Giving voice

I have had some voice training and read a little around voice science.  I have accompanied both my children through speech and language therapy.  I also spend a day a week working one to one with schoolboys.

Although I am not a speech/voice therapist or a psychologist, I have observed much over the years about what people’s voices might be telling you about their state of mind if one is paying attention!

Observations of the voice in young people at school

Schoolboys in particular, I find, can feel restricted from articulating any vulnerable or unconventional thoughts verbally, perhaps because of peer pressure or a culture that would have boys and men be rational, straightforward beings at all times.  These are the times that I start to notice the little ‘tells’.

Sometimes young people reach a point at which being inspired by a positive, achievement culture becomes being oppressed by a burdensome culture of expectation – feeling they must ‘justify their existence’.  It is not an easy thing to express, that all the advantages you are being given by your parents or by the education system actually feel like reasons that it is unthinkable to fail.

Here are some examples I sometimes notice:

  • Constant clearing of the throat.  When I ask why they feel the need to do it, they often say it feels like there is a lump there.  This is called a ‘globus sensation’ and can be caused by various physiological conditions, like acid reflux, or post-nasal drip… or (according to a speech therapist) it can be a sign that there is tension in the larynx.  It is fascinating to observe how when conversation turns to an uncomfortable subject, the clearing of the throat can occur several times per sentence!
  • Speaking with a voice higher than is natural.  To me, artificially raising the voice (which can literally involve the larynx creeping up in the throat) feels like something wanting to not be in the body, or not wanting to ‘touch’ the places where emotion will seem to sit, the places that also house the vocal apparatus (for very sound evolutionary reasons, I’m guessing!).  In pubescent boys, it can also seem like not being sure whether they are a boy or a young man.
  • Speaking with a voice lower than is natural.  This always feels like an unwillingness to engage, or low arousal, or perhaps trying an adult identity on for size.
What I have noticed about how I use my own voice

Meanwhile, I have become increasingly aware of my own voice in speech.   I rarely use all of it in speech.  I’m not sure I could.  I don’t allow my voice to ‘bed down’ in my body as I speak, nor do I hold my posture in such a way that this would feel natural.

As a self-conscious person, I over-think how my voice should sound (my register, timbre and even accent changes, sometimes from hour to hour).  In particular, I over-complicate the beginning of speech, the moment of transitioning from passive silence to verbal presence: learning about onset in voice training has really helped me to understand that my personality inhibits this function, which really can be as simple as “start making a noise”!

Related to all this is how I carry myself; when I consciously focus on standing with a more confident posture and allowing my voice to settle lower in my body and resonate fully, I find it changes my interactions with people significantly.

Observing my own children

Having children who have been non-verbal beyond the first 2 years of life, and who continue to find verbalising to be a less intuitive process than do their peers, has also taught me about verbal and non-verbal vocal communication in all its subtleties.

One example is a time when I said to my elder son (when he was aged 3 or 4 years) that we didn’t have any snacks left because he had eaten the last one.  This wasn’t entirely fair.  He had taken it, but I had provided fewer than usual and one had been dropped.  He made a tiny, inarticulate grunt at a higher pitch than usual – it was almost a fragment of a whimper – with a barely perceptible fall in intonation along the very short trajectory of its utterance.  Simultaneously he withdrew eye contact.

I realised that articulating the thought “that’s not fair mum, you’re not telling the whole story there” felt like an insurmountable challenge to him neurologically and probably emotionally too.  The sound he made didn’t even seem to be for any audience, it was almost to himself as he withdrew from the connection between us and back into himself.  It was so subtle, I don’t think anyone but his mother may have noticed it, but it was there.  I said what he could have said for him: “Sorry, you’re right, it is not your fault that there are none left.  I didn’t bring enough and we dropped one.”  The eye contact returned and he touched my hand.  (I would have to add that on this occasion I did get it right, but this level of sensitivity does not always happen!)

Why am I writing about these social observations of mine?

Clearly, these observations, when applied to film, are primarily of use to the director and the actors.  But what could a creative composer, sound designer or sound editor do with this knowledge to influence the empathy of the audience?

Here are some initial thoughts:

  • The continual throat clearing: have that sound as though from inside the head of the speaker, while the actual lines spoken are naturalistic, to emphasise the association between the need to clear the throat and social or emotional discomfort.
  • Have the score or even, perhaps, the ambient sound move up or down, mirroring in sympathy with rising or falling speech intonation (not just speech patterns, but when a speaker has a definite trajectory of pitch over a period of time in speech).
  • A small, eloquent non-verbal utterance like my son’s could be emphasised by suppressed diegetic sound or even absolute silence.
  • I think a skilled composer could gently reflect the social nervousness in choosing to speak and hearing one’s voice emerge, or the tension in the voice itself, or the reticence in the body language heard also in the voice.  Perhaps they could do it using accelerating harmonic rhythm tumbling to the point of utterance, or increasing in textures speaking of discomfort (eg, rattling percussive sounds), or a slow crescendo over a long-held tone.
  • A sound designer might also raise the ambient level as the character is choosing to speak.  This may feel like a transition of point of audition to the character, as though the sound, representing the competing voices or unhearing (or perceived to be, or anticipated as being unhearing) people in the scene and more generally in the world, is like a high wall to climb.

Since reading the Stilwell article on Closet Land (Stilwell 2005) I have become vividly aware of the notion that sound is closer to the subconscious than sight.  Sound is a womb-like envelope in which we exist, a visceral thing, something we cannot choose not to be in nor can we choose not to process that information neurologically and draw conclusions, and it is physically felt (felt physically in the body as vibrations as well as physically heard by the ears).

It is with our voices that we enter this realm and that our presence is known in this visceral way.  How our voices interact with this realm has a profound impact on others and on ourselves.  Perhaps composers and sound designers should pay more conscious attention to voice in film, and work more deliberately to reflect the psychological resonating chamber that voice can emerge from.

Some more information on the relationship between voice and psychological well-being in a very interesting article by the British Voice Association…

STILWELL R.J. (2005) Sound and Empathy: Subjectivity, Gender and the Cinematic Soundscape, in: Screen Methods Comparative Readings in Film Studies Furby, J. and Randell, K. (Eds.) Wallflower Press: London. pp. 48–58.

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