On The Sound Of Your Voice

by Thomas Brett

Welcome to Times Square, Crossroads of the World. Have a great evening, and remember, whatever your final destination, happiness is the way.”
— voice of 7 Train operator, July 16, 2011

So it was the other day as I was getting off the 7 train at Times Square that I noticed the train conductor’s announcement going awry–but in a good way. He began by welcoming everyone to Times Square, then got philosophical (see the quote above) and presto! had everyone’s attention. How amazing, we thought to ourselves: a voice is actually talking to us, not just at us. This vignette would have been the end of this blog post, except that I had been thinking about voice for a few weeks, specifically the question of how our voices sound and reflect who we are.

Does anyone really like the sound of their own voice? Our voices seem so personal, so revealing because they’re intimately tied to our physiologies, that perhaps it’s hard to ever be totally at ease with them. And that old saying, he just likes the sound of his own voice, which we use to describe someone who is full of themselves–do they actually like the sound of their own voice? And if they do, is the saying right in implying that there’s someone wrong with such a person?

If our faces are, as Milan Kundera says, like our serial codes, then surely our voices must provide the appropriate–in fact, the only possible–musical accompaniment to this code? Do our voices always match our faces then? Can we deceive and be crooked with our voices while keeping a straight face? This year’s American Idol winner, seventeen year-old Scotty McCreery–he of the “surprisingly mature voice” as Entertainment Weekly noted–presents us with a young face out of which resonates a deep bass, older male country singer sound. Though he doesn’t mean to, Scotty deceives us a little because it feels like he’s channelling someone else: like a puppet for a vocal ventriloquist at work somewhere offstage. It’s a little creepy, actually.

Finally, does one’s writing voice reflect one’s speaking and singing voice? If yes, should it? Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece on his blog a few years ago about the importance of this very topic to him in terms of his writerly ethics. For Gladwell, good writing should sound like one’s speaking voice. If one’s writing voice is different from one’s speaking voice, from where then does it derive its tonality, its register and its cadence?

I leave you with a wonderful story recounted by the oral historian Studs Turkel. I think its wonderful for two reasons. The first being that the melody of Turkel’s voice itself has such clearly demarcated contours and an appealing graininess that even if you don’t speak English, you could probably well follow it. The other wonderful thing about the story is its simple narrative: a thinking person wondering aloud about the state of the human voice and meaningful communication in our contemporary world.

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