What Your Voice Tells People About You

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April 16th marks World Voice Day, a day that may not be on your calendar. But it's practically Christmas for Douglas Hicks, the director of the Voice Center and head of the Speech-Language Pathology section at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Host Scott Simon speaks with Hicks about what a voice says about a person.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Imagine a world without voices. Pretty silent, huh? No laughing, singing or sobbing. No please, thank you or have a nice day. No Placido Domingo, Aretha Franklin or chanting monks in Myanmar, or I guess phone calls in the middle of dinner that ask: Have you considered switching mobile phone networks?

April 16th marks World Voice Day, a day that may not be on your calendar. But it's practically Christmas for Douglas Hicks, the director of the Voice Center and head of the Speech-Language Pathology section at the Cleveland Clinic.

Mr. Hicks, thanks very much for being with us.

Dr. DOUGLAS HICKS (Cleveland Clinic): Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: We born with a good voice or is it something we develop as we go on?

Dr. HICKS: Well, a lot of it is just God-given in terms of the basic anatomy. But people can improve with training.

SIMON: Hmm. I was astonished to discover that vocal cords aren't actual like cords hanging in your neck that you ring like bells.

Dr. HICKS: And in fact they're really folds or lips. So when you talk to the voice specialists, they almost always use the words vocal folds.

SIMON: So how do we make noise?

Dr. HICKS: It's simple and complicated. If you were to visualize the folds as a gate hinged at the front, hidden behind your Adam's apple, and they come together, and in that position, and if you will, kissing along their edges, the air coming up from the windpipe, which is directly below them, actually engages the edges of the folds to vibrate and produce voice.

SIMON: Hmm. We want to put you in the position - cheap parlor trick - of listening to a few voices and telling us what gives them quality.

Dr. HICKS: Okay.

SIMON: Now, this is content-free, in the sense we're not asking you to reflect on what they say. Although, I must say, first up, it's pretty good. Let's listen to this, one of the great voices - in my judgment - of all time.

Mr. JAMES EARL JONES (Actor): To be or not to be: that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.

SIMON: James Earl Jones, of course, in "Hamlet." What makes James Earl Jones such a stellar voice?

Dr. HICKS: There is this incredibly deep pitched resonant voice; a true basso profundo type of voice that is so rich and carries such deep emotional, relaxing, soothing meaning. So voices like that are very often perceived and rated very, very favorably.

SIMON: So does his resonance and timbre, I guess would be the musical phrase, massage our brains in a certain way?

Dr. HICKS: Well, if you talk about it from the relaxing standpoint, as opposed to contrasting the shrill kind of fingernails on the chalkboard type of voice that raise all of the hairs on the back of our head, yes, there is a very relaxing, soothing aspect to his voice.

SIMON: Interesting you should use the word shrill, because we want to introduce a voice now. I'm not calling it shrill, okay? But she is also clearly not James Earl Jones, although beloved by perhaps even more people.

Queen ELIZABETH II (England): We did not wish to impose a particular form of government on any peoples in the world. We merely say this is what we do.

SIMON: Let me stand for a moment, because that's Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. Now, this is a woman who's grown up knowing she's going to have to address millions of people. Is that betrayed in her voice?

Dr. HICKS: Yes. But I think this particular sample introduces another intriguing aspect - what is oral communication. Voice is one aspect of that oral communication. There are other aspects that have to do with pronunciation, enunciation, phrasing, pausing. There is a distinguished, authoritative style of speaking that is the more magnificent part of her presentation, as opposed to just simply the timbre of the voice.

SIMON: I have worked with people in broadcasting who swear by the combination of whiskey and cigarettes. They say it's good for the voice.

Dr. HICKS: I have some of those folks as my patients.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Yes.

Dr. HICKS: And the truth is that smoking is absolutely a negative, because it is an airway irritant. And the voicebox, of course, is sitting right in the middle of the airway, as the gatekeeper. Alcohol's a little different thing, and one would not say verboten - I would say that in moderation. But for a professional voice user, someone who really relies on it, avoiding it prior to key performances would be the proper instruction.

SIMON: Speaking of key performances, we've got one last voice to run by you.

Mr. CURLY HOWARD (Comedian): Well, me and my pals, we're musicians. We were tearing up some hot swing music in the orchestra. Gail over there was swinging her fans. Her sweetie Kirk Robin was inhaling a bottle of hooch at a table.

SIMON: Curly. I believe proper name Curly Howard. He's also recognizable by the phrase "Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck."

Dr. HICKS: You beat me to the punch. I was about ready to do the same thing. I know it well.

SIMON: So is there something about a voice that can just - as some voices can make us smile or make us feel as if we're being soothed, other voices make us laugh?

Dr. HICKS: Yeah, I mean in a sense even your parody of "Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck" takes the listener away from what they expect. In that regard, Curly, every time he opened his mouth, threw us a curve, a vocal curve. And that, along with his antics - the nonverbal - created a rather clownish caricature that we found humorous and entertaining.

SIMON: Who's got the most beautiful voice in the world that you've ever heard?

Dr. HICKS: I would say my wife is one of those.

SIMON: You are a smart man.

Dr. HICKS: What I enjoy most, Scott, are distinctive voices. Much of my professional voice clientele are in the performing arts - singers, actors, etcetera. And among those there are some who literally when they open their mouth have the ability to change how you feel at that moment. That is a gift. And that is really a talent.

SIMON: Thank you so much.

Dr. HICKS: My pleasure, Scott. Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you.

SIMON: Douglas Hicks, director of the Voice Center at the Cleveland Clinic. Also head of the Speech-Language Pathology Department.

(Soundbite of song "Never Can Say Goodbye")

Mr. BARRY WHITE (Singer): Though I try and try to hide my feelings, they always seem to show, then you try to say you're leaving me, and I always have to say no, tell me why is it so that I never can...

SIMON: Now, that's a voice. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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