained, a way of keeping “score” with their spouses, of tallying the goodwill they had accrued with the “little woman.”

Over the decades, the phrase brownie points has become synonymous with currying favor, often with authority figures such as teachers or employers. So where exactly did the term come from, and what happens when you “earn” them?

The most pervasive explanation is that the phrase originated with the Brownies, a subsect of the Girl Scouts who were encouraged to perform good deeds in their communities. The Brownies were often too young to be official Girl Scouts and were sometimes the siblings of older members. Originally called Rosebuds in the UK, they were renamed Brownies when the first troops were being organized in 1916. Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had formed the Boy Scouts and was asked to name this new Girl Scout division, dubbed them Brownies after the magical creatures of Scottish folklore that materialized to selflessly help with household chores.

But the Brownies are not the only potential source. In the 1930s, kids who signed up to deliver magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal from Curtis Publishing were eligible for vouchers labeled greenies and brownies that they could redeem for merchandise. They were not explicitly dubbed brownie points, but it’s not hard to imagine kids applying a points system to the brownies they earned.

The term could also have been the result of wartime rationing in the 1940s, where red and brown ration points could be redeemed for meats.

The phrase didn’t really seem to pick up steam until Miles's column was published. In this context, the married men speaking to Miles believed brownie points could be collected by husbands who remembered birthdays and anniversaries, stopped to pick up the dry cleaning, mailed letters, and didn’t spend long nights in pubs speaking to newspaper columnists. The goal, these husbands explained, was never to get ahead; they merely wanted to be considered somewhat respectable in the eyes of their wives.

Later, possibly as a result of its usage in print, grade school students took the phrase to mean an unnecessary devotion to teachers in order to win them over. At a family and faculty meeting at Leon High in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1956, earning brownie points was said to be a serious problem. Also called apple polishing, it prompted other students in class to shame their peers for being friendly to teachers. As a result, some were “reluctant to be civil” for fear they would be harassed for sucking up.

In the decades since that time, the idiom has become attached to any act where goodwill can be expected in return, particularly if it’s from someone in a position to reward the act with good grades or a promotion. As for Miles: the columnist declared his understanding of brownie points came only after a long night of investigation. Arriving home late, he said, rendered him “pointless.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER