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What Determines What Your Voice Sounds Like?

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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. 

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Big Questions
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

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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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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