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 Cement and Concrete?

Vladimir Kokorin/iStock via Getty Images
Vladimir Kokorin/iStock via Getty Images

Picture yourself walking down a city block. The sidewalk you follow may be obscured by shuffling feet and discarded gum, but it’s clearly made from something hard, smooth, and gray. What may be less clear is the proper name for that material: Is it concrete or cement? Is there even a real difference between the two words?

Though they’re often used interchangeably, concrete and cement describe different yet related elements of the blocks, flooring, and walls that make up many everyday structures. In simple terms, concrete is the name of the gray, gritty building material used in construction, and cement is an ingredient used in concrete.

Cement is a dry powder mixture that looks much different from the wet stuff poured out of so-called cement trucks. It’s made from minerals that have been crushed up and mixed together. Exactly what kind of minerals it’s made from varies: Limestone and clay are commonly used today, but anything from seashells to volcanic ash is suitable. After the ingredients are mixed together the first time, they’re fired in a kiln at 2642°F to form strong new compounds, then cooled, crushed, and combined again.

Cement
Cement
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This mixture is useless on its own. Before it’s ready to be used in construction projects, the cement must be mixed with water and an aggregate, such as sand, to form a moldable paste. This substance is known as concrete. It fills whatever mold it’s poured into and quickly hardens into a solid, rock-like form, which is partly why it’s become the most widely-used building material on Earth.

So whether you’re etching your initials into a wet sidewalk slab, power-hosing your back patio, or admiring some Brutalist architecture, you’re dealing with concrete. But if you ever happen to be handling a chalky gray powder that hasn’t been mixed with water, cement is the correct label to use.

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Why Do You Stop Feeling Tired As Soon As You Climb Into Bed?

tommaso79/iStock via Getty Images
tommaso79/iStock via Getty Images

There are few situations more frustrating: After a day spent nodding off at your desk, on the train, and on your couch, you suddenly can't sleep the moment you crawl into bed. It's not that you aren't tired or have insomnia, necessarily. Like a curse designed just to torture you, the sleeplessness only seems to occur when you're in your own bed at home, a.k.a. the place where you'd prefer to do your sleeping.

This maddening problem isn't in your head. According to TIME, many people have more trouble falling asleep in their own beds than they do elsewhere thanks to a phenomenon called learned or conditioned arousal. Conditioned arousal develops when you inadvertently train your body to associate your bed with being awake. In many cases, this results from doing stimulating activities in bed. For instance: If you like to slip under the covers and spend 40 minutes watching Netflix before closing your eyes, you're teaching your brain that your bed isn't for sleeping. That means the next time your head hits the pillow, your body will respond by preparing for the next episode of Friends instead of releasing the chemicals that help you fall asleep. The same goes for scrolling through apps, eating, and even reading in bed.

Doing things that aren't sleeping in bed isn't the only way to develop conditioned arousal. If there are other factors keeping you up at night—like thoughts about your day, or that cup of coffee you had at 8 p.m.—they can lead to the same result. Your brain starts to associate being in bed with tossing and turning all night, so even if those mental and physical stimulants go away, the muscle memory of being awake in bed remains.

Conditioned arousal is a vicious cycle that can't be broken in one night. The only way to manage it, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), is to minimize behaviors that contribute to poor sleep habits and to reserve your bed for sleeping (though sex is OK, according to the APA).

If you're a nighttime scroller, browse apps in a different room before getting into bed, or skip checking your phone at the end of the day altogether. When you spend more than 20 minutes struggling to fall asleep in bed, get up and move to a different part of the house until you get sleepy again; this will stop your brain from strengthening the association between your bed and feeling restless. The results won't be instant, but by sticking to a new sleep routine, you should eventually train your body to follow healthier patterns.

Of course, combating conditioned arousal alone isn't always effective. In people with conditions like anxiety and insomnia, intrusive thoughts and genetic factors can prevent them from falling asleep even under ideal circumstances. In such cases, the help of a medical professional may be required to sleep more soundly.

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

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