Voice Modulation

Katarzyna Pisanski, Valentina Cartei, Carolyn McGettigan, Jordan Raine, and David Reby, ‘Voice Modulation: A Window into the Origins of Human Vocal Control?’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (2016), 304-18.

* It is the cry of women, my lord. (Macbeth)

The authors are interested in ‘the apparent absence of an intermediate vocal communication system between human speech and the less flexible vocal repertoires of other primates’. They argue that ‘humans’ ability to modulate nonverbal vocal features evolutionarily linked to expression of body size and sex (fundamental and formant frequencies) provides a largely overlooked window into the nature of this intermediate system’. So the idea is that our ability to control and use the tone, pitch, and timbre of our voices (and the way that we learn to speak in defined ways) are a non-verbal sophistication of the more basic vocal functions we see in other primates.
      This ‘living relic of early vocal control abilities that led to articulated human speech’ seems particularly interesting in relation to gender. As Pisanski et al. say, ‘in humans, sexually dimorphic source and filter voice features reliably indicate sex, age, body size, and dominance. By focusing on static rather than dynamic vocal processes, this literature has largely overlooked the human capacity to volitionally modulate F0 [what they call an individual’s ‘fundamental frequency’]’ in response to specific social contexts.
      They ‘encourage colleagues across disciplines to engage in research that directly examines voice modulation as a signal with tremendous social, as well as linguistic, significance’. Well, OK, I’ll try, but I only have time for one thought right now.


(Before that, though, this reminds me of a talk at a conference I posted about a long time ago [like, here]. The subject was speech in post-operative transsexual women. Sounding female, merging with other women and not being visible as something at odds with expectations of femininity, said the kind, practical speech-therapists, is not just a matter of speaking with a higher pitch. Their advice – so well-meant and so revealing – was to end sentences as if asking questions, and not to appear as if you think you know what you’re talking about.)


But my thought is about Macbeth. At the beginning of the post you’ll see a brief quotation from the end of the play. Macbeth hears a noise, an inscrutable wailing that can only mean one thing, that his wife is dead; its key characteristic may be its modulation.
      This isn’t remarkable but it’s not the beginning or end of the modulation issue in the play. Much earlier on, and famously, Lady Macbeth asks for spirits to ‘unsex’ her so that she can play her part in the murder of the King and the fulfilment of her husband’s ambition. This speech now looks to me like a moment where modulation might well be at issue.

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’. (Act 1 Scene 5)

In this speech she takes on a voice, finds a voice, defeminises herself, and enters into an invocatory mode: modulation in the wild (and strange). What the Pisanski et al. article helps me think about is the way that the actor here has been given a chance to send out some terrifying messages by means of voice modulation. It’s interesting that there are vocalisations at the beginning and end of the speech: the hoarse raven, and then Heaven crying ‘Hold!’. And she has to say ‘thick’ twice, thickly I suppose.


A few further disconnected thoughts about this:

* I have always found this, in performance, a difficult moment to watch. I thought it was because I felt that the actors were exposed here, asked to do too much in order to embody these intense lines with proportionate emotion. But now I think that I was responding to a problem relating to modulation, perhaps not one the actors were in control of, but an interesting one nonetheless.
* The most successful performance I ever saw was in a very experimental production by Cambridge’s In Situ theatre. It was a promenade production in the Director Richard Spaul’s home, with different scenes in different rooms, and no single or clear line through the play. I saw one actor, Bella Stewart, performing this speech in a powerfully and unnaturally low voice. This is how I remember it, anyway. I can now see this as a truly brilliant recognition not just that the Lady Macbeth actor could find a low or authoritative voice here, but that the modulation could end up somewhere very strange, to great effect.
* Shakespeare’s theatre, boy actors… I think you can see where I might go here. Breaking voices, performance of femininity via the voice, cross-dressing, going deep.
* On the throne, Queen Elizabeth… I think you can see where I might go here too. Body of a woman / heart and stomach of a man, inspiring the troops and the people in big speeches, what sort of voice for that Queen?
* Also in Pisanski et al. article, interesting stuff on laughter. Ha, ha, ha! (Lear).

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

3 thoughts on “Voice Modulation

  1. Sarah Brazil

    HI Raphael,

    I read this blog when it came out, and it has been in the back of my mind since. It struck a chord but I didn’t know quite how to respond at the time. I’m currently working on the early English plays of the Slaughter of the Innocents (unusually extant in six plays/pageants from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries), and one issue I’m trying to deal with is the modulation of tone of the plays (they move from grief, to violent attack, to curses and vengeful language on the part of the mothers), but another issue is their modulation of voice as they perform. There is evidence (though I need to find it!) for one play (Digby) having had a female cast for the mothers, but as per convention if we don’t know the identity of the actor then it likely is men (or boys) taking the part. It seems vocal modulation must be an essential part of the performance (the Coventry text has evidence for polyphonic song, speech, and likely a screaming response to the murder of the Innocents). Voice is one of the aspects that is mentioned in how to choose a player, and so vocal delivery (unsurprising for outdoor plays) is a serious consideration for a capable performer. I don’t know if I have a final point here, but your blog has been a very helpful prompt to thinking about this issue, and the tricky subject of audience response. How they follow rapidly shifting action, and what the episode looks like dramatically as a consequence. Thank you! Sarah Brazil (University of Geneva–currently Edinburgh on research leave)

  2. Raphael Post author

    Thanks, Sarah, for this very interesting comment. I think these Slaughter of the Innocents plays could be a great place to push further with the idea of voice modulation — and how important it is in communication. As you say, there are interesting questions about casting, about acting style, about the performance environment, about the tone of each play in each cycle and how it will work in the specific setting it’s written for. And then you have the potential effects of the mothers’ voices, and the children’s voices, which could be quite extraordinary. I need to re-read the original article to remind myself of what was being argued for (rather than what I would like it to be arguing for), but yes I think you’ve highlighted a really good case in the history of drama where modulation itself is at stake.

  3. Sarah Brazil

    Another interesting echo of the Macbeth line you quote is from the Coventry Shearman and Taylor’s pageant: ‘Who hard eyuer soche a cry | Of wemen that there chyldur haue lost’ (816-17). Lots to think about!


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