How to Give Your Voice Depth & Why it Matters
You may have heard through the grapevine that human communication can be broken down into three proportions:
Although, these proportions tend to change over the years because the jury is still out on this one; it is too simplistic to explain such a complex matrix but it did provide a nice framework for life coaches everywhere.
Indeed, so as not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, body language is vital due to the effects it has on the unconscious parts of our perception and body! For example, mirror neurons fire when we observe subtle cues in another’s body language which influences us to replicate the same movement in our own body. It happens spontaneously, and albeit unconsciously, and may have been a survival mechanism to prime the body for danger before we are aware of a threat - a useful trait given that social cohesion was so pivotal for our survival.
Fun fact: observing someone yawn, which causes us to yawn, is a result of these mirror neurons firing.
Of course, we have moved beyond merely mirror neurons to judge a person’s physical and internal state by using other higher neocortical functions such as empathy.
But the fact that body language can incite certain unconscious primal reactions within us should beg you to ask the question, does the voice have the same power to influence us?
Albert Mehrabian, the researcher who broke human communication down to three factors, was not wrong but there are elements within “the tone of voice” that have varying degrees of influence on us and our perceptions, and some more so than others. For instance, there are elements of the voice that can make us more attractive and appealing as a sexual partner, or the fact that there is a positive correlation for possession of certain vocal traits and those in positions of power! And none more powerful than the fact a voice can soothe a distressed infant.
In short, the answer is, yes! The voice possesses the same unconscious influence upon us as that of our body language, and we respond to certain voices without even having a glimmer of the ways it influences us.
Why What you Sound Like Matters
My previous article, How Your Voice Reveals Your Sexual Quality, spoke of the research presented on sexual dimorphism in the voice and how a male’s voice evolved due to sexual selection. The fact that a male’s voice is deeper than a female was suggested to occur so as to increase the appearance of dominance and that a low voice is associated with health and physical prowess, which ultimately made men more sexually attractive (Puts, D, A., 2006).
It also presented the fact that female deer choose potential mates by judging males on auditory cues heard within their groans during a specific three week mating period every year. The findings showed that male deer with lower fundamental frequencies and a wider dispersion of formants were deemed more socially dominant by females and thus proved more successful when it came to pass on their genes (Vannoni, E., McElligott, G, A., 2008). We aren’t deer, but we still share many of the same characteristics that other mammals and primates possess when choosing a partner.
The role our voices have on sexual attraction has been studied to show that:
Men with high androgen (testosterone) levels have voices with low F0 (pitch) and women preferred these males, especially close to ovulation. (Puts, D, A., et al cited in Vannoni, E., McElligott, G, A., 2008)
Other studies have shown that a low fundamental frequency, whatever sex you are, shares a positive correlation to possession of leadership roles or positions of power (Klofstad, C, A., 2012)! These researchers also pointed out a rather scary proposition, that perhaps this anomaly accounted for the fact that the majority of leadership roles held by men was due to the fact that males have larger vocal folds compared to women. This opens a pandora’s box given the biological limitations of one sex compared to another but these are still only a few studies and are not impervious to critique. Yet, so far we understand that the voice has unconscious influential aspects upon people’s perceptions and it has also been shown to alter our physiology.
How the Voice Affects Us
The effects of singing and humming on the autonomic nervous state of oneself and another have been studied to show that these behaviors help reduce stress. Both these strategies are used universally to soothe an infant in distress, due to the theory that the lower formants and harmonics within a humming sound emulate the sound of a womb. It also signals to another that a safe environment is present, thus calming the listener, as the frequency, duration, and modulation of the voice are within what is known as the Band of Perceptual Advantage (Porges, W, S., 2011).
For the parent, humming also stimulates the vagal nerve (specifically the myelinated vagus nerve) because it runs through the specific musculature in the vocal tract required for speech. This inadvertently innervates the parasympathetic nervous system [PSNS] to take over from the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), given that the PSNS is responsible for higher functioning speech control (such as melody)! Once the PSNS is engaged this promotes growth and regeneration of the body and decreases the body’s stress response, meaning, singing, and humming are beneficial for both infant and parent.
Humming also requires precise movement of the diaphragm which must be purposefully controlled to sustain air-flow to fulfill the length of the melody that has captured your imagination. Indeed, we all know the benefits of breathing slower and it has to do with the same vagal nerve that is connected with speech and the PSNS.
Lastly, it has been shown that the greater the modulation of frequencies within the voice, the greater the neural regulation of the middle ear muscles, which “functionally calm the behavioral and physiological state by increasing vagal regulation of the heart…basically we start to look and feel better when listening to melodies” (Porges, 2011).
In essence, it is the modulation, or depth, of the voice, that is the prime influencing agent on another.
The Band of Perceptual Advantage: Why we speak the way we do
Hearing the modulation of the voices of loved ones will trigger the body to understand it is in a safe environment and find homeostasis. The ability of the human body and mind to detect safety is called Neuroception and can be inaccurate in the sense that it may treat situations as threatening when indeed they are not, which, believe it or not, can cause your body to switch to flight or flight many times a day. If you suffer from anxiety, you will understand this more than most. The crux of the matter is that in order for a voice to have an influence on us, the body of the listener must be in a relaxed state; if we are stressed the ability to actively listen shuts down because the ear wants to attune to a frequency more associated with danger, which would be loud noises at a low frequency. Think a large, hungry, apex predator on the prowl, and the ability to detect said hungry beasty increases your chances of survival!
As we evolved from reptiles to mammals, the small components at the end of the jawbone detached and created three small bones called the auditory ossicles within the middle ear. As sound hits our eardrums, it is transferred along to the inner ear via the auditory ossicles of the middle ear. It is argued that the purpose of this chain, was to reduce or attenuate low-frequency sounds (Barany cited in Porges, 2011). We also have the ability to tighten this ossicular chain, which reduces the movement of the eardrum causing only higher frequencies to be passed onto the inner ear and filters out the amplitude of lower frequency sounds.
This helped acclimatize our ears to hone in on vocalizations made in a higher frequency band, such as the frequency found in mammalian or human vocalizations and filter out only the important sounds from background noise. The ability to harmonize and communicate with your members of the tribe by a process of active listening was a vital step forward for our species. The band of perceptual advantage is within 50hz to 4000hz, where the most relevant vocalizations we make day to day occur.
This evolutionary mechanism to speak and comprehend sounds at a higher frequency band may have evolved within mammals due to the fact that reptiles do not have the ability to pick up on these higher frequencies because of their dependence on bone conduction geared for hearing lower frequencies. But there’s a cost!
The cost of having selective hearing geared to higher frequencies would reduce our ability to detect lower frequencies associated with predators, or danger.
The solution to this was to restrict the ability to absorb frequencies within this band of perceptual advantage only to states of safety or “relaxation”.
What this means, is your ability to actively listen and retain that information is available only when you are at ease, the bodily state governed by the PSNS. This explains why children living within stressful or abusive households fare poorly at school because the physical ability to listen, to attenuate their hearing to the teacher’s voice, is switched off, and everything else around them is heightened. “Easily distracted” was one of the many common report cards I would get from my teachers because I too personally lived within a household constantly teetering on the edge. I was in a constant state of fight or flight.
The ability to govern the neural tone applied to the middle ear to provide this filtering relies on the innervation from the myelinated vagus nerve that regulates certain facial muscles that are responsible for the tightening of the ossicles. The myelinated vagus nerve, which, if you’ll remember, is also responsible for the intricacies of human speech and is only active during states of safety or, rather, when the PSNS is dominant. In summary, the ability to listen and vocalize is linked by the same vagal pathway, which in turn provides external validation to those listening to us that they too are in a safe environment, which then begins to regulate their own bodies! It is why a mother is able to soothe an infant with a lullaby, why hearing another’s voice can provide a feeling of sanctuary, and why pitches outside of the typical frequency, like a scream, will alter our body to a different state.
The intricacies of the intuitive response to the human voice are as fascinating as it is extensive and that it holds such power over people’s perceptions should not be thrown away lightly. So, how do we become mindful of what our voice is really saying about us and how do we go about modulating it to fit our biological perceptions?
How to Make Your Voice Deeper
First of all, it is useful to see your voice as an instrument even if you don’t use it as such as we all use ‘our voices in social contexts in ways that are likely to elicit favorable social appraisals’ (Sorokowski, P., et al, 2019). In reality, it is an instrument that uses a complex mathematical model, called the Bernoulli Effect, to produce sound at a vocal fold level, and so, one can always improve their ability to play their instrument with just a bit of practice, discipline, and education. It is most common to lose these lower frequencies in your voice
Secondly, to discover a deeper voice does not mean lowering your pitch beyond your limits, it’s about increasing your capacity to amplify the lower formants in your voice that is already there with a little technique.
Thirdly, your voice is a spectrum! This means you have a primary frequency or formant which has the highest amplitude applied to it. It’s what we pick out with ease when listening to the voice, but if you listen closely you can hear other frequencies swirling around it. The spectrogram below is a snapshot of my voice; the bright blue lines at the bottom show the frequencies of my voice that are the most amplified, but you’ll also notice there are two other areas above that dominant range that exist quite vibrantly. I vocalized on a deep “ahh” but what I want to show is that with skill, you can amplify these other frequencies of your voice.
Step One: Breath
Underpowering your voice is one of the ways these lower (and higher) formants are lost. In my previous article, What Crocodiles and Humans Have in Common, I dived into the anatomy behind our breathing and listed the important fact that to make sure you have enough breath for what you need to say, you must make sure your capacity to inhale air is not restricted. States of chronic stress will restrict your breathing, as your breathing becomes rapid, and secondary respiratory muscles are recruited, which tend to work in contrast to those muscles required for speech! That contrast ultimately gives rise to tension around the larynx and within the vocal tract, and the more tension in the voice, the less these upper and lower formants have room to live. Underpowering your voice, not only results in fatigue or soreness, it reduces the modulation of your voice. The various ranges of the voice will require different pressures to be built underneath the vocal folds but if you don’t have enough breath to create this pressure then your vocal folds will keep their same length to sustain voice, meaning your pitch remains monotone. Lastly, it is common for underpowered voices to drop off the end of the sentence. In English, it is common for the idea of the sentence to be contained in the last few words, that is, the last word is the thought. Don’t fall off your sentence!
You must ensure you take enough breath for what you need to say and how you want to say it. But all too often we underpower because of habit, stress, or misalignment.
To create capacity within the body to increase the amount of negative air pressure, which allows the lungs to absorb more air, begins by making sure the ribs can swing outwardly in a 360-degree arc. You must take care by limiting the desire to recruit secondary respiratory muscles which work against the voice, and sucking in your stomach won’t help anyone except your proclivity for vanity. Your organs need to be allowed to move in order for the diaphragm to drop properly; indeed, I leave such choices up to you. Discover more about increasing capacity in What Crocodiles and Humans Have in Common.
Step Two: Resonance
Resonance can be defined as the intensification and enriching of a musical tone by supplementary vibration.
An enrapturing voice is one that contains color and the reason for this is that the voice is underscored by a myriad of frequencies or harmonics that live both above and below the main frequency you speak with. And the range, or the difference between the maximum and minimum of these harmonics, are quite extensive; so, the more prominent these overtones or harmonics are in the voice the more modulation, or intensification, of your prominent formant (primary frequency), is then applied to your voice. Resonance is the key to intensifying these harmonics and enriching the musical tone of your voice without necessarily dropping the pitch of your voice.
The chest, and the bones that form it, create what is called conductive resonance, and words, if spoken with the right placement, vowel shape, appropriate muscle tension, and amplitude, can bring this kind of resonance into the voice to reinforce the lower harmonics of your voice, making your voice sound deeper without actually altering the pitch of your voice. Utilizing this capacity that is already there is something everyone can benefit from!
Similarly, the nasal cavity and the bones that form the nose and skull create resonating chambers that typically intensify the upper harmonics. A person with a nasal voice has an abundance of these upper harmonics and may not be amplifying the chest resonance as much as can be filtered through. It takes practice to know how to manipulate these resonators to give color to your voice and unfortunately, the ability to harness their sounds is easily susceptible to stress, as muscle tension in the neck can reduce the frequencies required to ignite the subsidiary vibrations in these areas. You can awaken these areas, however, by speaking in a nasal voice, taking note of the vibration in the head and skull, and then maintaining that sense of feeling whilst speaking. If you’re having trouble feeling the vibration, pinch your nose, remove your fingers, and try and keep the placement of the words in that area where you felt the vibration the most.
When it comes to amplifying the chest, lying on the floor and sighing out can give you a sense of vibration running down your spine. Keep the sensation of the sigh or yawn and continue humming or speaking on the floor. When you stand up, maintain a sense of all these parts of your body (nose, head, chest) by the feeling of vibration, and you will find an increase in the range of your overtones within your voice.
Step Three: Through Tone (Stand Behind Your Words)
The tone of the voice can be defined as a matrix containing the pitch of the voice, the timbre (quality of sound), duration, and its dynamism.
One of the main gremlins behind poor quality is that many of us swallow our words due to the tongue and the pharyngeal constrictors being overactive. The latter muscles are the ones you can see if you open up wide and peer down to the back of your throat. We swallow our words for many reasons, such as fear of judgment or lack of commitment, but if done regularly it can become a habit.
If these muscle groups are too active, you begin to sound like Mr Bean. If you try to mimic Mr Bean, you will feel these muscles working overtime, but the problem is that as the sound gets pulled back into the mouth the tone isn’t as prominent as it could be due to it creating a negative feedback loop as the sound is reflected off subsequent vibrations coming up out of the vocal tract. This process is known as refraction.
If you feel like your words are being pulled back into your throat, it may be useful to begin to place the words further forward in the oral cavity (fancy word for mouth). You can do this by imagining that the words and sounds are being born from the lips or just behind the teeth, and focusing on the sensation. Perhaps, whilst also keeping the tongue flat, forward and rested behind the teeth, try a “vvv” sound, and see if you can draw the sound back down your throat and then forward it back onto the lips and teeth, a little like a Yo-Yo. This will give you the sense of where your words normally live if the feeling of the vibration on the lips and teeth feels unfamiliar or if it feels familiar sucked down your throat. Try and also keep a sense of the activity of your tongue; if it is constantly pressing up on the roof of your mouth, let go of this tension and keep a watch on its movement throughout the day. Forwards, flat, and floppy is a good starting place.
We pull our voice because we fear that our opinion will be rejected or that what we have to say has no value.
Your voice is an expression of yourself, so whatever words you say, your whole body must stand behind them with commitment; try and avoid the habit of sucking them back down your throat. This sense of “swallowing” our words is common for those who habitually pull their voice back inside because they may fear that their opinion will be rejected or that what they have to say has no value. The tongue and pharyngeal constrictors literally force the sound back down into the body. But everyone has value. And everyone’s voice is intrinsic to them. It is too important to be returned to an empty chamber. Having a voice that is placed forward and spoken with clarity, requires commitment and bravery, which allows these complex tones to filter through unaffected to support the pitch of the voice and embellishes these traits that we consider attractive. Bravery summons the required amount of breath for what you need to say, how loud you need to say it, and how you must say it, which kicks into gear many respiratory muscles and primes your vocal tract in a way that may feel unfamiliar to you. Do not underestimate the effect of an idea, or an emotion, on the sound of your voice. Remember, it is this modulation that encourages the state of well being in another, and influences their perception of you without them even knowing!
Klofstad, C, A., Anderson, R, C., Peters, S. (2012). Sounds like a winner: voice pitch influences perception of leadership capacity in both men and women. The Royal Society. 279, 2698–2704.
Porges, W, S. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation. Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology
Puts, D, A., Gaulin, S, J, C., Verdolini, K. (2006). Dominance and the evolution of sexual dimorphism in human voice pitch. Evolution and Human Behaviour. 27, 283–296.
Sorokowski, P., Puts, D, A., Johnson, J, Żółkiewicz, O., Oleszkiewicz, A., Sorokowska, A., Kowal, M., Borkowska, B., Pisanski, K. (2019). Voice of Authority: Professionals Lower Their Vocal Frequencies When Giving Expert Advice. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. 43, 257–269.
Vannoni, A., McElligott, A, G. (2008). Low-Frequency Groans Indicate Larger and More Dominant Fallow Deer (Dama dama) Males. PLoS One. 3, 1–8.