Is there a Perfect Pitch?

And the immediate followup question is “Should there be?” I’m referring to the story on NPR’s Marketplace the other day about the effects that some women’s voices have on whether they are taken seriously in the workplace. The audio is here, along with a transcript. The article, entitled “Professional women? With little-girl voices?”, is by Ashley Milne-Tyte.

The piece begins with a clip from the recent news, of Monica Goodling (Former Justice Department White House liaison) speaking in her defense during the hearings over the Justice Department firings. She has a noticeably “little-girl”-pitched voice. (I’m sure you remember hearing her during the news or the live broadcasts, and possibly your first instinct was to ask yourself why – in the political feeding frenzy aimed at bringing down Alberto Gonzales from the Attorney General position – the Congressional Democrats were now rounding up and grilling small children. (Or at least that was how it was for me for a split second since I mostly don’t watch television news – I find it too slow and otherwise annoying – and so I heard her on the radio.) It was then announced in the news piece who it was and I thought nothing more of it at the time…)

My own take on this is that it does not matter. You just learn, and move on. Since coming to the USA long ago, I adjusted my expectations about what are considered “normal” pitches of voice here, and while I do notice the variations (sometimes you just can’t help but notice), my behaviour is not affected by them in any major way, as far as I know. In case you don’t know what I mean, I’ll just say that its much more common to find grown up professional women speaking with the “little girl” voices in the USA than in the UK (I can’t speak for sure of mainland Europe, but I’d guess its also true there)… It presumably says something about our relative cultural norms, but I’m not sure what. I’m sure it is not genetics…. I just think that people learn to pitch their voices lower as they get older – not because anyone tells them to (ok, there are famous striking exceptions, like Margaret Thatcher) but because that’s what they hear around them. Here in the USA, however, there’s some reason why many of those voices are not adjusted. I don’t know how this difference arose. Is there some perceived advantage, as suggested by some (see below)? Or is it simply less deliberate than that – Perhaps it’s all bolstered by the wealth of popular and successful Hollywood characters who speak like that? I’ll come back to this point in a short while.

Who cares, anyway, you might ask? Well, let’s get back to the Marketplace piece. From the transcript:

Sheila Wellington cringes every time she hears women like Goodling, who sound years younger than they are. Wellington teaches a course on women in business leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. She says that all-important first impression can be determined by a woman’s voice as well as her looks. So it worries her that more and more of her students have voices that make them sound like kids.

Sheila WELLINGTON: They’re little girl voices that project, Take care of me, Be sweet to me, I’m vulnerable, I’m weak.

Wellington suspects a touch of post-feminist backlash may be behind these baby voices. She says most of her students shy away from describing themselves as feminists — a term they seem to associate with man-hating harridans. She thinks they might be unconsciously pitching their voices particularly high to signal their feminine credentials. Or they could just be following the lead of the current crop of young Hollywood role models, who often sound like Alicia Silverstone’s character from the movie “Clueless.”

This is interesting to me, being in a field where women are highly under-represented, due largely to not being taken seriously. Are the males in our field subconsciously adding yet another barrier to women based on pitch of voice? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting issue. I can’t think of any people in my field with the classic “little girl” voice (although I do have friends and colleagues in other scientific fields with voices pitched toward that type), but that’s not exactly a good measure of anything, given how desperately low the numbers are. On the other hand, if Wellington is correct and there is some correlation between that voice and someone’s wish to “signal their feminine credentials”, I’m happy to report that at least in my view the range of feminine expression in physics does not seem unduly compressed as compared to other parts of academia or other comparable professional workplaces. The numbers are low, of course, but the range of characters, (personality types, dress sense, interests, etc) is pretty good, I’d say.

Female Science Professor rightly points out that men should be also reminded to take women seriously regardless of their voice pitch, and this is correct, however I think she over-simplifies a bit: This is not really simply a man-vs-women issue, as I understand it, as you can also glean from the NPR programme. The primary commentators are in fact women, and they’re not talking about how women should pitch their voices to better communicate with men, but their colleagues in general. It is an interesting topic indeed, and not one that has an easy set of answers.

So I’ve no conclusion to make here, with regards my own field (or any other for that matter), but it is certainly interesting to think about for a while, especially with regards the geographic variation I mentioned. I’ll finish by saying that the “little girl” voice is just one extreme example of the wider range of voice types I hear here in the USA vs elsewhere. There are many more types that you’ll readily hear on the street, the cubicle or office next door, your colleague in a meeting and on the radio or television, in both men and women. On balance, I think I’d say it’s rather nice to hear this variety. I’ll go as far as saying that it might be a sign of a good thing, a signal of greater diversity and more access for a wider range of people and “types” – your colleague, or that person you’re interacting at work (or teaching in the classroom) can likely come from a much greater range of economic classes, cultures, family backgrounds and so forth. More so in the USA than in the UK (and possibly Europe – although at least as far as academia goes things have changed a lot for the better in the UK in the last several years.)

Or perhaps I’m just being naive….

-cvj

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26 Responses to Is there a Perfect Pitch?

  1. Samantha says:

    OK – I am just going to go out here on a limb, and fall off, but I *do* cringe when I have female students that a) have little girl voices b) punctuate sentences with “like” c) use rising intonation and d) use flirting techniques to try to win me over as if I were a man. I particularly despise the latter, which is only ever used (on me at least) by women who would in general society be considered attractive. It happens reasonably often, when I am either interviewing students for graduate school or they are trying to get me to raise their grade. And no I never say anything, but it really really annoys me and is thus mostly counterproductive for the student.

    Anyway. I have been mulling this all over since one of my very first students, a very ambitious, hard-working and very attractive female student who had an exceptionally good GPA (over 3.9 as I remember), failed to get into the top ranked medical schools after interview. She manifested many of the traits above, which irritated me no end and I am fairly sure did not go over well at interview. Should I have asked her to stop?

    And yes if my male students a) have little girl voices b) punctuate sentences with “like” c) use rising intonation and d) try to flirt with me, that really annoys me too! But it almost never happens. (thank goodness)

  2. Jeremy Miles says:

    My wife is originally from Germany, and then lived in the UK for 5 years before coming to the US. She said that professional women’s voices in the UK are noticeably higher than in Germany.

  3. Clifford says:

    I’d agree… based upon my own limited interactions. (Which probably count for very little.) I actually don’t think I’ve ever met any woman from Germany with what can be described as a high voice.

    Which leads me to the point I forgot to make in the post – who declared that high voices have anything to do with femininity, anyway? Is that a cultural (USA) thing too?

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  4. Clifford says:

    Hi Samantha,

    This is a tough one….because as you point it is often coupled with other things. I go back and forth on this, especially when it comes to students. When the little girl voice is coupled to things that I consider inappropriate (like poor -“Clueless”- sentence construction and rising intonation, high level flirtation, and wearing clothes several sizes too small), then I’m inlined to get somewhat uncomfortable, although it is hard to know what to do if you’re trapped in the situation by reason of employment or collaboration, etc – so I just try to get out of the situation asap, and maybe help the student much more at arm’s length. (This also applies to male students too, by the way!)

    And how would one ever be able to offer advice to a young person on such a subject? Very hard. But they are often just out of school, so there are things to be learned…. but it is probably not our job.. but whose is it?

    When someone is older and a professional and still using such a combination of things in their public persona, it might be easier (if you know them or are their mentor) to talk to them about it – I’m really not sure – but then it is maybe too late a stage – what about all the people who did not make it that far because they were not sufficiently self-aware, or did not have someone around to advise them?

    But when someone is just talking with a voice that sounds unnecessarily girly to many European ears, but everything else is fine, I definitely err on the side of live and let live, no matter what the age of that person is. (And as I said in the post, I simply got used to it.) Sure, it may be because once they had all the other things going on as well, or it may be not.

    Either way, I have to take them at face value and realize that it is just the voice, not the content, in the same way I’d hope they’d take me at face value and dismiss my darker skin as irrelevant to the interaction.

    But yes, it is often not quite so simple.

    -cvj

  5. candace says:

    Last night we were listening to Radio 4 and there was some bit on about foreign aid in Afghanistan. During the course of this programme, they interviewed an American aid worker who was a female who sounded very young. The problem with sounding young is that people follow it down the path immediately to immature. To my ears, it was very jarring and out of place, and even though she sounded completely capable and confident, her message was undermined by her voice.

    You wondered: “Which leads me to the point I forgot to make in the post – who declared that high voices have anything to do with femininity, anyway? Is that a cultural (USA) thing too?”
    I think that little girl voices are considered desirable by some in the same way that blonde hair is desirable for some because (and I find this a bit….er…weird) they are both reminiscent of girly innocence and youth. Think Marilyn: blonde, breathy high-pitched voice. For a long time, one way for women to appeal to men is to appear vulnerable, and this still remains the case somewhat. So there is a societal reason to hang on to this sort of voice if you have it: cuteness appeals…to some.

    Interestingly, I think the pitch of my voice changes depending on who I am talking to (like my accent). It’s all adaptive camouflage for me, which makes me wonder if women with these voices are self-conscious of them at all…much like I wonder if people who use the aforementioned “like” or high-rising terminals are aware of the negative perception some people will have of them.

  6. I had a phonology prof who brought this up in a lecture. At some point he was doing some research relating to what information people read from your pitch and pitch variation, across several cultures. I don’t know the details of any conclusions he came too, however, except that yes, there is clear cross-cultural variation in what pitches are considered “high status” (ie, “desirable”) voice pitches and pitch variation for women and for men.

    I’ve also noticed that the pitch of my voice depends on who I’m speaking to and about what. I’m told I speak in a higher pitched voice when asking favours over the phone to people I don’t know well, or when speaking to my parents over the phone, than I do at other times. Putting on a sociolinguist hat, I suspect that’s probably about an ingrained idea that women should project need of some sort when asking questions or favours of people they don’t know well, and a regression to childhood of sorts when speaking to my parents. Or something. 🙂

    –IP

  7. Clifford says:

    Hmmmm, yes (Candace, IP) I know that my accent varies quite a bit depending upon who I’m talking to (borne of the effort to make oneself understood), but I’ve not noticed pitch changes. I would not be surprised if it did. I must keep an eye/ear on this…

    -cvj

  8. Jess says:

    I’ve noticed that my voice tends to rise in pitch when I’m nervous. This bothers me particularly in interview situations – I worry it creates a bad impression. The thing is, even though I’m aware of it, I don’t seem able to control it. Maybe with practise …

  9. Strikes me that this is an extremely complex matter, at least here in the States. Bound up with issues like class, race, self-esteem, age, and perhaps even sexual orientation. But most especially class: I’m pretty sure you’ll find little-girl talk mostly in the upper-middle range.
    You’ll have to do some arguing to persuade me that there are any men at all that find the little-girl sound appealing or attractive.

  10. Clifford says:

    Hi Jess,

    Yes, that’s quite common and is directly related to a tightening in the throat area, in combination with making one’s breathing much more shallow. This is familiar to many from playing musical instruments that require moving large volumes of air (this includes voice work). It is much harder to play and the sound of lesser quality if one is nervous. So you can practice relaxing with that in mind. Focusing on deepening and slowing one’s breath even when nervous is often useful… Look up a bit about exercises what wind instrument instruction books often call diaphram breathing. You need to practice it a bit so that you can fall back onto it without focusing on it so much that you’re not paying attention in the interview!

    -cvj

  11. Jude says:

    People frequently think I’m a child when I talk on the phone. Even though I’m now 52 years old, that hasn’t changed. I called a newly-found cousin in Alaska and she had a nice, deep voice–she thought I sounded like a little kid. It’s annoying, but it’s genetic. I can project better than most people, but the only time I consciously lower my voice is when I’m talking to someone with high register hearing problems. My grandma had trouble hearing me, even with her hearing aid in, so I lowered my voice. I am what I am.

  12. Clifford says:

    Hi Jude….

    Indeed! Your example is why I find it hard to go for the oversimplified approach to the issue… While all these societal forces come into play, we must remember that here’s a genuine spectrum of voices out there… It’s a tough one….

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  13. Thomas D says:

    Did you ever hear Margaret Thatcher before she got voice training? No, she never sounded like a little girl – but still a lot higher. I think the lower voice was supposed to be authoritative or soothing or something.
    You can change voice just as you can get braces or dentistry and change your teeth. If you have the money and the time.

    T

  14. Clifford says:

    Hi,

    Yes, I have heard her from the “before time”. That is why I used her as an example in the main post. Sadly, the motivations at the time were clearly to get her to be taken more seriously in what was undoubtedly perceived as a “man’s world” at the time. I think it is perhaps an extreme example in this day and age… As I’ve said before, it’s not entirely a man vs woman thing that is being talked about here. It’s more complicated than that…at least I think so. (I could be wrong, of course, but it does not feel like it to me… see remarks by some of the commenters above). It’s more about (among other things) using the voice to project an aura of “vunerability” as a defense mechanism…This transcends just the issue of male/female interactions.

    To make matters murkier, we might consider whether maybe the Thatcher example is not as different as I said though. Maybe it was more than just the man/woman thing.. Perhaps her new sound made her more palatable to late 70s women voters too? And for reasons nothing to do with projecting male expectations onto the candidate? On the other hand there was never any question that she sounded like a “young girl”, the principal objection in the piece in question here – I’ve heard many recordings of those speeches from those days – she was higher pitched, but – without question – in command of her arguments and was never entertaining that “vunerable” sound that many are apparently objecting to in the workplace. So I think it was just a late 70s perception that they needed to deepen her voice to combat the overwhelmingly male-dominated precedent. But…

    Thanks.

    -cvj

  15. anonymous says:

    It isn’t just women who sometimes have a tendency to have a higher pitch than you might expect. I normally talk with a higher pitch than I want to and I’m a guy. I think it might stem from a value judgement I personally have against men with very low pitched voices. I dislike them very much; I have aggressive feelings against men who use very low pitched voices. I don’t use my low voice because I have always assumed that other men feel the same way, and I think that is accurate on some level.

  16. anonymous says:

    It isn’t just women who sometimes have a tendency to have a higher pitch than you might expect. I normally talk with a higher pitch than I want to and I’m a guy. I think it might stem from a value judgement I personally have against other men with very low pitched voices. I dislike them very much; I have aggressive feelings against men who use very low pitched voices. I don’t use my low voice because I have always assumed that other men feel the same way, and I think that is accurate on some level.

  17. Clifford says:

    Hi.. That’s true, indeed. Although I’d say the one was more prevalent than the other. But might you explain a bit your “value judgement” that you say you have against men with very low pitched voices? And how low is “very low”? I’m curious.

    Also, do you find that people treat you differently as a result of your higher pitch? In work? In social situations?

    Thanks!

    -cvj

  18. anonymous says:

    I do not know if people treat me differently because of my somewhat higher pitch voice. Overall I think that it makes people more open towards speaking with me and joking with me. I do know many successful people who have higher pitched voices than me. I think that my value judgement may be less of a rational judgement and just a knee jerk reaction. I think that I’m also on the “let’s give up the ‘tough guy’ malarky” bandwagon. If you are out in the real world facing challenges, whether you are a scientist or a business person or a doctor, sounding tough or appearing to really have your stuff together has no actual bearing on your competence. It is amazing how many people believe the opposite.

  19. Clifford says:

    Overall I think that it makes people more open towards speaking with me and joking with me.

    I see. Yes, I can see that might be the case….. However, have you tried it both pitches with the same sorts of people? Perhaps it is your personality that makes people treat you more openly.

    While I’m all for the sentiment that you express: “let’s give up the ‘tough guy’ malarky”, I’m not sure I agree that a deep male voice correlates at all with tough guy attitude. The three people in my field that I can think of with very deep voices are among the most gentle and generous people I’ve ever met in theoretical physics, while still being at the top of their game. All of the “tough guys” I’ve met in my field are more of the usual tiresome insecure variety with voices pitched about average, I’d say. But perhaps your field is different than mine…

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  20. A former student says:

    My voice has a somewhat unusual pitch, more so in the past than now and I was once advised by an undergraduate classmate to take speech therapy. I found the emphasis on pitch strange then and do so even now. I wonder why there is this social baggage associated with pitch.

  21. Anonymous says:

    No one in this discussion has noted that there are two major aspects that distinguish the speech of a young girl from that of a mature woman, and that “pitch” is only one of them. The formant frequencies, which are associated with resonances of the vocal tract (pharynx, mouth, and nasal cavity), are equally important, perhaps even more important in identifying a voice as that of a young girl or a mature woman. It is possible by practice to speak with a lower fundamental frequency (determined by size, shape, and musculature of the vocal folds), but if this frequency (pitch) does not match the formant frequencies of one’s vocal tract, the voice tends to sound unnatural. The same is true in singing. A high soprano can train the vocal folds to vibrate at a lower frequency (pitch), but her voice will probably not have a good alto quality.

  22. Clifford says:

    All true, but I think you’re missing the point. This is not really about people doing necessarily accurate impressions of little girls.

    Thanks,

    -cvj

  23. pedant says:

    Very few women are more intimidating, and at the same time utter more girlish squeaks, than our own dear Julie Burchill.

  24. John says:

    I’m a male, well built, don’t take crap from anyone but when I speak over the phone everyone seems to think I’m a female. Its strange but I believe the technology that we use changes the way our voice actually sounds.
    When I speak to someone in person they never ever tell me I sound feminine or high pitch, but as soon as I pick up the phone the first thing I hear is holy crp is that you. Your voice sounds so different, so soft spoken is the wording they use.

    Maybe the technology we use is bull and it does alter the sound we hear.

    I may take some advice from the above and try recording and playing back my voice, but then my real voice will sound all messed up too.

    I am straight so this voice pitch is no indication of anything, if you would like to test that let me know and I can know out a few of your teeth. Kidding
    But don’t F with me either.

    Any advice from other guys who have this issue post it here if you found a solution.

  25. I have noticed that many French woman and most Japanese women have strikingly higher pitched voices than North American women.

    I also worked one summer in the Netherlands, and I got the comment a few times that I spoke Dutch like a man. (I learned exclusively from male voices, so it isn’t surprising.) I think they were referring to pitch, but it might have also been vocabulary or something. (I understand that the vocabulary used by Japanese women is quite different from Japanese men. That’s true to some extent in English as well — I women are more likely to say “pretty” for inanimate objects and men are more likely to say “good-looking” or “beautiful” — but not as strongly.)

  26. Hollenberg says:

    What is being missed in these comments (as my cursory scan of them suggests) is the crucially important role that network affiliation demands of our demeanor, including voice pitch.

    The comment by “irrationalpoint” reflects such a largely hidden importance: She mentions “raises her voice when talking to her parents”. She may adjust her pitch to fit her accustomed role in her family’s network.

    Of course, the characteristics of her performing the role also appeal to her parents, who likely respond more positively to it than other possible ‘guises’. In maintaining that characteristic she can also be viewed as providing comfort to her parents, as in ‘some things can be relied upon not to change’.