From ridiculously talented voice actors to chart-topping singers, a voice can be the hallmark of a person. Think Ariana Grande’s iconic airy falsettos or Bruno Mars’ smooth-as-butter runs. Louis Armstrong’s famous rasp or Sia’s unique mixed voice that blends in well with various musical genres.
In choirs and chambers, vocal types can be broadly split into eight categories: Soprano (highest), Mezzo-Soprano, Alto, Contralto (♀), Countertenor (♂), Tenor, Baritone, and Bass (lowest).
Their tessituras (i.e. range of notes a singers are most comfortable hitting), in the above order, are: C4-C6 (Soprano), A3-A5 (Mezzo-Soprano), F3-F5 (Alto), E3-E5 (Contralto), E3-E5 (Countertenor), C3-C5 (Tenor), A2-A4 (Baritone), and E2-E4 (Bass).
Our voices or paralinguistics (how we talk, not what we actually say) are considered a powerful form of non-verbal behavior (ironically enough), as with style and tone. Before we look at the factors that may link certain vocal attributes to personality traits, let’s begin with a few basic definitions.
Definitions of Vocal Characteristics
“Color” or the musical frequency in which a voice sits on the auditory spectrum. It can also be visualized as vocal “texture” (as some voices are more raspy or rough, while others are light or “feathery”).
Musical scale (from A flat to G sharp), that encompasses the total number of octaves’ notes a singer can hit. Many famous singers have a 3 to 4 octave range—the highest recorded is by rock singer Axl Rose from Guns N’ Roses (just over 5 octaves!).
Range where a singer feels most comfortable singing (without strain) and where their unique timbre sounds the best. It is centered around the particular pitch in which their dynamic range (notes they can comfortably hit) is the largest. Its difference from range is that singers must feel comfortable hitting these notes.
In a single note: how a singer sounds when speaking or having a normal conversation. Non-filtered rap falls under this category. Sometimes also referred to as the “natural voice.” Speech voice also factors into public speaking, and many schools offer courses on how to project your words.
Exactly how it sounds, vocal weight is how “light” or “heavy” a voice is perceived to be. A singer’s natural voice is harnessed by a healthy use of their larynx, which is also more commonly known as the voice box. Sometimes, a singer will move down or up a register to produce more or less vocal weight.
Range of notes and tones a singer’s voice can produce through (from lowest to highest): the vocal fry, mixed / modal voice, head voice, falsetto, and whistle register (think the highest bridge note of “Emotions” by Mariah Carey). Each higher register can be visualized as a step up in the vocal staircase.
Transition Points (Passaggio)
Points in a singer’s voice where musical note or quality dramatically shifts, which sometimes creates a vocal “crack” or break. This happens when the left and right vocal cords fail to close and open simultaneously. The resulting sound wave becomes obstructed, and hence a singer’s voice will break.
Vocal Variables: An Summary
- Speech Voice
- Vocal Registers
- Transition Points
So, at the end of a good karaoke session, what does your voice say about your personality?
Why are we (sometimes unconsciously) attracted to certain timbres or intonations—and acutely repulsed by others? When we pick up the phone from an unknown caller, what about a person’s voice kickstarts our first impressions of them?
Are certain facets of voices cross-cultural, and others culturally specific? Which factors affect how our voices are projected? What do our voices reveal about us?
Lower, huskier voices typically command more dominance, while a voice with many emotional inflections could indicate high Neuroticism (N). Louder voices with more projection often point to higher Extraversion (E), and melodic (i.e. smooth, almost like reciting poetry) ones to higher Agreeableness (A).
There may be a code to a “trustworthy index” to a person’s voice. Vocal scientists have gathered up vocal modulations and intonations of participants who listened to a single word and universal greeting, “Hello.” Another study showed that a low fundamental frequency mean, low harmonic-to-noise ratio, and a faster speech rate characterized trustworthy voices.
Voice actors meticulously study different types of voices (their characteristics and accents) to bring a fictional character to life. On-screen actors have body language to practice, on top of vocal intonations. Journalists and public speakers are trained to speak in a certain way, and it’s challenging to determine their natural voice.
The human voice is the first and most natural
musical instrument—also the most emotional.– Klaus Schulze, German Electronic Composer & Musician
What separates music from noise? Our music taste is—and will always remain—in ears of the listener. Whether it’s hard rock with electic guitar riffs or slow, funky electro-experimental beats—music is an art, and art is always evolving without boundaries. What’s considered “indie” today may become “pop” a few years down the road.
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