Rough, smooth or deep: why the sound of a voice is multisensory

Sarah Vaughan by William P Gottlieb. Courtesy Wikipedia

Sarah Vaughan by William P Gottlieb. Courtesy Wikipedia

To make sense of human voices, we rely on senses beyond hearing. The songs of Taylor Swift can be sweet and soft. Lady Gaga’s singing feels dark. Johnny Cash’s voice was low and rough. That’s because voice is not just sound: it can be seen and heard, but also tasted and touched. The sound we hear in voice creates ‘multisensory images’ – drawing in perceptions from many senses, not just one.

The phenomenon of multisensory perception can help us to understand why we assign metaphorical properties of softness, roughness or depth to voice. Think of a politician whose voice is flat. Flatness is a multisensory concept because it is both tactile and visual. We can recognise flat surfaces by either touching or seeing them. These sensory impressions inform us about the acoustic characteristics of voice, implying that it does not have variation in tone. Notably, flatness can also convey lack of sympathy and emotion on the part of the speaker. Full story.

Pavlo Shopin (aeon) / November 15, 2017

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